CINCINNATi -- James Avant IV combined his once debilitating obsessive compulsive disorder with his love of sweets.
The result is multiple businesses he hopes might remove the stigma surrounding mental health issues in the Greater Cincinnati area.
He was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, or OCD, during his sophomore year at the University of Cincinnati where he was majoring in neurobiology.
As a way to earn some extra money during his junior year at UC, Avant decided to use baking skills his grandmother taught him and start a cupcake business out of his small apartment kitchen near campus.
While his OCD consumed his thoughts and hindered his grades, the baking had a calming effected. The compulsion for applied perfection seemed to work well with the art and craft of making sophisticated cupcakes everyone would relish. The intensive focus on baking and decorating cupcakes relaxed his OCD symptoms and improved his grades.
At first, only family and friends would purchase his cupcakes -- and rave about them to others.
Demand for his cupcakes started to grow. Instead of running away from the shame he felt when first diagnosed with OCD, he embraced the disorder by naming his business “OCD Cakes,” or in other words, Obsessive Cake Disorder. Avant plans to give 5 percent of his earnings to local mental health charities.
“I really wanted to do something that got people talking, something that sparked conversation,” the 23-year-old Avant said. “I hope this takes away some of the stigma around mental health and encourages people to get help.”
Obsessive compulsive disorder produces uncontrollable negative thoughts that compel the person to perform certain behaviors in order to ease his or her anxiety.
For instance, Avant believed he had to skip certain stairs or something horrible would happen. If he happened to step on the wrong stair, he would have to perform a ritual 10 times to prevent tragedy. That’s just one of many examples of how his OCD would manifest.
Avant isn’t alone, about 1 percent of the United States population suffers with this disorder and those are conservative estimates, according to the National Institute of Mental Illness.
Avant worked in catering during his early years at UC, giving him insight on the management of a food business.
He had a desire to expand his kitchen apartment baking business. A Craigslist ad helped him secure his first major contract to cater a wedding about 40 minutes south of Cincinnati. He didn’t have the equipment or help to pull off the baking and setup for a wedding. That’s when he called his parents and brother for help.
“I don’t know what I was thinking,” Avant said.
Avant made a wedding cake out of cupcakes that resembled live pink and white roses.
“It was crazy, but we pulled it off, and they loved it. The bride’s mother raved about the cake,” he said.
The business really started to grow when he entered the ArtWorks Big Pitch program, sponsored by U.S. Bank.
ArtWorks officials select eight finalists and pair them with a mentor for a 10-week training program to help them launch a business. At the end of the program the finalists make a business pitch to a panel of judges for a $15,000 grant to get them started. Avant won the grant in October.
Avant used the money to expand his business that is located at the Findlay Kitchen, a shared community kitchen across the street from Findlay Market on Elm Street in Downtown Cincinnati. OCD Cakes shares the space with about 30 other food related businesses.
“The shared kitchen gave me access to industrial equipment I could never afford otherwise,” he said.
Avant is already launching another business called Bakeologie, a sophisticated cooking class for half the cost of most cooking classes in the area.
At one time, Avant was a teacher chef at Sur La Table in Cincinnati, where he discovered many people didn’t return frequently to cooking classes because it was expensive.
Avant plans to create an affordable, yet posh, cooking class at affordable rates. The prices haven’t been set but will fluctuate with the price of ingredients.
“I really enjoy teaching,” he said. “I also really enjoy bringing people together with food, generating conversations and building community.”
Avant doesn’t know about a big future for OCD Cakes. But he plans to hire one full-time employee and one part-time employee to help with the demand.
“It’s just too much for me to handle alone,” he said.
The success of OCD Cakes has kept his mind occupied with business operations, distracting him from his old rituals related to his obsessive compulsive disorder. Avant hasn’t needed medication for the disorder for at least a few years.
“I’m just too busy. I don’t have the time or energy to even think about my OCD anymore,” he said with chuckle.