In April, I was attended Northwestern's very first Sugar and Spice Summit, a (hopefully!) annual event that brought together leaders and innovators in the food industry. With workshops led by Food Network Star Aarti Sequeira and samples from food vendors, attendees found themselves in a passionate community of entrepreneurs. Hungry Monkey Baking Company was no exception.

I was honored to meet Cindy Kienzle, the owner of Hungry Monkey Baking Company. Initially, I was drawn to her stand because she was offering little bites her homemade banana bread. However, I saw Kienzle with her assistant—her adorable nine year-old daughter Lily—and I knew there was something more to this company.

A Day in the Life

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Allison Mark

Kienzle sits across from me, with Lily beside her, in the Northwestern Center for Audiology, Speech, Language, and Learning building for her daughter's therapy. It's 4 p.m. on a Monday, and my day is just beginning. For Kienzle, it's her last task for the day. 

"I'm my own boss," Kienzle said. "I make my own schedule so that I have some flexibility."

With her former career in marketing, Kienzle now oversees the operations of her business and ensures that her products are up to her high standards. A typical day consists of taking orders for the week, working with her distributor and co-packer to fulfill orders, stopping by the kitchen to grab some goods to donate and presenting her business to students. These tasks are all completed by Kienzle before 2 p.m..

But it wasn't always like this for the mom and business owner.

The Beginning

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Allison Mark

There's something magical and beautiful about banana bread. It tastes like home and brings up a feeling of comfortable nostalgia. But Kienzle's bread is something special. For 30 years, she's baked her famous chocolate chip banana bread (which is now her #1 selling product, and for good reason) for family, friends and coworkers. Eventually, they all but begged her to sell it.

She didn't.

With a secure career, she knew that leaving her stable job to pursue her passion would be difficult. She would be divulging in the "unknown." She continued to bake her bread for fun throughout the years, until she found herself without a job and pregnant at 48 years old.

Kienzle knew she couldn't go back to the career that did little to fulfill her. She also wanted to create something that her child could inherit when she retired. When her friend asked her to whip up some of her banana bread for a charity event, Kienzle got to baking and branding her start-up: the Hungry Monkey Baking Company. 

Mounting Success

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Allison Mark

Kids and families love her homemade goods. Though a bit pricier, customer loyalty kept customers coming back, because her product is tastier and more wholesome than others. Kids love it because of its superior quality, and parents love it because it does not contain preservatives.

Eventually, this hobby of Kienzle's transformed into a career. Demand soared as she was accepted to sell at the Northfield Farmers' Market, where she sold out every week. With greater distribution, she caught the attention of ABC Chicago's The Hungry Hound, a syndication to find the best local eateries and businesses.

Continuing on the path of success, Kienzle launched a website to sell her bread.

"The Susan Lucci of Food"

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Allison Mark

Like any new business, Kienzle faced setbacks she never could've anticipated.

When Kienzle originally turned her baking into a business, she was a one-woman show. Her kitchen at home turned into a full-out production site, which proved unsustainable and crowded. The company was growing too fast, and she needed a strategic partner to help with logistics behind online sales, scaling and, Kienzle's main concern, social media branding.

Today, Kienzle describes herself as the "Susan Lucci of food" because she's so close to accomplishing her goals, yet falling short.

The popular business-oriented show Shark Tank, among an array of syndications, expressed interest multiple times but never followed through. She's even been approached to sell in Starbucks but couldn't due to prior engagements. Kienzle also had to stop selling online due to shipping costs.

A Chicago Treasure

After dealing triumphs and setbacks, Kienzle decided to keep her business local. With products available across 18 locations in the Chicago area, event organizer Lauren Goldstein discovered the company. Keeping her business local, Kienzle is able to monitor the quality of good that her co-packer now bakes in their commercial kitchen. 

Nowadays, Kienzle is more in-tune with the markets and her customers. She developed a clear plan for the future: expanding her selection for snack-friendly banana bites and ice cream sandwiches, finding East and West Coast co-packers, targeting farmer's markets (the origin of her success).

It's awe-inspiring to listen to Kienzle's story, along with her advice. She leaves me with one final piece that she hopes we all will take:

"It's never too late to realize your dreams," Kienzle said, referencing her somewhat late start into the game. "But, if you have the opportunity, take it."