Hansen: Home is where the baker is

Micheau Folse was born a baker but resisted the title most of her life.

Her parents were chefs and a sister has been in the restaurant business, which is partly why she wanted to differentiate herself.

Even at 14, after she became the youngest girl in Texas history to win the coveted cake-baking competition at the state fair, she shrugged it off. She'd rather spend her time on horses — barrel racing and pole bending at rodeos.

But youthful passions often seem to fall away. She grew up, went to college, traveled and started down a path in the retail industry.

Then, inexplicably, she became Ross Perot's press secretary when he ran for president in 1996, having been best friends with one of Perot's daughters. Perot wanted people around him he could trust.

Amid the chaos of helping run a presidential campaign, Folse sometimes would bring her homemade baked goods to campaign headquarters.

She once made the "mistake" of baking Perot her award-winning Texas cake for his birthday. It immediately became his favorite and, for the next 10 years, he asked for it every year, and she gladly obliged.

Regardless of where he was, he would meet her for the cake — sometimes on an airport tarmac, where she would deliver it to his jet.

Clearly, her baking skills were in demand.

But it was only three years ago, after a divorce and life-changing move to Laguna Beach, that Folse accepted her baking destiny. For the last few months she has been honing her product list, packaging and business skills at the Laguna Beach Farmers Market under the label "Lightning Bolt Foods," named after her golden retriever Bolt. More information can be found on her website, http://www.lightningboltfoods.com.

She has also been maneuvering through a labyrinth of regulations, permitting and other hurdles in order to sell her products in a store.

Folse is Laguna Beach's first test of a recently revised cottage baking ordinance, which gives small operators the green light to bake goods from their homes.

"I've always just baked as an escape, for fun, as a hobby, for passion, but I've never tried to turn it into a business until recently," she said.

The city has been helpful, Folse said, in getting her the basic information she needs, but unfortunately, a lot of the details fall outside of its jurisdiction. State and county rules play a large part. The information is not always user-friendly. Some of it is simply wrong.

"It's taken easily three times longer and four times as much money than I thought it would," she said. "If I hadn't decided, 'OK, this is my passion. I'm going to make this work,' I would have given up a long time ago."

The goals of the revised "cottage food operations" law, enacted in January of last year, were to loosen the reins on small businesses, cater to the burgeoning "slow food" movement and help reduce obesity by offering locally produced, healthier alternatives.

More than 30 other states have passed similar laws allowing entrepreneurs to cook from home.

"I do think it's a really cool opportunity," Folse said. "There's a lot of red tape to figure it out, but I hope I can help others remedy that. You really have to want it."

Now, having gotten through the first steps, Folse is eager to move forward. She feels like she has spent 90% of her time on paperwork and only 10% on baking.

Plus, the business issues depend on government agencies, which are only open during the day.

"I don't start baking until the evenings," she said. "And I usually bake until about 6 or 7 in the morning, then sleep for a couple hours, then start my day again.

"Since I started this I have done nothing else. I haven't taken a day off since I had the idea. I'm not complaining, but it's exhausting and time-consuming."

And her baking is extensive, relying on cherished (and secret) family recipes. Among other things, she makes a variety of cookies, bars, muffins, cakes, biscotti and gluten-free options, which usually sell out by 9 a.m. at the farmers market.

"The spirit behind it is just nostalgic baking. It's everything I grew up baking and eating."

Folse looks forward to settling into a more reasonable routine, hiring some assistants, building momentum. She wants to grow organically so she doesn't get ahead of herself.

As with her baking, she has to be patient and precise.

"I need to try and keep myself focused," she said. "I have a dream what I'd like to have. In a perfect world, I'd love to have a café. But I'm still having so much fun and it's still so exciting that I don't worry about that right now."

She's happy and content with the joy of baking, making it at home, just like her family used to do.

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at davidhansen@yahoo.com.

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