Entrepreneurship Is Icing on the Cake for This Retiree
Just because frosting isn’t “good for you,” doesn’t mean it should be full of chemicals and hydrogenated oils. Or at least that was Gerhard Keuck’s thinking.
Upon retiring from his 48-year career as a confectioner and professional chef, Keuck (pictured) started experimenting with new recipes. He developed an all-natural, vegan cake icing that tastes and performs like other frostings on the market. A business was born. He teamed up with his son, Andre, in 2010 and launched Black Forest Edibles.
The company began by distributing small-batch product via the internet and a grocery delivery service, Relay Foods, to consumers in Virginia and the Washington, D.C., area. It’s now scaling up production and refining its logistical capabilities to tap a larger market.
Like many retirees who become entrepreneurs, Gerhard brings a career’s worth of experience to his small business. Decades of cooking at hotels and restaurants across Europe and North America taught him the ins and outs of recipe creation and the importance of quality. A decade as executive chef at Fairfield University in Connecticut honed his skills in bulk ordering, dealing with suppliers, inventory management, and quality control. It also exposed him to students’ food preferences, which reflected consumer trends, he says.
A supplier at the university introduced Gerhard to vegan confectioner’s sugar, which inspired the frosting line. Almost all powdered sugar is whitened by filtration through bone char. Vegan sugar is difficult to find and rarely used in mass-market products. But beyond appealing strictly to vegans, Gerhard's vision was to make products guided by the vegan emphasis on natural, healthy foods.
"The other products we've seen have things like hydrogenated oils, high fructose corn syrup, or other chemicals that I think are best left out of food," says Gerhard.
Accordingly, Black Forest Edibles frostings are made with natural flavorings to produce fresh, authentic tastes.
“We wanted to put out a strawberry frosting that was actually made with strawberries rather than Red [Dye] No. 3,” Gerhard says, “and we wanted to have shortening in there that was actually shortening, not one step short of plastic.” To accomplish this, Black Forest Edibles uses palm shortening in its frostings.
Gerhard believes other mid- or late-career professionals can translate their experience into a new venture by taking full advantage of their knowledge and relationships. “Tap into your network,” he advises, including reaching out to prominent people in your field who you may not know personally but with whom you have a professional connection.
“Get on the phone and call the head of Sysco,” he says. “Call him and say, ‘I used to be the executive chef at such and such place, and I bought from you. ... What advice can you give me?’ What is the worst that could happen? He could hang up on you. But he’s not going to do that because he will eventually carry your product and make millions off it.”
Confidence is clearly something else Gerhard gained through decades of hard work and leadership. He encourages others to muster the chutzpah to pursue their goals. “If it’s your dream, then go for it.”
Katherine Gustafson is a freelance writer based in Seattle, Washington, who loves writing about small business and entrepreneurship. Her first book, Change Comes to Dinner, explores the way entrepreneurs and other visionaries—from greenhouse innovators to no-till wheat farmers—are changing the business of food.