Some artists work in clay; others work in watercolor. Nicole Silva’s medium is cookies and what she can do with icing and imagination is nothing short of incredible. Her five-year journey from creative mom to bakery owner is pretty amazing, too, especially when you consider her stint on T.V. and the awesome amount of money her one-time hobby raised for a charity near and dear to her heart.
Baking has been part of Nicole’s life for as long as she can remember. Since her parents were both active military and frequently stationed in international locations, Nicole spent most of her young life with her grandmother in Eastman, Ga.
“Some of my earliest memories are of my grandmother making chicken and dumplings, caramel cake, all kinds of pies,” Nicole says. “We had a huge extended family and she cooked and baked all the time. She still does. She’ll make batches and batches of classic southern goodies, stick them in her deep-freeze, and then hand them out as they’re needed. To this day, if I have a question or can’t figure out how to do something, I call my granny. She always knows.”
Shortly before high school, Nicole’s parents returned stateside and she moved to Fayetteville, N.C. She stayed for college and a master’s program, then began teaching elementary school. She also got married and had three daughters, each a year apart. Between the births of their second and third daughters, Nicole and her husband, Kimani, decided to return to Georgia to be near family. After their third daughter was born, Nicole stayed home to care for the girls, but she was ready to return to work once all three began preschool. As it happened, her daughters’ school, CrossPointe Christian Academy, needed another teacher. Nicole had taught third grade for a total of seven years, so preschool was a new challenge and she was excited to take it on.
God and destiny, however, had slightly different plans and, as so often happens, her journey began with a tiny, innocent project. In 2011, while planning a ballet-themed party for her daughter’s third birthday, Nicole went hunting for the perfect theme cookies but couldn’t find anyone to make them. Being Nicole, she decided to figure it out herself. The experiment went so well that she started baking for all of her daughters’ parties. Before long, Nicole’s cookies became the birthday present her girls’ friends wanted too. Baking was still really just a hobby, but one she grew to love more each day.
Then loss struck. Nicole’s great aunt, who had watched her while her grandmother, a nurse, worked, was diagnosed with cancer and passed away. To work through the grief, Nicole began running. At her first race, Louisiana’s 2013 Rock n’ Roll marathon, she met a new friend whose father had recently died of cancer.
“Finding someone who knew my pain was incredible,” says Nicole. “We talked all the way to the finish line. We told stories about the people we’d lost. We cried. And afterward, I decided to find an organization close to home where I could volunteer and make a difference.”
Nicole chose the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and signed up for its Team in Training program, in which people training for half- or full marathons, hiking or cycling events, or triathlons raise funds to help find cures and provide treatment access for people with blood cancers. Cookies for a Cure was born, and suddenly, making cookies wasn’t just a gift for family and friends, but a labor of love for people struggling with a frightening disease. Thousands of cookies later, Nicole had raised more than $20,000 for the organization and been nominated for its Woman of the Year award.
The experience was incredibly meaningful, and it also suggested the possibility of baking as a business. In January of 2014, she started Crumbles as a part-time, from-home gig. She was already active on several baking forums and she put up a Facebook page, but didn’t have time for much else. After all, she was still teaching and had a husband, extended family, and three young girls. Plus running and living and actually baking the cookies people rushed to order. She also taught a couple of cookie-making classes in Fayetteville and found she loved helping other people learn to make their own creations. The last thing on her mind was appearing on a television show, but that turned out to be the next step on her journey.
“A friend tagged me in a post about a new baking contest show,” says Nicole. I just kind of laughed. I wasn’t a professional. I wasn’t trained. But I applied anyway because why not? When they called me for a phone interview, I was so surprised.”
Nicole actually believed she’d blown the interview – until the show’s producers called her for a Skype interview, which led to an on-screen test in New York a few weeks later. She was fairly certain that her once-beautiful cupcakes, which she had to carry on the plane with her and which ended up getting squished, would be her downfall, especially when she saw other hopefuls carrying fancy desserts she couldn’t even name.
“I know I was like a deer in headlights,” she says, “because one of the producers told me I looked scared. All I could think was ‘these people have these ornate, complicated confections and I’m about pecan pie and cookies.’”
Despite the dilapidated condition of her cupcake entry, the judges were amazed by the pre-flight photos of the treats and Nicole’s pictures of her cookies. When the final cast list for ABC’s first season of The Great Holiday Baking Show came out, Nicole’s name was on it.
“I literally screamed when I got the call,” she admits. “I thought I was way too country and way too home baker but I guess I wasn’t!”
The competition was stiff, nonetheless. Nicole, who’d become known for her incredible cookies, had to step way out of her comfort zone. Each show consisted of three challenges: one tried-and-true recipe of each contestant’s choosing, one technical challenge, and one “show-stopper.”
“I had no idea how to do most of the technical challenges, so I just winged that part,” Nicole says. “My whole game plan for the show was to take fancy-schmantzy desserts and southern them up, make them sound good to people in Georgia.”
Apparently the strategy worked. After a month of intense filming in England (the show is based on the Great British Baking Show), Nicole returned home a finalist. Ten days later she flew back to England for the finale. She didn’t take home the grand prize, but the response from friends and strangers was incredibly positive. When the show aired in November and December of 2015, Nicole found herself inundated with well-wishes.
“Everyone was so incredibly supportive,” she says. “The school worked with me so I could take the time off to go to New York and then to England. People organized viewing parties and live-tweeted the shows. Someone Periscoped all the episodes for folks who didn’t have access to watch live. It was really just an incredible, incredible experience.”
It was also a major eye-opener for Nicole. She’d planned to go right back to teaching and baking from home, and she did, but she hadn’t anticipated the surge in local demand – or the orders coming in from across the country, orders she couldn’t fill with a cottage food license. Maybe, she started thinking, I could actually open a bakery. Maybe I could do this full-time. She consulted her husband, her family, her friends, people whose opinions she respected. The universal feedback was a resounding “yes!”
Nicole and Kimani planned to start looking at sites this fall. She worked to swallow her nervousness and just focus on the excitement. Opening the bakery was more than a year away, after all. She had plenty of time to prepare. As with the rest of her journey, however, objects in the distance were far closer than they appeared. In February, just two weeks after she’d decided to go for it, a friend told her about a bakery space that had become available in Locust Grove.
“We were nowhere near ready to look and the area hadn’t been on our list of options,” Nicole says. “But we went anyway and it was absolutely perfect. The setup was ideal, the space came completely equipped, the location was great. Even the price was exactly right. There was just no excuse for saying no.”
So she didn’t. Her brand-new storefront will open this month with hours on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. A teacher to the core, she plans to continue offering cookie classes, both at Party Diva’s in Fayetteville and at the new shop. To Nicole, it’s a great way of helping people make their own memories, of passing her traditions along.
“It’s still kind of surreal,” she admits. “Five years ago, I just wanted the perfect cookies to make my daughter happy on her birthday. Now I’m opening a bakery? How does that happen?”
Nicole seems to be the only one amazed by the turn of events, however.
“Nicole has always been a creative spirit and a go-getter,” says her mom, Sandra Jackson. “She’s always had something new going on.”
If there’s a theme present in Nicole’s journey, it’s love. She started her cookie adventure for love of her daughter and then she fell in love with baking.
“You can’t separate what Nicole does from how much she loves her family,” says friend and customer Bethany Farr, a professional party designer.
Her love is infectious,” confirms another friend, Shonteria Martin. “She loves everyone she meets and you can feel it. It comes through in her baking, too, because she loves making cookies, but she also loves the people she’s making the cookies for, even if they’ve just met.”
She’s also willing to stretch herself creatively for her customers. She recently got a special request for a 3-D dog cake for a child’s birthday. She says the picture she received of the little boy “petting” his cake is one of her all-time favorites. But Ernessa Brawley, Nicole’s sorority sister and friend of more than 20 years, says the incredible effort Nicole puts into her treats is completely characteristic.
“Nicole has always been about bringing whatever she’s doing to life,” she explains. “She’s the teacher who dresses in costume to bring a lesson to life for her students and the person who takes a party theme to levels no one else ever imagined. And she cares so much about making people smile. She genuinely loves helping make people’s dreams a reality.”
The beautiful irony, of course, is that she does so by following her own dream.
“I really do love this new venture,” she says. “People have always said I was called to be a teacher, that I had a gift for it. So when this business started calling, I really questioned myself, but I just knew it was the right move. I’ve loved teaching, but the bakery is where my heart is now and I’m so blessed to be able to have two dream jobs in one life.”
Kimani is with her all the way.
“It’s been a wonderful kind of crazy to see Nicole go from having an idea for our daughter’s party to developing a real passion,” he says. “But I’m not surprised that she’s been successful. There’s nothing she can’t do when she puts her mind to it.”
For her part, Nicole is thrilled to see what the future has to offer.