Former graphic designer AJ Perry channels her passion for baking into her own small business.

Former graphic designer AJ Perry channels her passion for baking into her own small business.

When AJ Perry was laid off from her job as a graphic designer, she turned to skill she had honed her whole life–baking. Perry, who spent countless hours in the kitchen with her mother while growing up on a farm in north Central Ohio, wondered if she could make a living with her baking know-how. "We had a huge garden," says Perry, who has no formal culinary training. "My mom made everything from scratch." Perry also sharpened her baking skills through 4-H, watching PBS cooking shows and working in kitchens during high school. In July of 2007, she carted dozens of cookies, scones and cinnamon rolls to the Gahanna Farmer's Market and quickly sold out. She returned week after week and found continued success. She named the fledgling business Sassafras Bakery. A few months later, she took a stand at the Worthington Farmer's Market. She expanded her offerings to include brownies, granola bars, pies and muffins. She continued to supplement her income with freelance graphic design work. Perry, who grows the herbs she adds to her dishes, cultivated relationships with farmers. She found locals who could supply her with fresh fruit, honey and quality dairy products. She committed to using local ingredients and sustainable business practices. Perry also landed some wholesale clients that wanted to sell her goods at area stores and restaurants. By 2011, she no longer needed to do graphic design work. She focused on growing her bakery business. Continuing to work out of her Gahanna home, she hired people to help her label and package her goods. "I just had a regular home oven, which was challenging," she said. "I spent a lot of time waiting." Perry began looking for a brick-and-mortar location. This summer, she opened a bakery and café on High Street in downtown Worthington. With the help of investors, she signed a lease, bought equipment and renovated the space (formerly Blue Frost Cupcake). The bakery's warm yellow walls, antique decorations and custom tables and countertop create an inviting atmosphere. Since opening, Sassafras has added quiche and coffee to its menu. The bakery also sells Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams. The business is an ideal fit for the area, says Jenny Fuerst vice president of the Old Worthington Business Association. "She does help fill that lunchtime niche," says Fuerst.

Fuerst and Jaime Moore, manager of the Worthington Farmer's Market, say they are delighted that one of their longtime vendors has found a permanent home in the city. Moore attributes Perry's success to the quality of her products. "Her stuff is delicious and it looks nice," Moore says. The consistency of Perry's bakery items helped her build a loyal following at the farmer's market, Moore says, adding that Perry also "has a great understanding of the seasonality of Ohio agriculture" that helps her create food that people want to buy and eat. It has been exciting to watch Perry's steady growth from market vendor to wholesale baker to bakery owner, Moore says. "She's taken very measured steps before getting to bricks and mortar," she says. "She truly understands what the market is calling for." Perry also has the entrepreneurial spirit necessary for a successful business, says Jeni Britton Bauer, founder of Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams. Perry is the kind of business owner who will stay up all night baking and then deliver the food herself if that's what it takes to fulfill an order, says Bauer who invited Perry to sell baked goods at the Jeni's in Bexley. Customers could purchase a slice of pie or a brownie from Perry and then top it with a scoop of ice cream. (Bauer recommends pairing her Salty Caramel ice cream with Perry's apple pie.) The look and taste of Sassafras Bakery items combined with Perry's commitment to using local ingredients hits the mark, Bauer says. Perry cares about more than profit, and the ice cream entrepreneur appreciates Perry's focus on ingredients and the quality of her creations.

Sassafras Bakery appears to have found a niche in the local food scene. "The time is right in Columbus," says Bauer. "People can't get enough of really, really great food." Perry hopes the new space and commercial kitchen will allow her to focus on her retail business. She sees a lot of potential for growth from walk-in customers and people that want to peruse her bakery counter.

"She's the full package. She's humble and sweet and also a force," Bauer says. "There's no question, she's going to be successful."

Melissa Kossler Dutton is a freelance writer.