Karen Holmes has had plenty to celebrate lately. One of her employees at Karen’s Bakery & Cafe in Folsom recently won the national cake decorating contest in Chicago. In April, her business will be 15 years old. This summer, she will lead a $3,600-per-person culinary tour of Copenhagen, Denmark.
Q: You’ve mentioned that you’re self-taught. What was your first job in the food industry?
A: I moved to Sacramento in 1990, and I tried really hard to get a job at Paragary’s (in Folsom). Rick Mahan (now of The Waterboy) was the executive chef. He laughed at me. So I went and got a job at (the coffeehouse) New Helvetia, where Mulvaney’s is now.
Q: You are surrounded by great food all day. What dessert would you have for your hypothetical last meal?
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A: We do a really simple plain pound cake, but it has polenta and almond paste. I love that cake. The polenta gives it the crunch. The almond paste gives it moisture and flavor.
Q: Karen’s Bakery and Cafe is about to celebrate 15 years in business. What was the plan when you first opened?
A: I don’t think I was operating on a goal-oriented basis back then. I was a mom at home baking cookies on the PTA banana bread circuit. My two kids were pretty young. I was catering out of my house and it finally got to the point where it was out of control. We were busy almost immediately. The teachers at the school where my kids went would call in their orders and come down at lunchtime.
Q: Is there a lot of pressure having your own business? Do you worry about stuff?
A: Everything, all the time. That’s my job.
Q: What’s the worst part?
A: I don’t like firing people very much. In the beginning, I had to do that fairly often because I was not a good judge of the kind of people I should hire.
Q: Karen’s is known for its custom cakes. What’s the weirdest request you’ve had?
A: We had a young bride and her fiancé call and she had this perfect pink plan for her perfect wedding cake. It was an enormous wedding at a country club. Everything was great. Then her mother called the next day. She said she and her daughter are wild practical jokers. So she wanted us to do this terrible cake first before we bring out the perfect cake. But the terrible cake turned out so cool. It was really, really awesome.
Q: What’s it like to have a son (Duncan Holmes, formerly of Sons & Daughters in San Francisco) who is a chef with a Michelin star?
A: It’s obnoxious, I’m sure, to say I’m a proud mama. But I am. He’ll send me recipes. I mean, what boy sends his mom recipes? Sometimes when he’s in town he’ll come into Karen’s and help.
Q: You are leading a culinary tour of Copenhagen this July. Why Denmark?
A: My mom was Danish. I was lucky as a child to get to go to Denmark a lot. We’ve been three times in the last three years. I just love going there. All that food over there I find incredibly delicious and thought-provoking. I’m happy to say we have eight signed up and there’s room for four more.
Q: Denmark is now considered one of the world’s great culinary centers. How did that happen?
A: I’ve been eating Danish food all my life. Maybe it’s the fact that it was undiscovered until this wild child, Rene Redzepi, came along and made people notice.
Q: You’re a big hit in Folsom. But when are you going to open a Karen’s in midtown?
A: I’ve seen so many people ruin their personal lives trying to do that kind of thing. I’m a hands-on owner, so I can’t stretch myself and be in two places at once. I’m happy where I am.
Call The Bee’s Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @Blarob.
Owner of Karen’s Bakery & Cafe in Folsom (705 Gold Lake Drive, Folsom; 916-985-2665)
Holmes’ thriving business is about to celebrate its 15th anniversary.