At the Oct. 5 Acres of Eats event at Redwood Acres Fairgrounds, the red Krazy Baker truck had a high shine, the cartoon chef with tousled hair painted on its side whisked a little bowl over the business name and small, white letters that read, "It all started with an FFA project." In the window to the left, ringing up ice cream cookie sandwiches and cinnamon rolls before handing them off to customers stood the real thing: 15-year-old Tavis Kjer, owner and operator of a food trailer he's too young to drive.
Last year, when Kjer was a freshman at Arcata High School, he started a Future Farmers of America (FFA) project, a supervised agricultural experience in which he'd use local produce to make baked goods. His parents Kyle and Shiela Kjer helped him apply for a Cottage Food Operation permit, a food handler's license and business license, so he could work out of their home kitchen. "People would order, I'd bring it to the house and they'd pay me, and it just grew," he says. He took Thanksgiving orders and delivered 22 trays of pumpkin cinnamon rolls and 11 trays of pumpkin cobbler the night before so they could be warmed and served on the holiday. "It was like a full two, almost three days of just cooking," he says. "It honestly looked kinda like a tornado hit our kitchen but it was running pretty smoothly."
Since he needed a step stool to reach the mixing bowls and rolling pins, Tavis has been baking with his three grandmothers, Roxanne Rouse, Vicki Matthews and Sandy Vance. He'd team up with them on gingerbread houses, cakes, cupcakes and anything they could enter in a holiday contest or at a fair. His favorite menu item, the cinnamon rolls, are a recipe from Rouse, who owned the former espresso and ice cream shop Rockin' Roxie's in Eureka. Over last Christmas break, she taught him to make the yeasted rolls, the tender layers of which pull apart with a light tug and are swiped over top with a brown sugar, butter and cream cheese frosting, a little of which goes further than you'd guess.
According to his parents, cooking has also kept Tavis busy and engaged when physical issues have sidelined him. "He's broken like 14 bones," says Kyle. Some have been stress fractures, like the ones in his heels that benched him from football and had him baking and selling (and sitting as often as possible) in a pair of medical booties. They've got an appointment with a specialist coming up but no answers so far as to why this is happening to an otherwise healthy teenager with good bone density.
"This is something he can still do, even when he's broken," says Shiela. She describes herself as a "very basic cook" and at one point posted on Facebook to see if anybody would take Tavis on as a kind of young apprentice so he could learn from a more seasoned pro. Sure enough, a local chef responded and taught the then adolescent to prep in a commercial kitchen once a week.
By the time Tavis attended the most recent state FFA conference, his work with the baking business had doubled the hours of the student whose project won the award for proficiency. Shiela says he came back and told her he needed a food trailer. "And I was like, 'Yeah, whatever," she says, chuckling. But then the family sat down and looked at what it would take to turn the project into a food truck business. She'd helped her mother at Rockin' Roxie's and had a handle on the customer service side of the restaurant business, and she's an entrepreneur herself, running the crafting class business Polka Dot Farm Craft and Creations. The Kjers also owned Mad River Stables for 15 years, where their kids helped out.
"As someone who has kids," says Kyle, "you gotta find whatever their interest is, their niche, and just kinda keep it going forward." The stable business was partly an effort to support their daughter, a serious rider, so helping their son get a truck up and running didn't sound so wild. "We can always sell the trailer, so let's see where this goes," he says. "It seemed to motivate him and give him a sense of worth." He laughs, adding, "If we keep our kids busy, they'll be too tired to get into trouble."
"I'm gonna be paying off that trailer for a while," says Tavis, who put all he'd saved from the baking business up to that point into the truck. He's quick to say how grateful he is to his parents, and not just for the money and paperwork. Even though his father works full time as a UPS driver and his mother is working toward becoming a teacher for kids with special needs, they still help him by putting cookies into the oven and selling them from the truck. And despite sacrificing the family kitchen to trays of cobblers, "At the end of it, they're always like, 'I'm just so proud of you,'" he says. "I cannot repay them enough."
"It's good. It's a lot, it's busy," admits Shiela, noting that she has to stick to her "mom role" and remind him that even though he's running a grown-up business, "You're 15 and you still have to listen." She's also excited about where the experience might lead, since Tavis is looking at a culinary camp in Austin this summer and possibly culinary school down the road. "This is technically a school project and it's worked into much more than that."
The truck's first outing was at the Apple Harvest Festival in Fortuna the first weekend of October. "We sold out of 80 cinnamon rolls in two hours," beams Tavis, who was a little nervous at first. "It's more of the jitters of, 'Oh god, what if they don't like it?'" He's been happily surprised, too, by the warm reception from fellow vendors. "Everybody has been so welcoming in the food truck community," he says. He even traded a couple rolls for a burger from another vendor.
Since his license is for events only, you won't see the Krazy Baker on the corner every week. But Tavis has plans for the upcoming Fig Twig Market Nov. 11-12. Growing demand has him thinking about bringing a friend and fellow baker on to help.
Recalling staying up until 2 a.m. with his parents, Rouse and Matthews to stuff ice cream sandwiches the night before the Apple Harvest Festival, Tavis says, "I couldn't have done any of this without my family."
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill (she/her) is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at (707) 442-1400, extension 320, or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.