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Omaha Magazine

Sweet Magnolias' Katina Talley Weaves Her Way in the Pastry World

Nov 01, 2021 10:52AM ● By Carrielle Sedersten
baker whisks pink batter in blue shirt

Photo by Bill Sitzmann    

Katina Talley grew up in a food-centric household. “My grandma was an amazing cook, my dad is a wonderful cook and a stay-at-home dad as well. Any of my domestic skills came from him, which is a little uncommon.”

Talley was drawn to the kitchen at an early age, however, “My dad's quite territorial and has methods to his madness and has a hard time relinquishing control. So I feel like I took on baking because it was something that I could own.”

The 31-year-old owner of Sweet Magnolias Bake Shop has definitively done that, though she wasn’t always sure how it would work out. When she was heading off to college, she knew she wanted to do something food-related but wasn't sure in what capacity. “In my head, I hadn't dreamed [it] up.”

Talley decided to major in agricultural journalism and minor in food science. “They promised me that I wouldn't write about pigs or cows,” she said. But, ultimately, she did.

While she was attached to the idea of journalism, it took her two classes to realize food science enthralled her. “I still have a really, really romantic vision of what a life as a journalist could be,” Talley added.

During her senior year, she landed a product development internship with ConAgra, later accepting a job in the bake lab.

The food scientist bounced around departments for almost five years. Then they moved her to tomatoes. “I loved everything that I had done up until that point,” she said. “I really found passion for it and had been excited about it. And I just could not get on board with putting tomatoes in a can…It just wasn't my life's passion.”

After a year and half of tomatoes, Talley knew she needed a change. After looking for jobs at food startups on both coasts, she accepted a position in Chicago. Then a friend at ConAgra sent her a message about a bakery space that was for sale.

Owning a bakery was Talley’s dream. She said it took her all of 2.5 seconds to email the bakery owner. “I took a look at the financials, and I was like, 'you know what, I'm gonna kick myself forever if I don't buy this,'” Talley said.

Back in summer 2015, her philosophy was if she made a mistake before age 30, she had the rest of her life to correct it.

“I went from thinking I was moving to Chicago to owning a business in legitimately two weeks,” Talley said. During those two weeks, she would leave work and go straight home and do recipe development. The thing she kept thinking about is the way food makes you feel. “All the development that I do now is nostalgia driven. It just like, conveys those happy memories.”

Early on, she knew she wanted to give back and get involved with the local neighborhood community. “So June 2017 was our first Pride month that we were open.” In a spur-of-the-moment decision, she decided to make rainbow doughnuts and posted about them on social media. “Then I was like, 'OK, well, now, I'm profiting off of this, and so what do I do with that?'” Now every June, she donates profits from Pride items to a local LGBTQ supporting organization.

Talley also supports other organizations. For Women’s History Month in March, she donated profits from her unicorn bars to Women Who Run Nebraska and the Women’s Fund of Omaha.

“What Kat is so great at is showing that, as a woman…you can still have a successful, thriving business and also be passionate and transparent and open about what you believe in,” shared Talley’s friend and fellow entrepreneur, Ariel Panowicz.

The day after Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, Talley donated 81% of total sales to Planned Parenthood. “I woke up from a nap…and I saw the announcement that Ruth Bader Ginsburg had passed and was just devastated.” She felt she had to do something. “My staff would tell you, that was the worst day of the pandemic, because we were so busy…It was a bad day to be a worker there, but it was such a good day for seeing how much people care.”

Talley is the third owner of Sweet Magnolias Bake Shop, and when the pandemic hit, she wondered if she would be the last. She quickly learned how resilient she and her staff were.

“I think I very much learned the power of a positive attitude. It’s really easy to do the ‘woe is me thing,’ but I mean, all things considered, I came out unscathed. Man, if there's anything that can bond people, it's going through a pandemic together.”

Five years after taking the leap, being the owner of Sweet Magnolias is “officially the thing” she’s done the longest in her life. “It's just cool to see another woman-owned, small business growing in Omaha,” Panowicz added.

Pre-pandemic, Talley found inspiration through traveling. “That’s where I get my best ideas, is on airplanes,” she said. “I’ll get burnt out and then I'll go travel for a little bit, and then I cannot wait to get back and just get in the kitchen and dream again.” 

Visit sweetmagnoliasbakeshop.com for more information.

This article originally appeared in the November 2021 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  

Photo by Bill Sitzmann