RIDGEFIELD — For Donna Suomi, baking is far more than just a hobby.
On a weekday before the New Year, Suomi, 42, zipped around a small kitchen that was humid from several ovens full of Chocolate Lovers’ Biscotti, slowly crisping to perfection. Three other bakers worked in haste on other tasks. It could have been a scene from the popular TV series “The Great British Baking Show.”
The smell wafted from the kitchen into the gymnasium, located in the Ridgefield Administrative and Civic Center. A loud beep came from the kitchen.
“Timer!” yelled chef Yolanda Nelson, as Suomi hurried to check on the biscotti.
Suomi is a co-owner of Killa Bites Inc., a part-wholesale, part-catering business that rents the space from the Ridgefield School District.
Killa Bites’ team of four was making ball-shaped, raspberry-cheesecake-flavored desserts called cake bombs and caramel-apple popcorn, which would be shipped to businesses like Chuck’s Produce and ilani.
Suomi helped guide the other women as they worked.
“I’m more trying to step back,” Suomi said. “I want to teach them the recipes that I developed so they can continue. But I always end up being hands-in because a lot of times if I’m in here, I don’t have time to develop new ones or perfect them.”
The newest cake bomb flavor: tiramisu.
“The top one’s done; give the other one like four minutes or so,” she told Nelson and baker Tasha Wellcome, 20.
“She has a gift,” Nelson said of Suomi as she molded more cheesecake cake bombs. “If one is different, she’ll find it. If there’s 300 in a pan, she will find the one that’s not baked well.”
Nothing but baking
Suomi grew up in the Hockinson area on a berry farm and started baking when she was young.
“It was just something I watched my mom do as a little girl. I took to it and always wanted to be helping her,” Suomi said.
After marrying at 18, she realized it’s what she wanted for a career.
“I couldn’t think of anything else but to bake. I did contemplate going to school, but I just never did. I’m self-taught through TV shows, and I worked at a bread-and-pastry bakery in South Carolina. That’s kind of where I learned the whole inside of a kitchen,” she said. Eventually, she and her family were drawn back to the Pacific Northwest to be close to family.
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Suomi started baking one day a week and making meals for pickup.
“People would come pick it up, like word of mouth, family and friends. I’d do catering. Then I started a little biscotti business all by myself at a farmers market,” Suomi said.
She took her biscotti to a farmers market in Battle Ground for one summer.
“I tried that out. I wasn’t into the business part; I just wanted to be in the kitchen. Then I met Laura shortly after that,” she said.
Laura Jhaveri is the other half of Killa Bites. They “met in passing” around 2011 because Suomi’s dad’s company constructed her home, Jhaveri said.
Jhaveri embarked on a journey to own a business after her late husband, Akhil, was diagnosed with ALS in 2011. (The Columbian covered his journey in a special series of stories.) With Akhil out of work, Jhaveri needed to support her family. She recruited Suomi, knowing of her biscotti-making skills, to be a business partner. Killa Bites opened in 2014.
“I reached out to Donna and presented the cake-bomb idea to her. It was like an arranged marriage that worked out really well. We have complementary skills; she loves being in the kitchen and I love marketing and crunching numbers,” Jhaveri said.
She added that Killa Bites “gave me an identity outside of ‘caregiver’ that I definitely needed.”
Back in the kitchen, Suomi received a text from Jhaveri, telling her that ilani needed an order of 50 cake bombs.
“ilani is probably one of our biggest (buyers) right now,” Suomi said. Killa Bites primarily focuses on wholesale orders. Another half of the business focuses on catering. Its products are sold at businesses spanning the region from Lake Oswego, Ore., to Longview. They are found in eight markets or grocery stores, 13 different coffee shops and three vineyards or wine bars, according to its website.
Jhaveri said last year, they brought in just under $500,000 in revenue.
“For many years, we didn’t make a paycheck,” she said. “It’s a passion for both of us. We’re not in it for the money.”
Suomi worked at a station cutting long slabs of biscotti that would be baked again. Meanwhile, Wellcome and Nelson continued with cake bombs.
“She’s very patient. She’s very organized. She’s very kind,” Nelson said. “And that’s really important when you’re jammin’ in the kitchen. When you’re jamming in the kitchen, she’s jamming right there with you.”
“She calls me a whirling dervish,” Suomi said of Nelson. “It’s somebody who does many things at the same time and does it well, but is twirling around (like a dancer).”
“It’s just my happy place,” Suomi said. “I guess I have a perfectionist nature in me. I always want it to be so good. Even when I’m not working, I’m looking at cooking magazines or dreaming up new menus or new ideas for cake bombs.”