It Takes Two, Baby: How Two Powerhouse Austin Couples Do Business
Sideserf Cake Studio and Thai Fresh show the upside of running businesses together
BY JOLEEN JERNIGAN
“The best thing to hold onto in life is each other.”
Audrey Hepburn kept her words general; they could apply to business or personal relationships, and for the couples at the helm of Sideserf Cake Studio and Thai Fresh they work for both.
Working with a spouse comes with a unique set of rewards and challenges. Natalie and Dave Sideserf, founders of Sideserf Cake Studio, and Jam Sanitchat and Bruce Barnes, founders of Thai Fresh, have been nourishing and enchanting Austin with their businesses for several years.
Sideserf Cake Studio
Sideserf Cake Studio’s Natalie and Dave make the most realistic cakes you’ve ever seen. Whether sculpting a bust of Willie Nelson, a cute dog in repose, or one of their convincing “still life” cakes depicting food, they are pros at taking it to the next level. The still life cakes are so incredibly realistic that they had to start adding the word “CAKE” next to the photos on social media so people knew they were cakes.
They even caught the eye of the Food Network and starred in their own show, Texas Cake House, for two seasons. In this fun show, Natalie and Dave showed their process for creating cake masterpieces for their customers. The Sideserfs loved being able to lift the veil for their audience with Texas Cake House, not only because they could share the way their intricate cakes come together but also because Austin seemed to be its own character in the show.
During the Texas Cake House run, the Sideserfs made showstopping cakes for Mexic-Arte Museum, Alamo Drafthouse’s Fantastic Fest, Austin Pets Alive, the Museum of the Weird, Ray Benson’s birthday party benefiting HAAM, and other iconic Austin people and places. They made a cow-skull cake that was “hidden in plain sight” on the wall at the Broken Spoke for the 50th anniversary of another Austin power couple, Broken Spoke co-owners James and Annetta White. Nobody realized it was cake until the big reveal.
Texas Cake House is still in syndication and has garnered an international fan base, earning fans in faraway places such as India and Brazil — fans who can now follow them on their YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter accounts.
Natalie and Dave’s working dynamic and individual roles within the shared business were evident in the show. Natalie is the architect of the cakes, the one who devises and builds these often complex structures. Dave came from a background in tech and business, but he has now become a master of coming up with inspired cake flavors. Take for example, the University of Texas signature flavor: burnt orange creamsicle. Sideserf Cake Studio began as Natalie’s business, but by the time Texas Cake House began filming, Dave had jumped in full time, leaving the corporate world behind.
About merging business and home life, Natalie explains, “It took some time to figure out, but we make things work by identifying roles when it comes to the business. I have my side of the business, which is helping customers come up with designs that fit their budget and handling the decorating side of things. Dave works on the baking and handles administrative stuff like the website and finances. Sometimes there is a little overlap, but in those cases we talk things out and compromise.”
Now that the show has stopped taping, the duo is focusing on scaling business in a few ways. They are working on growing locally in Austin, expanding their cake line to include “baby cakes,” smaller cakes that are more accessible to more people. These baby cakes look like a big cake shrunken down but are individually packaged to keep flavors fresh. Sold at the price point of a cupcake, baby cakes are sure to be a big hit.
Natalie is also in demand around the country, teaching classes on how to make these wonderful, whimsical cakes. The Sideserfs have also started posting mini-tutorials on their YouTube channel, where they walk people through making their smaller, yet breathtakingly realistic, cakes at home.
The Sideserfs’ enthusiasm and love for making cakes is contagious. Natalie and Dave’s Sideserf Cake Studio is an example of when a couple-owned business has figured out that sweet spot where their mutual respect and complementary talents only make the business stronger. As Natalie summarizes, “When we are on the same page, it reinforces a team effort both for work and marital bliss.”
Dave and Natalie's Tips For Other Couples
The best advice we could give to couples going into business together would be to make sure you share the same goals and are working toward the same achievement.
Like most things in life, there has to be balance and compromise.
When we have disagreements, we remember that we both want the same thing even if we have differing opinions of how to get there.
There will be mistakes, but neither of us is perfect, so we have to reflect, learn, and move on.
For us, organization is key. When we need things done, whether for business or domestic chores, we create tasks for each other using an app called HubSpot. This allows us to plan accordingly instead of popping up out of nowhere and stressing each other out.
Each night we also ask each other, what's the plan for tomorrow?
Thai Fresh’s Jam and Bruce run a kind of 3-in-1 business: cooking school, Thai restaurant, and cafe. Thai Fresh provides South Austin with fresh, gluten-free baked goods, Thai food, and ice cream.
In 2004, Jam had finished her Masters degree in Communications at the University of Texas, had applied to a Ph.D. program, and was on a yearlong break. Looking for something to do, she started teaching cooking classes, as she states, “just for fun, for something different from academia.” To get the word out on her classes, Jam started selling her prepared dishes at local farmers markets. Early growth was slow but steady, and Jam realized she loved the work. The prospect of jumping into a Ph.D. seemed less and less attractive.
Around the same time, Jam and Bruce met in a classic, cute-restaurant-meetup kind of way. Jam was waiting tables and Bruce was managing Hoover’s Cooking when they started dating. Once Jam decided to pursue cooking and her entrepreneurial path, she threw herself into her cooking classes and the farmers market circuit. Soon after, the two were married and had a son.
A few years in, Jam’s business was growing rapidly, and the couple began looking for a space to set up in. Jam wanted to expand on her existing cooking classes and sell prepared food and also start selling the specialty ingredients that she used in her cooking. They opened their current space in the Bouldin Creek neighborhood in August 2008.
The neighborhood embraced Thai Fresh right away, and things quickly took off. Within a month, Bruce left his job to help Jam run Thai Fresh. In 2010, the business next door closed their doors. Jam and Bruce took the opportunity to expand Thai Fresh, adding the bakery and coffee shop.
On how they separate roles and responsibilities, Jam says, “You just have to live one day at a time. I think we are a good match as far as a couple working together. We take care of different parts of the restaurant. We don’t really work together, although we are working in the same restaurant. Bruce takes care of inventory and books, and I run the (day-to-day) management part … of the restaurant.” Working in different aspects of the business allows them to each work within in their strong suits and reduces the potential for arguments.
Thai Fresh became known for their gluten-free baked goods, right as the demand for gluten-free food began to grow exponentially. The business decision was a happy coincidence of sorts: Jam herself is allergic to wheat, so she started adding gluten-free treats such as flourless chocolate cake and Rice Krispies treats to the menu — treats “that were naturally gluten-free without having to try too hard.” She then started experimenting with rice flour and other wheat substitutes that worked well. The menu grew along with the demand for gluten-free goodies. Eventually, the couple phased out non-GF goods in the coffee shop to avoid issues with cross-contamination, becoming the unofficial go-to gluten-free restaurant in Austin.
Jam credits the gluten-free movement and good timing with helping them stretch to meet the market needs. “The timing was right, it was perfect. It also forced us to learn more, to become more aware of what people can eat and not eat.” Nowadays about 99 percent of everything Thai Fresh sells is gluten-free; the baked goods are 100 percent gluten-free.
Jam and Bruce’s hard work continues to pay off. On any given day, Thai Fresh is full of people there to eat tasty Thai food and gluten-free goodies washed down with hot coffee, or to take cooking classes. Meanwhile, the founders have stayed true to their roots even while expanding. Jam still teaches Thai cooking classes, though not as many as in the past (around two a week). And that has always been a dependable source of income during the restaurant’s slow times.
Jam and Bruce believe in nourishing the community not merely by feeding them but by supporting local farms, local businesses, and donating food to local nonprofit events for groups such as Urban Roots and the Art Alliance. They also pay a fair, living wage to their employees, which in turn improves customer service. They also believe in using sustainable, better products from around the world, because they want to make it a better world while feeding the local community.
Jam and Bruce's Tips For Other Couples
Try to discuss restaurant problems at work and avoid talking about it at home whenever possible.
The key is to trust each other at work and in making decisions.
We don’t interfere with each other’s work very much. We might have comments but we avoid criticizing.
Try to be as present as possible at home.
Try to not let work take all of your time, even when work is busier than usual. It is hard sometimes to juggle it all, but it is possible.
We help each other in all aspects of work and life. We help each other make sure our son gets to school on time, pick him up, drive him to play dates/school events, etc.
Both Thai Fresh and Sideserf Cake Studios are examples of doing whatever it takes to make it. When the restaurant is slow, teach more classes. If people love watching your TV show, start a YouTube channel to keep getting content out there. If something is selling well, like the gluten-free items, double down on making them. When you see a demand for more accessible specialty cakes, come up with baby cakes, so more people can try them. Team work and solid work ethics sustain these businesses — and the couples behind them. Austin embraces them for their high quality and personal touch. With their business savvy and can-do attitude plus being tuned in to their customer base, Natalie and Dave and Jam and Bruce are great role models for new business owners.