After traveling across four continents to 11 countries in 11 months, Jennifer Denman is certain of one truth: Food is the throughline that connects people of different cultures and backgrounds. On a mission trip in 2009, Denman traveled from Switzerland to South Africa to the Dominican Republic. Her journey taught her the importance of community — a life lesson she’s used as a guiding principle for her bakery here in the Springs.
“I have sat on the dirt in Africa, the tile floor in Asia, and dined with a lot of cultures. It is about the food everywhere. Period,” Denman said. “That is what brings you together, and food shows us humanity. We are all just the same. You can sit around a table and eat and share and tell stories and laugh and cry even if you don’t speak the same language. … If I had to sum up my heart and soul, it would be through the question of how food and culture come together.”
After working toward a degree in psychology at Texas A&M, Denman switched gears and moved to New York in 2004 to attend The Culinary Institute of America.
After baking for a Dallas hotel and a Colorado dude ranch, Denman moved to the Springs, but it wasn’t until January 2018 that she opened Snowberry Bakery.
“It wasn’t my lifelong dream to start my own business,” she said. “I am not that story. It was a series of decisions. … Three-plus years later, here I am.”
Through Snowberry, Denman primarily works with local coffee joints. But the business is expanding to offer its popular pop tarts and bake-at-home cinnamon rolls in-store on the first Saturday of every month, or online at snowberrybakehouse.com.
Denman spoke with the Business Journal about how her international experiences impact her business in the Springs.
Tell us about your mission trip.
It was amazing. … We worked with organizations and long-term missionaries that were already doing things in that particular country. We didn’t go over to start anything new … more to just be helpful. Everything from teaching English in Cambodia to bar ministry in Thailand and children’s villages in South Africa. … It was wild and crazy and I really grew a lot as a person and found the value of living in community.
It was actually modeled after the TV show The Amazing Race … it’s kind of the Christian version. There were some race elements in there. We were woken up early one morning and told, ‘You’ve got to find the bus station and get from here to there’ in the Dominican Republic. … That wasn’t the point of the trip, but there were some elements of that in there.
What were the biggest takeaways from your year overseas?
Well No. 1, the value of community — there were 52 of us that traveled and lived and did life together for 11 months in really tight quarters. Realizing that you need people around you even when it is messy and life is hard. … I came out of that trip, even as an introvert, knowing that it is so important to have people around you who know you, love you, and support you.
No. 2, not only seeing the level of poverty that we saw, but living in that level of poverty for weeks at a time, and still seeing the dignity and humanity in people all over the world. [I remember] looking in their eyes and seeing that they still have hopes and dreams for their kids and dreams for their own lives. There is still dignity sitting on a dirt floor in a hut in Africa. That changed my world view forever.
Talk about starting your bakery.
Two months after I got back from the World Race [mission trip], I moved back to Colorado Springs. … I actually ended up taking some time off from baking because before the World Race, it was my whole life. The hospitality industry asks a lot of you … your weekends, your holidays, your vacations — and I was a little bit burned out. When I got to go on the World Race and travel and get a break from that and not have to work every Easter and Thanksgiving, it was refreshing. … [For a few years after that], I worked for a nonprofit that did child sponsorship in Africa, I worked as a nanny and did a couple of other things. It was funny how my heart kept getting pulled back into the kitchen. I baked and helped open [Samaritan Coffee at] 225. … I always had this element of baking in my life regardless of whether or not I was doing it as my job. A friend of mine passed me the job posting for a pastry chef at Glen Eyrie [Castle &] Conference Center. I applied and ended up getting the job and that was my first step back into baking professionally and it was like going home. The minute I stepped in the kitchen, I knew it was where I belonged. It felt right; I knew how to move and function in the kitchen. I was the pastry chef at Glen Eyrie for three years. When I left, I had a decision to make. I could got get another job as a pastry chef elsewhere, or I could start something and see how it went.
It is like a drug — being in the kitchen and baking for people is like a high and I’m drawn to it. It also beats you down. That is the downside. I took two months to decide after Glen Eyrie and during that time, my mind kept going back to this idea [of starting a bakery]. I started putting stuff on paper and asking friends. I knew I had the professional background. I went to one of the best culinary schools in the country and had experience working in hotels and resorts. I could produce quality baked goods on a large scale. I wondered if that was valuable to these coffee shop owners and managers. … I just kept going down that road and eventually I stopped looking back.
You’ve talked about the importance of community. What are the other guiding principles in your business?
The principle of value comes to mind. I read a book as I was getting Snowberry off the ground. It was about starting a business and one of the things that really stuck out to me was, ‘Are you bringing value to someone’s life with what you are offering?’ You could have an idea for a business and you might be excited about it, but if no one is willing to pay their hard-earned money for it, then it’s not a business. I started thinking about if what I was offering was valuable enough for someone to spend their money that they worked really hard to earn. … I think about this all the time, actually. If I’m making new products or changing current products, I want to make sure it is still worth people’s money. It is the biggest letdown when you go to a restaurant, for example, and you’re getting what you think is going to be a great meal, but then you’re left disappointed and of course you still have to pay. … I always make sure everything that I offer is worth the price you pay. Not only in the size or the quality, but also in the experience — like having fun.
Talk about some difficulties you’ve had as a business owner.
The first year is just survival. … You’re learning something new every week. All of the coffee shop owners and managers have been so gracious in walking through this journey with me. … I decided a long time ago that I was willing to take a cut or to eat money if I had to, if I messed up. I always wanted to be really up front and honest. … I worked a part-time job for the first year and a half of Snowberry. A friend of mine owns a restaurant down in Pueblo, so I would bake for his restaurant two days a week. I would run down there and bake and run back and bake at night and get up early the next morning and bake for Snowberry. It was the only way I could pay my personal bills, while also making sure Snowberry could get on its feet.
Year two was about growth. … Year three was COVID. If year one had been COVID, there would have been no way to stay afloat. I was super lucky to have two years under my belt before COVID hit. I also had those relationships. Going back to the importance of community, we all realized we are in this together — what can we do for each other? … My customers are ultimately the owners and managers of my business. I want to provide whatever I can. Despite COVID, the year was really fun — the innovation, creativity, and generosity that I saw was so encouraging and inspiring.