By Peggy Bair
Kansas Baker Making Life a Little Sweeter and Lot More Fun
By all outward appearances, Misty Dunning is just a regular citizen of Basehor, KS. She lives in a nice house at the end of a cul de sac with her husband and daughters.
It’s all perfectly normal.
She grew up in a small town in western Kansas with only one stoplight. Her bio reads that she has an accounting degree from Fort Hays State – plus an MBA.
Looks are deceiving, though. By day, while she quietly does the books, she’s attentive to her job.
But, by night, the gloves go on and so does the oven.
Stuff bubbles on the stove.
The blades of a cutter glisten in a corner of the counter.
Uncannily delicious smells emanate from the spotless kitchen where bare, naked shapes of cookie dough lie helplessly on baking sheets. They will soon be ruthlessly drenched in icing – some bound together – others left to dry alone, decorated with colors or piping.
All for personal delight and pleasure of the decorator and her customers.
With a curl in her smile and a twist in her wrist, Misty Dunning turns from filling out lines of numbers on a ledger to outlining frosting on soft cookies, twisting waxed wrappings around plump caramel squares – all on their way to open mouths where they will be unapologetically devoured.
After years of practice and prep, 2020 became the year that all her efforts came together to form: Sugar Vice.
One look and you’re curious. One bite and – you’re hooked.
It all began very innocently. (No *one* person is to blame for this outrageously delicious outcome but many of the players will be named):
“For most of my adult life, I have enjoyed baking and playing with sugar. I have made all of my children’s birthday cakes and treats each year. For several years, friends and family members have told me I should open a bakery. Even other parents attending my children’s birthday parties would ask where I bought the cake, and sometimes would even ask if I could bake a cake for their child’s birthday,” Misty said.
Misty said she would daydream about opening a bakery someday with her oldest daughter and call it “Cutie Cakes” but that never happened. However, over the past few years, more and more family members requested cakes.
Kitchen skills appear to run in the family for Misty. Her mother and step-father owned a restaurant for many years.
“My mom was not only notorious for her savory items, but also her homemade cream pies. She had pies listed on their menu by the slice, but it wasn’t long before customers were requesting whole pies to be purchased,” Misty said.
“As a child, I spent a great deal of time with my grandma in her kitchen. She was a phenomenal cook and baker. She made everything from scratch and was patient while I ‘helped’ her. I think of her a lot while I’m baking. I think she would be proud of my efforts,” she added.
As an adult, though, baking took on a new role in Misty’s life: stress reliever.
“I did notice while I was in my last year or so of college that when I was stressed about an exam, rather than study, I found myself in the kitchen baking,” Misty said. “As counterintuitive as that sounds, it was therapeutic and helped me relieve stress.”
Of course, it’s a great way to build friendships.
“One of my best friends from high school stopped by frequently just to snack on whatever I was pulling out of the oven for the day,” Misty said. “My back door, at the time, opened straight into my kitchen. It got to where she just walked in the back door without knocking to find me in the kitchen baking. It became a joke between us, and she began to refer to me as Betty Crocker.”
Back in the early Wilton cake decorating days, Misty also practiced her skills by making cakes for her daughters and for friends.
“When my oldest daughter’s first birthday rolled around, I knew I had to make her birthday cake,” Misty said. “I bought a Winnie The Pooh character pan and piped the notorious stars per the image that came with it. My mom had made those character type cakes for me and my siblings growing up.
For me, as a mother, each birthday brought on a new self-imposed expectation for increased skillset. The year following my oldest daughter’s birthday, one of my young nieces asked me to make the same Winnie The Pooh cake for her birthday. Thus began the family and friend requests for baked items.”
Not only is Misty known for her beautifully decorated cookies but also her caramels.
“I have been making sea salt caramels for almost 12 years. It began as a request from my husband while I was on maternity leave with my second daughter. We enjoyed them so much that we made some to take and share with our families for Christmas that year. By this time, our extended families had grown so much that we decided to give bags of sea salt caramels instead of purchasing gifts for everyone. To this day, everyone looks forward to their annual individual bags of sea salt caramels. I have adult nieces and nephews that text before Christmas to check to see if I am still making and sending their caramels to them. It has become a family tradition,” she said.
Making caramels is a tricky endeavor. The cooking has to be exacting or the batch fails.
“I’ve learned, for instance, that my sea salt caramels are a finicky, small batch process. Every time I am pinched for time and try to take a short cut by making two batches at a time, they end up too hard or too soft. They require patience, which isn’t always my best virtue,” Misty said.
Experimenting with different ideas in the kitchen ended up leading Misty to decorating sugar cookies.
“I have a large variety of cake and sugar cookie flavors, which all evolved from experimenting. I get bored easily and like to try new things,” she said.
Misty said that when she began her venture, she didn’t start out thinking of cookies.
“When I began this journey, I had intended to focus on cakes. Cakes have been my comfort zone for years. I really only began decorating sugar cookies out of curiosity to see if I could accomplish it. It’s tougher than it looks!” Misty said. “I have only been decorating sugar cookies for about six months and my skillset has grown exponentially with each new attempt.”
When the pandemic came along in 2020, Misty had just finished setting up her business in early March. Just as all the proper paperwork was filed, the business had to be put on pause.
“At first, it felt a little defeating and discouraging, but then I decided it was a blessing. The stay at home order provided the downtime I needed to get organized and set up a website. I gradually added products to my FaceBook page and website almost daily. It took a great deal of time and time was what I had on my hands with no school or extra-curricular activities for my children. I had folks reach out to me to inquire about orders, but I declined them in an effort to remain socially responsible,” Misty said.
During that down time, though, she was able to finalize some important branding and designs – creating the logo and the name for the business.
“I hired a graphic designer off of Etsy to create my logo. I was able to use my family and friends as a focus group to help choose a design out of the options the graphic designer provided. I finally landed on Sugar Vice because for years people have told me how addictive and delicious my cakes, sugar cookies and sea salt caramels are. I enjoy fun and unique things. I wanted a name that was fun and a little edgy. Sugar Vice was born.”
Misty’s urge to experiment has resulted in some fun products that have been a hit with customers.
“I like to try new things a lot just to see if I can do it. That’s exactly how I ended up even decorating sugar cookies. Just this past week I freehanded a template for a 3D toaster and pop-tart combo cookie. I, then, hand cut all of the pieces and crossed my fingers that everything would fit together the way I envisioned it. Lucky for me, it did! I sold all of the toaster sets at market, too,” Misty said.
Which, to backtrack a bit to having to put her business on hold during the shutdown, Misty said she only started to be comfortable starting back up in June. As she searched for vendor booths at the local farmers markets, an opening came up and her application for the Leavenworth Farmers Market was approved.
“I rushed to make enough cookies and caramels to take to the market. It takes 8 to 12 hours minimum (this takes even longer for more detailed or layered/multi-colored designs) for royal icing to dry on sugar cookies, so I was working as fast as I humanly possible late into the two nights before. It was at the first market that I discovered this was a weekly event and not a monthly event as I had initially thought. I signed up as a season vendor and here we are today,” Misty said.
Although Misty has had to face a few kitchen failures in her experimentation to create new products, she had a number of successes as well.
Recently, she created a confetti-pinata style cookies that may be one of the more complex creations she’s made in the form of a cookie. Three layers with a hollow in the middle that, when broken apart, candies spill out.
Each of the frosting colors in the rainbow cookie is individually dyed, not airbrushed. The creation worked perfectly at the first launch – as she broke the cookie in half and the fun-fetti pieces tumbled out onto the cookie sheet.
Watch the video debut of the Rainbow piñata cookie.
“I personally prefer to eat un-iced cookies (I actually call these “naked” on my menu). A lot of people enjoy iced cookies, though. Before I began decorating cookies, I remember telling my husband how crazy people were for spending so much time decorating and icing cookies,” Misty said.
“I laugh now because I am apparently one of those crazy people. I have only been decorating sugar cookies for about six months and my skillset has grown exponentially with each new attempt. The process has become sort of addictive. I enjoy the variety of shapes, colors, themes, sets, and products you can offer. If someone would have told me a year ago that I would be decorating sugar cookies in almost all of my spare time, I would have laughed them away in disbelief,” Misty said.
Thankfully, Misty was wrong about the right things: she is decorating cookies and is great at doing so. The six months of applying herself to that skill only took a couple of decades of practice to become professional.
More to come from this creative MBA-by-day-baker-by-night. Fondants are on the drawing board and she just got approval in August from the Department of Agriculture for buttercreams. If a gal’s got to have a vice, it might as well be a sweet one like Sugar Vice.
Peggy Bair is a Midwest journalist and photographer covering human interest stories throughout Middle America.
I am an alum of the English Department of the University of Missouri – Kansas City. I am a member of the American Society of Media Photographers, the National Press Photographers Association and Professional Photographers of America. I have worked on the staff of six different newspapers throughout my career and specialize in people stories.Your support of local journalism helps keep bringing these stories to uplift your spirits.
Although my business has been heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, I have not accepted any payment, grants, government assistance or unemployment for my journalism during this pandemic. If you would like to donate to support honest storytelling, you can contribute to my PayPal by posting any amount to my PayPal donation link.