From zoo artists to Happy Chicks

Posted at 7:00 AM, Nov 21, 2015
and last updated 2015-11-21 07:00:58-05

As part of a recurring series, WCPO contributor Anne David talks with artisans who left behind traditional careers to follow their passions into the food and beverage industry.

“Did you call about – ?”

“Already taken care of!”

This reading-your-mind exchange is just one of several I witnessed between Jessica Bechtel and Jana Douglass, owners of Happy Chicks Bakery in Northside.

The two met 14 years ago at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, where both worked as exhibition artists. There, Bechtel and Douglass created interactive, creative spaces for the zoo’s animals and guests. They bonded over their work and, well, food: Both were vegans, a diet that does not include animal products, including dairy or eggs. Bechtel and Douglass would often meet outside of work to cook together, visiting farmers’ markets for ingredients and then creating vegan baked goods to share with their zoo colleagues.

Though the goods were all vegan, they passed “the tough maintenance guy taste-test,” Douglass said with a laugh.

Then, a chance opportunity to bake cupcakes for a friend’s store event led them to believe their passion could be a full-time business.

Guests kept asking, “Where can we find you?” Bechtel recalled.

Serendipitously, in January 2012, Bechtel’s zoo position was eliminated, but she kept baking their custom-order cakes and cupcakes out of her three-bedroom home. Douglass would finish her work at the zoo, then head to Bechtel’s house to continue baking for farmers’ markets, the City Flea and other events.

“The teams at the zoo often referred to us as 'those Painter Chicks.' It felt easy to translate from being the 'Painter Chicks' to the 'Happy Chicks,' since cooking and baking is truly what makes us happy,” Bechtel said.

To Vegan or Not To Vegan

Though all their offerings were – and remain – vegan, they found that people didn’t mind either way.

“People who were vegan sought us out, and people who just enjoyed our goods found us, too, exactly what we wanted,” Bechtel said. “We didn’t want to just be known as ‘that vegan place.’ ”

After a year of baking out of Bechtel’s (increasingly cramped) house, they decided they were ready for the next step: a brick-and-mortar store. In September 2013, Douglass left her job at the zoo, and they started looking for a space.

Because their business to that point had been mostly custom-order cakes and cupcakes, they personally delivered each order.

“We got a sense of where our business was coming from and knew we needed space that was central to our business area, which extended to Dayton all the way down to Fort Mitchell, Kentucky,” Douglass said.

After a space Downtown fell through, fate intervened. Melissa Mileto Rosenthal, of former bakery Take the Cake, asked if they wanted to buy some of her baking equipment for their own shop. After visiting the Take the Cake space, nestled on Hamilton Street in Northside, Bechtel and Douglass asked if the landlord might be interested in having another bakery there. The landlord was, and in June 2014, Happy Chicks moved in.

Both Bechtel and Douglass have an art and design background, and they designed the logo and space themselves. “Podcasts and endless business books” helped with the business end of things, Douglass added.

Getting Happy

At first, the space was a hub for their custom-order business; they were able to meet couples and families in-store to discuss and taste cakes and offered a small selection of treats and teas. But the neighborhood was hungry for more.

In January, they expanded their bakery offerings to include a café menu.

Jane Douglass and Jessica Bechtel met while working at the Cincinnati Zoo. Photo by Anne David


“We knew what we didn't want the café to be: We didn’t want it to be your standard ‘vegan’ fare – no chili, no veggie burger. We wanted to provide great food that just happened to be vegan,” Douglass said.

Because custom-baked goods still made up the bulk of business, the menu had to be simple but seasonal. The café menu includes soups, salads and sandwiches such as the Green, a house-made croissant with hummus, kale, sliced cucumbers, microgreens, fermented veggies and pesto mayo. There also are empanadas, quiche and “Chick” nuggets (made with chickpeas).

“We were inspired by other cuisines as well as things we were making in our own homes,” Douglass said.

“Experimentation is our favorite part of the business in the café and bakery items,” Bechtel said. “Like, what could be interesting about rhubarb? What kind of soaks or drizzles could we do?”

This love of experimentation has led their bakery menu to add cake creations such as the Bourbon Apricot, a vanilla cake with apricot jam, bourbon vanilla icing and marigold flower garnish, and the winter seasonal favorite Snowball, coconut cake with cranberry-ginger filling.

After four years of running a bakery together, business is still thriving, and Bechtel and Douglass still love it.

“We have a wonderful community, we’re able to hire staff and we have room to grow (in this location),” Bechtel said.

“Most days I wake up like, ‘I get to cook and bake all day as my job? I’m lucky,’ ” Douglass said.

Happy Chicks Bakery

Hours: 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday
Address: 4035 Hamilton Ave., Northside
More info: Visit their website or follow them on Facebook and Instagram.