ORIGINALLY WRITTEN CYNTHIA MARTENS
Ten years ago, Denise Goertzen wanted to bring a little extra income into her household by baking and selling peppernuts and breads for the Christmas holiday.
After two months of baking and with $2,000 in her pocket, the entrepreneurial spirit was firmly planted.
“Looking back over the records of the sales, peppernuts were the thing I sold the most of,” Goertzen said.
Today, 80 gourmet and specialty stores, from the East to West coasts, sell her Voran-Goertzen Peppernuts -a traditional Mennonite Christmas cookie.
And her retail-customer list is topping 300 satisfied customers, Goertzen said.
“Each year, it grows a little bit more. And on the Web site-www.peppernuts.ogdomains.com-we’re looking for more retail customers.”
The recipe for Goertzen’s peppernuts comes from her great-grandparents, who immigrated from the Ukraine in 1874.
“There are many, many peppernut recipes out there,” Goertzen said.
“The way that we make them, makes them softer and more palatable than others.
“And the circle is unique to us because my grandmother and mother would roll the dough out like pie dough, and we could cut them with thimbles, scrape them up and put them on the pan (to bake).”
Goertzen grew up on a dairy farm in rural McPherson. Her parents, Marlys and Ted Voran, now retired from a family dairy business, rent one of their buildings to their daughter to use as her peppernut factory.
A tank room has been converted to a bake shop and production area, and a green awning at the door reads Voran-Goertzen Peppernuts.
Although Goertzen is the sole owner of the business, her parents contribute more than just their name to the title of the company, she said.
“My mother sews my fabric bags for me and helps package. And my dad will run the machines and the ovens.”
Help at the bakery also comes from husband Kevin, who is the pastor at Goessel Mennonite Church, and their two children, Jessica, 10, and Stephan, 8.
As Goertzen prepares to celebrate her 10-year anniversary with family, she traces her business venture back to a time when she baked out of her home-a parsonage in Turpin, Okla.
Although fellow Mennonites understood what peppernuts were, she realized she had to educate others outside her church group about her treats, Goertzen said.
“I probably gave away $1,000 worth of peppernuts that first year-just dropping samples in little Ziploc bags here and there when I would go into town for doctor’s appointments or groceries,” she said.
She also marketed her product by making her own flyers and visiting gourmet and gift stores-asking the buyer or manager to stock her peppernuts during the Christmas season.
“I mean, gourmet, you think coffees and chocolates and things like that,” Goertzen said. “And we thought, let’s give it a shot with peppernuts. And the store owners were very supportive.”
During her second and third years in business, she approached specialty stores in Wichita to try and spread her market base.
“I marketed it the same way in Wichita stores-Plaid Giraffe, Garden Gate, Thinking of You,” Goertzen said.
“We now have 10 stores in the Wichita area that continue to carry it.”
Through the Kansas Marketing Association, she learned how to wholesale her product, set up her marketing and set her pricing.
But at this point, she ran into a glitch when she was required to be licensed.
“When you sell out of your home, you can’t get a license,” Goertzen said.
“So for about one year, I worked in the church kitchen, and that was acceptable because it was more of a commercial setting.”
Peppernut production was still being done by hand.
“At that point, we were using a Betty Crocker cookie press, and the dough would stick,” Goertzen said. “And so the springs in the press would break.”
A turning point came when her obstetrician asked her if she could make 30 gallons of peppernuts for him to give away in gallon jars at Christmas.
“I said, ‘I think we can do that,'” Goertzen said.
Family and friends were alerted to help her find 30 glass jars-in a one-gallon size.
A friend called Goertzen one day and said, “I hit the jackpot. I found you some jars, but you won’t ever believe where.”
The sought-after containers were pickle jars from a local bar.
“So, it’s quite a joke between the two of us, that the pastor’s wife was sending a church member into a bar to get glass jars,” Goertzen said.
Goertzen realized she had to change how she made her product, if she was going to continue filling large orders like that one.
“I think that order itself was $600,” she said. “So we said, ‘We can do this bigger, but there’s got to be a way to do this better than we’re doing.’
“I think we went through four presses just for that one order.”
Kevin’s pastoral calling to Goessel Mennonite Church in 1996 brought Goertzen closer to her parent’s home, an opportunity to set up baking in her father’s milk building, and a chance to look for better production-line machinery for her growing business.
“We knew we wanted to have some sort of machine that would extrude the dough somehow,” Goertzen said. “And we bought a meat-baller machine that we thought would work.
“But we couldn’t get the divots in the rollers small enough, and we couldn’t get them to line up. So that was a wash. We still have it, and we lose money every time I look at it.”
At the Kansas Value Center at Kansas State University, a professor suggested Goertzen look for a wire-cut cookie machine typically found in school cafeterias where they bake in large quantities.
She bought her machine from the Wichita Public Schools.
With the help of her father, the machine was converted to process peppernuts in the size and shape she needed for her unique product.
And that cookie-cutter machine is still used in her factory today.
“We make the dough in a 30-quart mixer, and one batch will make six to seven (one-gallon-size) bags of peppernuts,” Goertzen said.
A vat above the cookie-cutter machine holds three batches of dough. The dough is cut into round pieces and dropped onto commercial baking pans.
“We process four pans at a time,” Goertzen said. “Four are processing on the wire-cut machine, four are in the oven, and four are cooling and being packaged.”
When Bethesda Home in Goessel was renovating their kitchen, they offered their old convection oven to Goertzen.
“The administrator said, ‘If you can get the oven out of our kitchen, you can have it,'” Goertzen said.
For her peppernuts, Goertzen sets that refurbished convection oven at 350 degrees, and the cookies bake for only three minutes.
“They are neither soft or hard,” Goertzen said. “They are crisp, and they sort of melt away in your mouth. And I say, that’s partly due to how fast they bake.”
A packaging machine was added this year and takes the place of scooping her peppernuts up by hand when she puts them in bags and glass Mason jars.
The smallest quantity sold is 4 ounces for $5, and they come in clear bags with green pinstripes or glass jars with fabric-lid tops made by Marlys.
Goertzen also offers 8-ounce gift bags, half-gallon gift and clear bags, and one-gallon clear bags, priced accordingly.
All bags are heat sealed.
The one-gallon bags cost $20 and are popular at Christmas time-when customers break them up, package the peppernuts themselves, and give them away to family and friends.
Goertzen also offers Christmas and sunflower gift boxes. These boxes contain a gift bag, gift jar and one-pot quantity of Rifle’s Gourmet Coffee.
Shipping is not a problem, Goertzen said.
She only charges the actual shipping cost and sends it by direct mail through the McPherson or Goessel post offices.
Goertzen, the baker and entrepreneur, enjoys looking into the future and the changes she will make to expand her company-possibly as a family business for her children some day, she said.
But peppernuts are more than an extra income and family business.
“Peppernuts have a deeper meaning to me than just this little German cookie that we make,” Goertzen said.
It’s also a tradition and a bond between family members.
“It was the women who would sit around the table, and so many conversations went on while we made peppernuts,” she said.
“It’s the connections we made, the stories that were shared, the experiences that we cried over and the joys that we shared.
“And to pass those on to my daughter and my son and their generations beyond them-it’s a deeper thing.”
It’s also her faith and integrity that Goertzen said she holds dear as she continues to bake for others-whether it’s a busy working-mom, who doesn’t have time to bake traditional Mennonite peppernuts or an equally valued customer who’s looking for a gourmet cookie.
And for those who can’t wait to let a Voran-Goertzen Peppernut melt in their mouth, they can order on the Internet or call her at 620-367-4617.