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.