Sister helps with Meriden cake business despite baker’s asthma

MERIDEN — Cake pops, cupcakes and wedding cakes are what sisters Jennifer Speeg and Ann Marie Larese specialize in….

MERIDEN — Cake pops, cupcakes and wedding cakes are what sisters Jennifer Speeg and Ann Marie Larese specialize in.

When Speeg isn’t working or taking care of her family and when Larese isn’t busy with her university job and her own life in Massachusetts, they spend time on their new weekend business. In the kitchen of the YMCA Martin Gaffey Child Care Center on Crown Street the sisters make cupcakes, rich truffle-like cake pops and graduation cakes made from fondant.

The Meriden natives started the business last year. Larese had just left her job as Dartmouth College’s volleyball coach after 17 years and was looking for a new side business. She showed Speeg a book on the trendy cake pops and floated an idea.

“She said: ‘I think we can make a business doing this,’ ” Speeg said. “So we did.”

They began making the treats from Larese’s home, named their business Sisters’ Kitchen and started promoting it via a website and Facebook.

Although Larese is a talented baker, she works more on the books. The 1985 graduate of Maloney High School has a degree in finance from Bentley University. When she’s not in Meriden on the weekends, she’s working at the university recruiting students for its business administration program.

“Jen is the creative one,” Larese said.

Larese and Speeg grew up in a Polish household with a mother and grandmother who were always cooking.

“My first love was baking,” Speeg said.

Speeg, a 1988 graduate of Maloney, went to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. After graduation, she worked a variety of jobs in various restaurants before taking a job at Aetna in its executive dining room. While working at Aetna, Speeg discovered she had developed an allergy to flour, also called baker’s asthma.

Speeg said she began taking medications but continued feeling ill. In 2002, she returned to school and became a medical assistant.

Because Speeg isn’t dealing with flour every day, she is capable of making treats on the weekends for Sisters’ Kitchen. If the sisters need to work more days, she may have to wear a mask and take medications, she said.

In April the sisters started renting the YMCA facility. They don’t have a storefront and only take orders in advance.

“We needed more of a home base,” Speeg said. “We didn’t want a storefront, and the cost of equipment would have cost us $40,000.”

Trudy Magnolia, economic development assistant for the city, said several businesses that started in garages and kitchens grew into successful companies.

“Maybe this is the same case,” Magnolia said.

Working out of a rented space allows the business to build its clientele. If customers like the product, they’re likely to come back, Magnolia said.

“I hope it works out for them,” she said.

Over the past couple of months the sisters have been busy with First Communion cakes and graduation treats. They expect to stay busy throughout the summer, especially because they’ll be participating in the city’s farmer’s market again. Last summer Sisters’ Kitchen sold scones, muffins and tarts at the market, treats that wouldn’t melt in the hot weather, Speeg said. Toward the end of the season, cake pops and cupcakes were sold.

“It was great,” Speeg said. “We’d like to do others.”

Through the farmer’s markets, word-of-mouth and social networking, Sisters’ Kitchen has picked up many customers.

“We believe in what we do,” Speeg said. “We know it’s a good product. There’s something better out there than what you get in the grocery store. You get what you pay for. It’s worth spending a little more for you get a product made with good ingredients.”

As the women bake on the weekends for customers, they’re constantly thinking of and developing new types of cupcakes and treats.

As a fan of actor Alec Baldwin, Larese knows the famous “30 Rock” star loves raspberry Linzer bars. Larese is trying to perfect a Linzer cupcake. She wants to get Baldwin’s attention through the social networking site Twitter and perhaps get him to test-taste one of the treats.

“It’s nice to be in business, and doing something that’s fun,” Larese said.

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