On Tenacity and The Value of Fear : Preeti Waas // Sugar & Spice and Cheeni // Raleigh, NC

by Megan Crist

Preeti Waas, owner and baker of Sugar & Spice in Raleigh, talks about building a kitchen to meet her needs and serve the community of micro bakeries in Raleigh. Photo by Megan Crist.

Name:  Preeti Waas

City:     Raleigh, NC

What is your working title?  Chief Tasting Officer

You have a truly awesome line of professional experience with food. Currently, you’re the owner and baker of Sugar & Spice, which can be found at markets around Raleigh. And you just opened a commercial kitchen for bakers called Cheeni.

First, can you talk about how you became interested in food? What attracted you to this industry?

I was nine years old when a neighbor brought over a cake she had baked. This is back when I thought cakes could only be purchased at bakeries, since no Indian home I knew owned an oven. She allowed me to borrow her oven - a flimsy round aluminium base  around 16” in diameter with a domed lid, and an electrical cord - I baked my first cake, and was hooked by the alchemy.

Like thousands of home cooks, I was told my food and baking were good enough to open a restaurant. So I did.

How long have you been doing what you do? Were there any notable milestones along your journey so far?

I began by operating a custom dessert order business out of my home eighteen years ago. Followed by being a personal chef, then bakery/cafe owner. 

My most notable milestone was when I had to close two of my bakeries. A combination of factors, the most relevant being a business partnership that soured, and my inexperience with running a business. 

Oh wow. I imagine that would have been very difficult on so many levels. I think most people probably know you as the baker behind Sugar & Spice. Can you talk about how you came to start your baking business?

My business has had many iterations, but the most recent, as Sugar & Spice Kitchen came about because I find myself simply unable to stop baking. After running an event venue in downtown Cary, revamping their catering and opening an in-house bakery there, I didn’t know what was next. Being able to get my home kitchen licensed allowed me to go back full circle to eighteen years ago. Just me, doing what I love. I began selling my baked goods wholesale to a coffee shop, and then was fortunate to snag a spot at the Midtown Farmer’s Market.

Then you recently opened Cheeni, which is a commercial kitchen only for bakers. Let’s talk about this. It’s a really brilliant solution, I think, especially having owned a micro bakery without a storefront myself. What led you to this idea and drove you to start this business?

Thank you. As with most brilliant ideas, it was born out of necessity. As demand grew, I was running out of space in my home kitchen, and was finding it difficult to balance cooking for my family while baking. Being a baker yourself, you know the challenges we face. As I began looking into shared kitchen spaces that were available, I realized that none of them were geared towards our particular challenges: bakers need more storage, more surface area, more ovens and have certain temperature requirements. Not to mention, baked goods take on other odors very easily, and that is one of the biggest challenges with a shared kitchen, in my opinion.

Exactly.

Unable to find something so specific, not to mention cost-effective, led me to open Cheeni.

Tell me about your regular workday -if you have one. I imagine you must have a lot to keep up with between multiple businesses. Do you have an assistant???

Honestly, I don’t have one. It depends on the demands of that particular week, and the balance I have to achieve between being a wife and mother, giving tours of the kitchen to prospective tenants, menu planning for upcoming cooking classes, social media marketing, buying ingredients, baking, making jam, plus all the back end work.

And no, I don’t have an assistant - yet!

Is there anyone who has supported your professional endeavors in a unique way?

I simply could not do what I do without my husband. By being steadily employed in the I.T. field, he has given me the freedom to “play” in the kitchen.

I love how you say play but we all know it’s not an easy job. Like, “Oh, you make cookies for a living? That’s so magical.” But there’s so much planning, record-keeping, and sweat that go into those magical cookies.

Preeti Waas discusses how she gages her success and overcomes obstacles in her career as a baker and manager of her own bakery. Photo by Megan Crist.

And you’re actually from India. Is there anything you find interestingly similar or or in stark contrast between the two cultures that informs and inspires your work?

Yes, born and raised in India, I didn’t come here until I was 23 years old. The similarity is that we are all, world over, looking for connections to other people. Food is the thread that connects generations, and is the easiest language to understand. A roti in India is the same as a homemade tortilla here. The stark contrast, at least twenty years ago, was how disconnected people here were from the origins of what was on their plates. I was astounded that most people didn’t question how plastic wrapped chicken breasts ended up in the supermarket. I was taught to catch a chicken, behead it, remove its feathers, butcher and cook it. At the age of eight.  It has been heartening to see the conversation changing, and people becoming more interested and aware.

How do your values translate into your recipes and experiences you create with food? 

My core value is that if I won’t serve it to my family, I won’t sell it to you. Through many ups and downs, failures and successes, I have never compromised on the quality of my products. 

And I appreciate the manner in which your question is phrased - I care about creating experiences with food, not merely cooking and serving it. I feel as though I was meant to be born in an earlier time. I find myself wanting to evoke nostalgia, a sense of warm vanilla and cinnamon scented memories. When I teach a class, I want you to remember the setting in which it was taught, and the beautifully set table at which you shared your creations with other students, not merely tips and techniques that you learned.

In what ways do you measure your success? Can you tell me about one moment or event when you felt especially successful in your profession?

I feel successful when I see someone’s eyes widen at the first taste of something that I have made. Success to me is measured by the evidence of my daily life - my commute is steps from my back door, I can pick up my daughter from school everyday, I am available to my children whenever they need me, I have the freedom to be creative, and my children get to see how hard their mother works. This last part is especially important in their teenage years, as they have seen that success has not come without tenacity, without the daily drive to make it happen.

One instance that stands out to me is when I was at my lowest point, feeling like a failure because I had closed my bakery/cafe, and I received a message from one of my former employees. I had made it a point to hire women who were in a halfway house, and train them, which yielded mixed results. But this woman reached out to me to let me know that being given a chance at employment turned her life around. Ten years later, she is still thriving, and so is her family life. I can’t put a price on that. 

Oh my gosh. That is really rewarding. Do you have any advice for anyone looking to move forward with food or baking as a career?

Yes - buy supportive shoes!

Definitely good advice!

In all seriousness, it is a business that will test you physically, mentally and emotionally. Make sure you have a good support system, and that you are open to learning, for in this industry the education never stops.

What are three qualities or characteristics that you possess which helped you get where you are today?

Tenacity, fear of failure, and optimism.

In what other line of work would you excel if you weren’t doing what you’re doing now?

Teaching and sales.

Which is actually part of your current role, so that works really well. -What is your favorite thing to cook or bake?

Omelettes and cardamom buns.

What does food and drink mean to you? 

A means of instant connection with a stranger. I’ve also found that people who cook and bake generally tend to be more - more passionate about things, more loving, definitely more generous, and more interested.

What is your favorite local restaurant?

Bida Manda

What is the one item you use for your job that you could not do without? 

My kitchen scale. I’m more of an intuitive baker and cook, so I have to rely on a scale for accurate measurements, or I would have too many failures in the kitchen.

Kitchen scales are a baker’s best friend. Preeti’s favorite scale was given to her by her husband and it holds a lot of sentimental value. Photo by Megan Crist.

Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

A healthy dose of fear in most situations is good. For me it has been an impetus to try new things. If I’m not slightly fearful about a new venture, it’s not big enough or exciting enough - and the reward won’t be as great.

Preeti’s bakery, Sugar & Spice, has a regular position at the Midtown Farmers Market in Raleigh, as well as other rotating special events throughout the year. You can find her on Instagram, Facebook, and her website.

🌯 <—That’s a wrap.