Tom and Jane Stunkard left their home state of Minnesota to pursue their dream of opening a store that caters to the do-it-yourself home baker. After a Wisconsin statewide road trip, the couple landed in Madison, drawn to the city’s lakes and stable economy. Vanilla Bean opened its doors in 1983 at 6805 Odana Road.
Seeking a location with affordable rent, the store is near West Towne Mall and a major bus line. Vanilla Bean still stands in its original location as a family-owned and -operated business. “It was exciting to open the store,” Jane remembers. “We want our customers to leave our store knowing the easiest and best way to make their creations.”
Jane fell in love with baking after being taught by her mother. She and Tom both took classes in cake decorating and candy making. “It was natural,” Jane says. “I knew about the product, how to use it, and how to teach others to use it.”
So what can you find upon entering the 2,900-square-foot store aside from the more than 300 cake pans that line the walls? Vanilla Bean boasts everyday items, from high-quality food colorings, flavorings, bakeware, and a large assortment of shaped pans to unusual and rare cookware and specialty items, such as rosette irons and krumkake makers. The store carries more than 1,000 cookie cutters, as well as sprinkles, jimmies, and other edible accents.
It doesn’t stop there. Vanilla Bean carries more than 2,000 candy molds, every color cupcake liner and sprinkle you can imagine, tart tins, Bundt pans, round pans, square pans, rectangular pans, bread pans, character pans, pie tins, and donut pans. Excuse me while I catch my breath! And if the store doesn’t carry it, Kelly, Jane’s youngest of three daughters and store manager, says it’s probably because it’s not on the market.
“Our niche has always been finding things you can’t find in a big box store,” Jane says. “Madison is great because there are a lot of smaller independent shops that are unique.”
Even after loyal Madison customers move out of state they continue to inquire about items. In 2005, Vanilla Bean opened its online store to reach customers across the United States.
Tom, who reentered the engineering field in 1984, retired in 2011 from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. It was then when Jane decided it was time for her to also pull back to spend more time with their 10 grandchildren. That’s when the family torch was passed and Kelly took over as store manager. “If my daughter hadn’t taken over, I would still be there,” Jane says. “We talk every day about the business. She has lent a new, fresh look and an offering of fresh products.”
Born and raised in Madison, Kelly recollects on childhood memories at Vanilla Bean. She enjoyed putting away orders, pricing products, and helping customers. “I also loved the creative side of it: painting candy molds, baking cookies. I always had fun here,” Kelly says.
Kelly worked for other businesses through high school, as Jane wanted all three of her daughters to get other experience outside of the store. Kelly then attended the University of Wisconsin–Parkside and the University of Minnesota–Duluth, and graduated with a degree in communications. She now lives in Madison with her husband, Kraig, and her two sons, Karsen, 5, and Konnor, 3.
Vanilla Bean’s staff of 10 is made up of some who have worked for the business for more than 20 years and some who are longtime customers. However, the product trends don’t remain as consistent. When the store opened, cupcakes or cookies for weddings were not the trend, but Jane says times have changed. “You have to evolve with the interests,” she says. “Depending on what people want and buy, we seek it out.”
When it comes to keeping the shelves full, Kelly says there are two main suppliers of cake decorating supplies: Wilton and CK Products. “They show you the trends of the industry,” she says. Kelly also attends international houseware conventions in Chicago and is an active user of Pinterest to seek inspiration.
Top selling items of the store depend on the season. In summer, graduation and wedding cakes are popular, spiking sales in boards, boxes, and clamshell cupcake containers. In winter, products for making candies and cookie-related gift bundles, such as molds, sprinkles, and cookie cutters, fly off the shelves.
Current baking trends include cupcakes and cake pops. Yes, cake pops. Those delicious, chewy tastes of cake on a stick. Kelly says cake pops have taken over. “People come in with a project and a picture and ask, ‘How can I do this?’ We have to show people how to put a cake together. I want to make sure customers have everything they need to complete a project.”
Kelly says while staying on top of trends is a priority, ordering can be a challenge because there is no crystal ball. “If a product is advertised in a baking magazine, we notice a surge in it. People still come in with magazine clippings, so we have to stay current and find out what they are talking about.”
Vanilla Bean’s biggest competitor continues to be online shopping. The store tries to keep prices as low and competitive as possible, but sometimes online sites can pose a challenge. “When you buy online you never really know what you are getting, and you don’t get that personal help,” Kelly says. “We have products that are high quality and easy to use, and we can help customers at that moment in the store.”
Even though she lives in Minnesota, Jane continues to teach candy-making classes in the spring and fall with Kelly. New for the store are royal-icing cookie classes, which run monthly January through October and twice a month during November and December. Cake-decorating classes of all levels run year-round.
So whether it’s a recipe you want to tackle, candy you want to create, or just a new skill you want to learn, Kelly offers the recipe for success at Vanilla Bean. “If you have the right tools, you can create anything.”
For more information on Vanilla Bean, classes, or products, visit vanillabeanonline.com .
Chelsey Dequaine works as a social media/community specialist for designCraft Advertising and is a freelance writer.