Company grows from love of life, cake and healthy eating

This story is by Vivian Henoch of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, and originally appeared in My Jewish Detroit, an online magazine.

This is a story about hope, courage, inspiration, patience and cake batter. A lot of cake batter.

It’s a story that begins in Jane Imerman’s kitchen in Bloomfield Township, Michigan, where her passion for baking and healthy food collided with the reality of cancer.

Jane always had been a firm believer that the purest foods are the healthiest. But years after her youngest son, Jonny, was diagnosed with testicular cancer at the age of 26, Jane has taken health-conscious cooking and baking to a whole new level, learning everything she could about organic food and developing her own recipes.

Jonny regained his health, turned his energies to advocacy and, in 2006, founded Imerman Angels, a worldwide cancer-support organization, based in Chicago, with the mission to provide one-on-one connections among cancer fighters, survivors and caregivers.

Finding a passion

Jonny had Angels. Jane had recipes. Jeffrey Imerman, Jane’s oldest son, had the vision to start the Imerman Cake Company: Why not market Jane’s delicious organic coffee cakes and share them with the world, then donate a portion of each sale to Imerman Angels?

A former TV anchor/reporter, Jeff was practicing law at a big firm in New York City when he had the notion to change the course of his life, leave his job, return to Detroit and partner with Jane to create Imerman Cake Company.

“I loved the excitement in New York, enjoyed working with my colleagues and the challenges of litigation, but I didn’t feel that I wanted to stay on that path for a lifetime,” says Jeff.

Describing the moment in 2010 when the idea crystallized, Jeff recalls a conversation with his brother.

“It was 2 in the morning and I was still at my desk at work, and my brother was sitting at his desk in Chicago, still working alone, launching Imerman Angels, and I said, ‘Jonny, I don’t know if I want to do this forever,’ and he said to me, ‘Jeff, find your passion. If that’s not where you are today, then look for something positive and fulfilling. Because I see people die every day – at age 7, 25, 62. You don’t know how much time you have, so make a change now, it could all be over tomorrow.’”

A dialogue with the founders

Jeff: I wrote a 50-page business plan, inspired by my brother’s fight against cancer. After he survived, we did a lot of food research and learned more about what we are putting into our bodies and how that affects our health and well-being. We learned about organic foods and the benefits of eating organic. . .

Jane: . . . and we didn’t find any organic desserts in the marketplace.

Jeff: I knew we could create something in our local community that we could be very proud of.  So we started in my mom’s home kitchen, took a cake recipe that she had made since our childhood, and we streamlined it to make it even more pure and organic.

Jane: We spent a lot of hours baking, taste-testing and tweaking the recipes, one cake at a time. As many as eight cakes a day. We spent about a year.

Jeff: Using all organic ingredients, gram by gram, we took out as much as we could to lower the sugar, cut the fat and reduce the calories to make the cake as lean as possible without sacrificing the flavor.

Jane: We took out the nuts too because of all the nut allergies. For instance, in the cinnamon cake, we now use toasted rolled oats instead of the original walnuts. We also switched to a Neufchatel cheese from a cream cheese to lower the calories.

Jeff: But we knew the one constant was quality, and the bottom line was the taste. That couldn’t change.

Learning the ropes

“We had to learn our business from the ground up,” observes Jeff. “We didn’t know the food industry. We couldn’t just rush out into the marketplace. We knew we had to be patient. And everything took longer than we anticipated.”

Getting it right, Jeff and Jane took another year or two traveling to food shows and seminars all over the country, doing demos, taking classes, learning from experts in the field. “We were surprised to find how collaborative the food industry is. We were amazed to meet people so willing to take us under their wing and offer guidance. There were people who had built up very successful companies — like Dave Zilko of Garden Fresh and Mike Marsh of Flatout Bread  who became great mentors to us.”

After three years, Imerman Cakes are on grocery shelves in high-end markets in Detroit and Chicago, in both cinnamon and chocolate chip flavors, available in a two-pound size and a mini half-pound size. The cakes are still hand-mixed, one at a time, but because they carry the USDA Organic seal, production has moved out of the Imerman household to the Achatz Handmade Pie Company, a certified organic facility which is also a local family-owned business.

“We are still in our infancy,” says Jane. “2014 was our first full calendar year of sales.”

New recipes are in the mix, new flavors and sizes are on the way. And the criteria for the ingredients remain strictly organic: free from artificial preservatives and sweeteners, high fructose corn syrup and genetically engineered ingredients. No ingredients come from crops exposed to harmful pesticides or fertilizers, and the dairy products come from animals that have not been given antibiotics or growth hormones.

Even the boxes are eco-friendly, fully recyclable with a window film that is biodegradable.

“Because our family name is on the box,” says Jeff, “The product reflects back on you, your values.

“You need to be proud of what you are providing, and we wanted to provide people with a totally positive food option: better tasting, better for the body, better for the environment, and a help in the fight against cancer. Overall, it’s an indulgence people can feel good about.”

Jane and Jeff didn’t want to provide a cake recipe, since selling them is their livelihood. But they were happy to provide a recipe for mac and cheese that Jane has made for years. Jeff says he and his siblings loved it while they were growing up. I know we published a mac and cheese recipe last August; this is another version that’s lower in fat and calories.

Summer camp: hymns and macaroni and cheese

When the days grow long and hot and the fireflies flit about at night, my thoughts return to summer camp. I went to camp from the age of 7 to 13, and it was always the highlight of my year. Camp was more than a vacation, it was an opportunity stretch my wings, to try new things and make friends with people whom I wouldn’t get to know in my daily life.

For three years, from the ages of 7 to 9, I went to Farm Camp, operated by the College Settlement in Philadelphia. It was located on a former farm in Horsham, Pa., once a rural area and now a suburb of the big city. (It’s no longer called Farm Camp, but it’s still going strong and operated by the College Settlement.)

The younger children slept and had most of their activities in and around the “Mansion House,” a large former home across the street from Main Camp, where we would go to eat, swim and boat. The girls slept in the Mansion House; the boys slept next door in a barracks-like “Bunk House.”

My first religious services

Camp was also where I had my first experience with religious services. My family was completely non-observant. My parents didn’t go to synagogue even on the High Holidays. And I was too young to go to church with my friends, which I did occasionally when I got older.

On Sunday mornings at camp, the Jews, Protestants and “nones” from Mansion House (I don’t think there were any Muslims among us, though one year there was a Hindu counselor from India) would troop over to Main Camp for a non-denominational service. The Catholic kids weren’t with us; they were bused into town so they could attend Mass.

We would sit on logs positioned in a large circle. I don’t remember much about the service other than the songs, which have stuck with me all these years.

We sang some standard Protestant hymns, like “Abide With Me” and “Faith of Our Fathers,” and gospel tunes like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,”  and folky tunes like the one about Johnny Appleseed:

Oh the Lord is good to me
And so I thank the Lord
For giving me the things I need,
The sun and the rain and the apple tree.
The Lord is good to me.

There were also some Southern Baptist-style hymns with messages I found intriguing, because they were so far from anything I had heard elsewhere: “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through, my treasure is laid up somewhere beyond the blue…”

One song had a tune that evoked a strange yearning in my 7-year-old psyche as the words conjured up images of angels:

White wings, that never grow weary,
They carry me cheerily over the sea.
Soon now, my heart will grow weary,
I’ll put on my white wings and fly home to you.

After all these years one can never be sure one is remembering the words correctly, so I did a little Web search and learned that this was originally a sailing song! The last two lines are usually “Night falls, I long for my dearie, I spread out my white wings, and sail home to thee.” Who knew?

Interfaith sensitivity

The thing that impressed me most about the Farm Camp services was how interfaith they were. While they were obviously based on Protestant services, the organizers went to some length to ensure that non-Christians were comfortable. Bible readings were always from the Hebrew scriptures. When we sang “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder,” the end of each verse was “children of the Lord.” It wasn’t until I started going to school assemblies in fourth grade, where we always opened with a hymn, that I learned the real words are “soldiers of the Cross.”

When I was 10 I moved to another camp that specialized in art and music. My younger sister, Sue, attended Farm Camp for many more years and shares my fond memories.

“I so enjoyed the Sunday service at camp that I felt sorry for the Catholics who had to miss it. I didn’t understand for many years after why Catholics, and not the Protestants, had to go to church,” she told me.

When Sue was about 10, she wrote an essay about why camp was so important to her.

“I don’t recall why I wrote it, but I’d showed it to my counselor, who must have shared it with other counselors. I was asked to read it aloud at one Sunday service,” she said. The essay was also printed on the front page of the camp newsletter, which was a mimeographed job on colored paper produced near the close of every two-week session.

“I was so pleased and proud of myself. I saved it for many years. It’s likely still moldering in our attic in a box.”

“We do indeed still do Sunday service, a chance to be reflective with campers at the campfire site and a chance to share stories,” camp director Karyn McGee told me.

“We pick a theme, and often use great books that we read aloud (and sometimes have staff act out) to generate deeper thought. Mostly we read The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, Sneeches by Dr. Seuss, and other non-denominational fun yet deep stories.

“Sometimes we plant a tree afterwards, and sometimes we burn a twig each. Twigs gathered from many trees, many sources but combined together in our campfire become the foundation for next session, year, decade’s group who will also sit under these beech and oak trees and share their stories.”

The College Settlement of Philadelphia is still influenced by Quaker values, said Jan Finnegan, the agency’s director of development. “The Sunday service does not have a clergy person or particular format but reflects an understanding of living in harmony with one another and the natural world, being reflective and creating a community of acceptance and equality.

Grace before meals

Camp was also where I first encountered grace before meals. Three times a day the entire camp would stand at the tables and sing, to the Westminster chimes tune, “Morning (or afternoon or evening) is here, the board is spread, thanks be to God, who gives us bread. Amen.”

I’m sure I wasn’t the only kid who wondered what a “board” had to do with the meal we were about to eat.

By the time my sister Sue was a teen at Farm Camp and it was her bunk’s turn to lead grace, they were able to get away with, “Rub-a-dub-dub, thanks for the grub, yaaaaaay God!”

I encountered numerous new foods at camp, including tapioca pudding and macaroni and cheese. You no doubt did a double-take at that. How could anyone grow up in America without eating macaroni and cheese?

Well, my mother didn’t like it and so she didn’t make it, and it was completely off the radar for my Europe-born grandmothers. We walked home for lunch from school, so I didn’t get it in the school cafeteria.

I still love mac and cheese, and it was another reason I looked forward to camp every summer!

Here’s a good recipe for this all-American staple that’s easy to make because you don’t have to boil the pasta first or make a separate cheese sauce. You do need a blender (regular or immersion). It uses a great deal of cheese, but if you’re worried about fat, you can cut the amount back some with no loss in yumminess.