Among the subjects all but guaranteed to snag views and “likes” on Instagram are puppies, kittens, babies, sunsets — and food, particularly baked goods. That’s great news for a trio of Asheville-based women with a broad range of experience in professional baking who are building their businesses through the online service.
“Before I started doing this, I didn’t have an Instagram account or any social media,” admits Erin Calzone, who moved to Asheville in June 2021. “I’m 30 years old, so it surprised people, but it wasn’t my thing.”
‘This” is Monka’s Bakery, an idea she began exploring while living in New Jersey. “Monka” was how her younger brother pronounced “Grandma” as a toddler, and Calzone adopted the name for the Instagram account she launched in December 2020 with a photo of a white-frosted pistachio cake topped with a white orchid. “That cake started everything,” she says. “I made that cake for our wedding.”
Calzone’s cake-making experience began with an Easy-Bake Oven from her father. But rather than pursue baking as a career, she went to school for fashion in New York City, then worked in design for Victoria’s Secret. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Calzone and her husband, Dan Calzone, left Astoria, Queens, for New Jersey, where Dan continued working remotely and she dug deeper into her love of baking.
“I rented time in commercial kitchens to get comfortable with the equipment and began testing recipes,” she says. The first photos on her Instagram account were from those days, and family and friends were the beneficiaries of those trial runs.
When Dan’s job remained remote, the couple made the move to Asheville, a city they fell in love with during a visit in 2017. Calzone found a flexible day job, continued testing recipes at home and began the search for commercial kitchen space — which proved far more challenging than in New York. Buying coffee at the window of the Bridge & Tunnel Coffee Co. food truck parked one afternoon in West Asheville, Dan queried the owners, who connected her with a kitchen and the East Asheville Tailgate Market, where she set up shop for the first time in mid-July.
The photos Calzone posted of her decorated toaster pastries, cake cups and tea breads, along with dreamy images of layer cakes adorned with fresh flowers, caught the eye of local company Destination Elopements, which contacted her to bake small cakes for their clients.
“My original idea had been to post photos on Instagram, take orders and deliver around Asheville,” she says. “The more content I posted, the more followers I got, and the more people began reaching out with special orders. Through Instagram and those followers, I was making a lot of connections, and one thing led to another.”
In October, Monka’s Bakery debuted at the Saturday ASAP Farmers Market. In December, she did her first big wedding, baking 100 cinnamon buns, 100 Pop-Tarts and a full-sized wedding cake. And in February, Panacea Coffee House asked her to provide them with Pop-Tarts, brownies and Fruity Pebble Rice Krispies treats. Even so, Calzone continues freelance design work by day and bakes at night or early morning.
French Broad to biscuit lady
Beth Kellerhals’ presence on Instagram began in December 2015 with a photo of a doughnut tree, though her professional kitchen career started well before then. After studying Chinese in the late ’90s in northern China, where she cooked meals in a little toaster oven, she returned to her hometown of Chicago and enrolled in the French Pastry School.
“I knew I wanted to cook, and I wanted to focus on pastries,” she recalls. “After I graduated, I staged at Mindy Segal’s Hot Chocolate, which led to a job. I love everything she does and still think of her as my mentor.”
Kellerhals moved to California in 2007 to “thaw out” from Chicago’s long, frigid winters, first in Santa Barbara and then Los Angeles, intending to stay about a year. She wound up sticking around for a decade, working in restaurants of various sizes, baking and making ice cream.
She also began baking on the side, selling at markets and pop-ups under the name Good Gravy Bakes. She was active on Instagram promoting her products, particularly the dark-baked, crispy, buttery, buttermilk treats she dubs Buttah Butta Biscuits.
“My biscuits have so much butter in them they’re practically paleo,” Kellerhals says with a laugh. “There’s just enough flour and buttermilk to hold them together. They’re like croissant cousins.”
Three years ago, Kellerhals moved to Asheville, where much of her family had settled. Her experience in ice cream connected her to French Broad Chocolates, which hired her to open its creamery, a role that segued to head pastry chef for the French Broad Chocolate Lounge when the creamery closed. But she notes she was acting more as a kitchen manager than a chef. “They have their recipes people really love, so I didn’t get to do a lot of recipe development,” she says.
Kellerhals turned to her home kitchen and her Instagram account as an outlet for her creativity and a way to introduce herself and her specialties to Asheville.
“I was trying to get my name out there — people didn’t really know me here,” she explains. “I needed to see if there was a market here for what I bake.”
As Kellerhals began to get recognition locally, she decided to test the waters further. Last April, she began selling at the weekly East Asheville Tailgate Market, and when that closed for the season in late fall 2021, she took up residence at the ASAP Saturday market. Since then, she’s built such a following that regulars know to arrive early if they don’t want to walk away biscuitless.
“I love the markets,” Kellerhals says. “People have been so receptive. They come for the biscuits, but they’ll also try whatever scone I throw at them. I made a Hong Kong milk tea scone, and people were like, ‘I don’t know what that is, but I’ll try it.’ I love that spirit.”
Not so sweet
A scroll through Jess Liu’s Instagram page, Lulu’s Sweets — named for her 12-year-old cat — is an introduction to a world of baked goods. In addition to desserts popular in France and Italy, styles that have influenced her own works, she also features ones from her native China.
“Sweets are popular there, but not as supersweet as American sweets,” she says. “Dessert isn’t a traditional course there. Sweets are eaten as snacks or with tea.”
Liu came to the U.S. in 2016 to study law at George Washington University, where she met her now-fiancé, Son Nguyen. She’s long loved the creativity involved with baking and pursued it as a hobby for friends. At the height of pandemic restrictions, the couple decided to work remotely from the mountains rather than Washington, D.C., and moved to Asheville, where she soon saw a gap in the culinary market.
“I couldn’t find the desserts and cakes here that I wanted,” she recalls. “I have always wanted my own business, so starting Lulu’s Sweets was a perfect opportunity to combine that with what I love.”
Liu launched her Instagram page in January 2021 with an introductory post about her cat and then a photo of her tiramisu cups — essentially tiramisu cake in small, to-go packaging. Her first pop-up was at Lee’s Asian Market last summer, and the tiramisu cups were a hit.
As she added more photos, interest grew in her distinct items (e.g., Japanese cheesecake and traditional Chinese mooncakes), and she began taking orders through direct messaging. But the photos that elicit the biggest response are her crepe cakes.
“They’re my signature dessert,” Liu says. “They’re made of over 20 layers of thin crepes — it is very time consuming. Crepe cakes originate in France but are popular in Japan because of matcha, which goes very well with crepes. Mine are not like anyone else’s I have seen.”
All three of the bakers have their eyes on the prize of eventually opening a shop, a path that other bakers of Instagram like Caroline Dockery of Morsel Cookie Co. and Heidi Bass of MOTHER bread have followed to brick-and-mortar fruition. Calzone says the unexpected success she’s found through Instagram has given her the confidence to follow in their footsteps.
“I was petrified when I started and shocked at how fast it has happened for me,” she says. “Long-term, my goal is a little shop; short-term, I hope to get into more markets and build out a little Monka’s pushcart.”
Liu says she and her fiancé are always on the lookout for a small space, where she hopes to bake, showcase Korean barbecue and serve milk tea. “We have a lot of ideas about enriching Asian food culture in Asheville,” she says. “It’s all on my to-do list.”
Meanwhile, in addition to biscuits and scones, Kellerhals loves retro baked goods like cobblers, crisps and coffee cake, which helps drive her vision for her own store.
“I used to joke that if your grandma went to French pastry school, that would be me,” she says. “What I love about having a shop one day is the community it builds. I would love all the retirees in Asheville to come in and talk and linger as long as they want. I think if we could all sit down together and get to know each other over coffee cake, the world would be a better place.”