May 26, 2021

Meet the Maker: Cathy Rupe of Cedar Fox Mercantile

Meet Cathy Rupe, founder of Cedar Fox Mercantile. Cathy and her husband operate their Charlottesville, Virginia-based food and gift business, providing their community with fresh, home-baked goods. Their story began at a farmers’ market and has grown from there. Keep reading to see how they’ve built and grown their home-based food business.

What did you do before starting Cedar Fox Mercantile?

“My educational background is in early childhood. I worked in the field for 11 years before becoming a full-time stay at home mom,” Cathy said. “I’ve volunteered since then, making meals for meal trains and cooking for youth group meals. I spent many years knitting blankets for my husband to give to his soldiers when their spouses had babies.” 

“In addition to currently building the business plan for my cottage food and gift business, I work with my husband, tending our family’s vegetable garden. We also enjoy bicycling around our country roads, which helps keep the bakery weight off!”

What is your business’ origin story?

“In November 2019, our family visited a holiday version of a local farmers’ market. As we were driving home after the event, my husband told me, ‘you could do that,’” Cathy said. “We brainstormed what that might look like for me — for us — and had a list of hand-knit items, baked items, possibly canned things like jams and pickles, eggs, and whatever extra produce we had during harvest times. We strategized and determined that once my husband was working fewer hours, we could also add some sort of handmade wood items, too.”

“Over the holiday break I came up with a name and started knitting pillows, then crocheted decorative bread basket liners, and then dish towels. I had plenty of time to do these small projects while we were staying at home through 2020. This past November, I saw an ad on Facebook for an annual holiday market where the booth fees went to a scholarship fund. I felt like it was the perfect opportunity to test the farmers’ market scene for a good cause. I didn’t think I had enough product to have an appealing booth, so I decided to fill it out with baked goods. Beyond asking the organizers if I needed a business license or tax ID number, I did no other due diligence and treated it like a bake sale alongside my crafts.”

“I did sell a few of the crafts I had worked so hard on, but the vast majority of my sales were my bakes and single bags of caramel corn. My husband and youngest son had helped me all day, and as we celebrated a fairly successful day at a restaurant, we analyzed the outcome and decided baked goods had better earning potential. Plus, I love baking. I have always loved cooking for people and seeing and hearing them enjoy what I made. It was such an obvious answer, I never saw it coming.”

How would you describe your products in one sentence?

“I provide elegantly rustic bakes to savor and share around the table… where your story unfolds.”

What’s your favorite way to enjoy your products?

“With others! I always want my baking to be a part of sharing my life with others and learning from their life stories,” Cathy said. “I have an example of this from my first repeat customer.”

“As far as enjoying the eating of my products specifically, my rustic breads are a perfect, nourishing companion to a tablescape of meats, cheeses, fresh fruits, and vegetables. Charcuterie boards are really trending because they’re beautiful and fancy-sounding, but really they are a light meal anyone can put together. Serve a board with a loaf of bread and maybe a spread or two, and it becomes a meal that stretches to feed company.”

Who is another food entrepreneur that you admire? What do you love about their business?

“Since attending the cottage food conference, there are a large handful I am following, but one I will mention is Wild Yeast Kitchen,” Cathy said. “Yuliya Childer’s ‘why’ had much to do with filling a void she experienced after moving away from Europe and its easy access to quality, fresh-baked breads. I have lived in Europe twice in my adult life and coming home each time left me missing the locally-operated bakeries on practically every street in town.”

“One bakery locally I’ll mention is Bowerbird Bakeshop. Although I don’t really know them personally, I’ve spoken with the manager and pastry sous chef, Maria Niechwaidowicz, a number of times when she was managing a commissary kitchen I worked at for a short time. Her bio on their website tells of someone with a passion for creating and sharing food, as well as a passion for her community — both of which have always been my driving force.”

What is the best thing about this job?

“To me, it’s an extension of who I am at my core. As someone who lives to serve others, this has manifested most often in showing love to people through food,” Cathy said. “This job is creative — new and even unpredictable with every round of baking, especially with breads that almost have a personality to them and are never quite identical.”

What advice would you share with food entrepreneurs who are getting started?

“This is tough, because I still very much am seeking advice for myself getting my new dream up and running,” Cathy said. “That’s probably it: I think we all tend to be emotional about the foods we create, maybe because there’s so often emotions and memories tied to our own taste-buds.” 

“My advice is to ‘know there is going to be hard involved’ — whether with actual obstacles or dealing with that first bit of criticism, because we’re emotionally invested. If you’re aware of it, though, you’ll be ready for the challenge. You only know what you know, and I didn’t know enough when I first shifted gears towards cottage food. There were tears. I thought at times of quitting and even thought I had quit for a couple of weeks, but there was, and apparently is a deep ‘something’ within me that won’t let me off this path. I don’t know what the results will be, but I know the journey is already worth whatever the destination.”

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