meet sarah: making milwaukee sweeter—and nuttier

Sarah’s favorite way to toast nuts: “I prefer the oven, but still watch it: They’re good, almost there, almost there—burned.”

Sarah’s favorite way to toast nuts: “I prefer the oven, but still watch it: They’re good, almost there, almost there—burned.”

My boyfriend gently suggested on Sunday that maybe—even just for a day—I take a Facebook break. (One more poorly fact-checked meme and I’m going over the edge, people!)

But for real. There is so much anger, divisiveness and aggressive misinformation batting back and forth across the intellectual wasteland that is Facebook—from all sides of any issue, mind you. If we’re playing pickle in the middle, I am feeling sort of like the pickle, and sort of overwhelmed, and more than sort of mad. I need a break.

So this week, can we all agree on something?

Gun laws? Women’s rights? Nah. We’re talking self care and treatin’ yo-self in the most deliciously scented way imaginable: SPICED NUTS.

Meet Sarah Marx Feldner of Treat Bake Shop, and then take a break from that smartphone bossing you around and visit her Milwaukee shop—or any of these (very astute) retailers across the country.

Sarah’s nuts get around, and for that, we are lucky.

People with Panache: What was your career path before you opened Treat?

Sarah Marx Feldner: I went to grad school for library science, and from there I went to work for a food magazine. I know it doesn’t seem like an obvious fit, but it goes well with the food research angle. Right before grad school, I taught English for a year in Japan. When I was at my magazine job, I decided to write a Japanese cookbook, so I quit my job, sold my house, and traveled around Japan collecting recipes. Because I had taught there, I had my home base: Iwaki, in Fukushima.

I came back, lived briefly on my sister’s couch in San Francisco, and returned to Milwaukee, eventually landing at Reader’s Digest Association for a couple years.

My daughter was born in May 2011, and I started Treat that November while I was at Reader’s Digest. I would work, go home, put her to bed, go make nuts, and make a couple sales calls over lunch. When I left in July 2012, I was in about eight stores and thought, “If I’m going to do this, I need a little more focused time.”

PWP: Was that your main motivation to turn Treat into a full-time business?

Treat Map (check out the cool floor, a vestige of the previous art studio!)

“The cookbook was so hard, and I wanted to quit a lot of times,” Sarah says, “but I had a contract and deadline and had to do it. I don’t have that contract with my business—it’s all self-motivated—but knowing that feeling I got after the book was done helps me.” That motivation has helped her business spread coast to coast!

SMF: I always wanted to own my own business, and I have the classic story: I’d been making these nuts for years, and people kept telling me I should make it a business. It worked out really well that they require no refrigeration, and I found a kitchen in a church basement blocks from my house. I stayed there until we moved to the Third Ward in October.

PWP: Your location is in such a cool neighborhood and in a building surrounded by artists, nonprofits and other positive ventures. I bet they love smelling your spiced pecans, almonds and more. Do people actually come here to visit your commercial kitchen space?

SMF: We started #CookieFriday, which is super fun because we love baking. Our kitchen switches gears and fires up the ovens to bake cookies for $2 each. We have steel doors, but people just open them up, like “What are you doing?”

We started #CookieFriday to have set retail hours (10 a.m. till they’re sold out), but people are welcome to come in anytime.

For 4 years, I was cooking in a kitchen, my computer was at my house, and I’d get super lonely. Until then, I was doing every single thing by myself. We moved here in October, and someone must have been watching over me, because I found three awesome employees, so there are four of us and a delivery driver. Who is my dad.

PWP: That is so special. How many types of nuts do you make now?

SMF: We have four kinds, and hopefully another out by the end of the year. I started with spiced pecans—a friend’s recipe. She was a mutual friend of both mine and my husband’s while we were dating. She said, “He really likes these spiced pecans, you should make them for him.” We have grown to candied pecans, then spiced almonds and candied walnuts.

PWP: Sounds like the nuts worked out! It seems like you use really high-quality ingredients, too.

Sarah’s daughter is five now, and she loves doing the dishes at Sarah’s new commercial kitchen space. Sarah even got her her own a little Treat tee. Maybe she'll be there on a Cookie Friday someday! We can only hope.

Sarah’s daughter is five now, and she loves doing the dishes at Sarah’s new commercial kitchen space. Sarah even got her her own little Treat tee. Maybe she’ll be there on a Cookie Friday someday! We can only hope.

SMF: Nuts are the core of it. Our sugar is all non-GMO, and our spices are really high quality. I grew up apprenticing with Mr. and Mrs. Penzey in their shop in Wauwatosa, and we use all Spice House spices. We keep them super simple. We don’t really advertise it because now we’ve got flour floating around from the cookies, but our nut ingredients are gluten free, dairy free and egg free.

PWP: Who inspires you?

SMF: People that inspire me are get-it-done people, because there are so many excuses you can make; people that don’t complain and get it done. There are so many distractions.

PWP: What do you see next for Treat? What are your goals?

SMF: We’re really trying to fill up our map. We want to work with more cheese stores, especially grocers; create a couple more products; and develop #CookieFridays. We’ve really gotten a good response.

PWP: What have been some of your challenges?

SMF: Cost and perception. Because you’re starting with such an expensive raw ingredient, it’s so important to me that we make the absolute best product we can. I want people to say, “That was totally worth it.”

After we cook them, we hand separate all of the nuts and get rid of all the seconds.

PWP: I noticed your jars are just gorgeous—no crumbs, just perfect pecans, walnuts and almonds. What do you do with the little leftovers? Put ‘em in ice cream sundaes? (Editor’s Note: I very much resisted the urge to offer to help “dispose of” the seconds.)

SMF: Yeah, and we can use some of that in cookies.

TREAT yo self.

TREAT yo-self.

PWP: Oh my gosh, yes. Yum. After the adventure of writing a cookbook about Japan, are you planning to stay in Milwaukee?

SMF: I definitely see extensions of Treat growing, from nuts to cookies, and we’ll see where that goes. There are a lot of ideas, and we’re a super small team. Patience is my biggest lesson from all of this. You have to be focused. If you have 10 great ideas, you can’t do them all at once.

PWP: Any advice for budding entrepreneurs?

SMF: If it’s what you want to do, you should totally do it. It’s going to be really hard—so it helps if you like it, because I think that’s the only way you’re going to stick with it. It’s not as sexy as all the quick articles and famous chefs make it seem. It’s fun, and there are so many wonderful things about it, but it’s a lot of work.

PWP: What fulfills you most?

SMF: I want to show my daughter that she could do it. When you grow up, you hear you can follow your dreams. If I’m not following my dreams, it feels hypocritical telling her to follow hers. I feel very fortunate that I know what I want to do right now, because that can also be a struggle. We’ll always change—but for now, it’s Treat!

Visit Sarah and the Treat crew in Suite #212 inside Milwaukee’s Marshall Building, 207 E. Buffalo St. 

Any flavor combos they should try next? Comment away!

[Photos by Alysse.]

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