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Food Dude

Sept 22 , 2011
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Carefree in the Junction

By Jim Duncan

Carefree Patisserie's Principal Park cake.

Valley Junction is central Iowa's "green field of the mind — that place where what the old poet called Mutability does not so quickly come." Bart Giamatti's metaphor for baseball fits this West Des Moines neighborhood known for antique stores and old-fashioned services like Des Moines Shoe & Luggage Repair. Here, The Lagniappe survived the death of its owner with barely an alteration, and Giff Wagner's has been a sports bar since before anyone heard of sports bars. More than a year after Simo's was replaced by another restaurant, Simo's sign still graces its building. Similarly, Green Grounds continues the business of its predecessors, more easily identified by its carryover signage: "Coffee — Ice Cream."

What passes for change in Valley Junction is often a compromise in which a lesser change is substituted for a more objectionable one. Paula's Maid Rite changed its name to just Paula's rather than change its recipe for loose meat sandwiches to comply with new corporate standards. Long after its business changed into one of Iowa's most popular pizzerias, The Tavern kept its old generic name. So when a place expands into a new building on a different street, it's a seismic event.

Nine years after opening their quaint Carefree Patisserie on Elm Street, sisters Jennifer Strauss and Christine Boelman moved into a much larger building on Fifth Street. They produce about 2,000 cupcakes every week — 10 flavors at a time from a repertoire of some 150 flavors. Vanilla malt and white almond are always on their menu with eight rotating choices. Some of their most popular flavors are rather adult — Guiness chocolate, strawberry daiquiri, mai tai, margarita, etc. Others are quite the opposite — chocolate peanut butter cup. Kids stopping in after school are usually asked if their mothers know what they are buying.

Cupcakes are merely the frosting on this operation. Altogether Carefree goes through an average of 30 dozen eggs and 40 pounds of butter a week producing cakes for all occasions. During wedding season — May to November — they average nearly five more large cakes a week than the rest of the year. The sisters and their staff build customized cakes for all occasions. Last week they were working on a penis cake to feed 36. One cake recreated the Iowa State Fair Butter Cow and weighed almost 1,000 pounds. A wedding cake for two young opera singers recreated the opening night of "The Marriage of Figaro" in Milan's La Scala Opera House. For a Salisbury House fundraiser last winter, Strauss collaborated with a local architectural firm to build a gingerbread replica of Principal Park during a baseball game.

Customization builds customer loyalty. "We know our customers pretty well. For some we have designed their wedding cakes, their baby shower cakes and their anniversary cakes while keeping the same theme going," Strauss explained.

Dedication keeps customers happy, too. During their recent move, Strauss suffered an electrical shock hooking up a stove. That triggered a heart attack. Every order was filled, and the new store still opened on schedule with Strauss returning to full-time work somewhat faster than doctors advised.

Their new store has allowed the ladies to expand into cake baking and decorating supplies, an open niche in Des Moines now that Clayton's is closing. The Patisserie has three rooms of supplies like edible glitter, palettes, sugar crystals, sixlets, non-pareils and jimmies, plus a full line of children's baking clothes and utensils, books, aprons, lunch boxes, etc. There's now a tasting room, a party room and a front porch to enjoy your treats, as if this were another era.

Side Dishes

Valley Junction's first grocery in decades, Tall Grass Co-Op, was scheduled to open by press time… Cityview readers voted Noah's, Angelo's, Fong's, Sam & Louie's, Mama Lacona's, Bambino's, Coach's, Centro, Big Tomato, Pagliai's, Gusto, Felix & Oscar's, La Pizza House, Bordenaro's, NYC and Orlondo's the top 16 pizzerias in town. CV

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