Dave’s Coffee Cake navigates through pandemic

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Dave Barajas Jr. and his daughter Mia with a batch of Dave’s Coffee Cakes at an event last year.
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By Jeff Hutton, Hola Iowa contributor

ROCK FALLS, IL. – The COVID-19 pandemic has been far reaching in everyday life.

From the devastating impact it has had on lives and livelihoods, the pandemic’s reach has spared no one.

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That includes businesses, struggling to stay afloat and finding new ways to adapt in an ever-changing climate.

That includes Dave’s Coffee Cake, an Latino-owned bakery in Rock Falls, Ill., that specializes in coffee cakes that has been a favorite of Midwesterners since the company began in 2004.

Dave Barajas Jr., director of business development, said Dave’s Coffee Cake has steadily grown from a small “Mom and Pop” business to a mid-level entity that reaches out well beyond the small confines of Rock Falls and its sister city, Sterling. 

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“We are currently finishing our 16th year. My dad (David Barajas Sr.) started the company and worked with our head baker, Nahu Uresti, in developing the recipe,” he said.

That coffee cake recipe has yielded hundreds of thousands of cakes that have been enjoyed throughout the country, as the company ships those sweet treats to every corner of the country and even overseas.

Never a retail outlet, Dave’s Coffee Cakes primarily focuses on direct sales at craft and vendor fairs, bazaars, holiday and special events, as well as fundraising efforts and corporate gifting, and direct online sales, where customers can choose one or more of the 70+ coffee cake selections the company makes.

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“We’ve grown ourselves into a mid-level company, but with that growth, we’ve been very conscious about keeping that ‘mom and pop’ feel for our customers and clients,” Barajas said.

“Nahu, my father and our whole company takes a lot of pride in what we create.”

While busy throughout the year, Dave’s Coffee Cake peak season is from Labor Day through Christmas. Staff at Dave’s are typically working 24/7 to create cakes for online customers as well as large fall and holiday shows like the Christkindlmarket in Milwaukee, Wis., and Chicago, Ill.

The pandemic changed that.

Davia Lynn Love, granddaughter of David Barajas Sr., tending their booth at the Davenport Farmers Market .

“As the news about Covid started to spread, we could see that many of our shows and events were either going to be postponed or canceled, so we needed to adapt,” Barajas said, adding his father began getting a sense that 2020 was going to be different even as early as late 2019.

“Still it did not have a real big effect on us until March of 2020. We were still moving forward with events and fundraisers in January and February, but we could see the caution flags and signs,” the younger Barajas noted.

At Dave’s Coffee Cake, staff concentrated much of their efforts in finding new opportunities while also concentrating on safety, with more online and no-contact fundraising efforts.

“Just like everybody, we had to find ways to pivot,” Barajas said.

And pivot they did. Barajas, who resides in Marshalltown, Iowa, began researching other and different venues that were moving forward – that included a number of smaller farmers’ markets and events that were primarily outdoors and where social distancing could be practiced.

Farmers’ markets throughout the Midwest, including Iowa, opened up for Dave’s including Newton, Bondurant, Grimes, Boone and Cedar Rapids.

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Barajas, along with other partners, also found ways to give back during 2020 by working with different food banks, including the Food Bank of Iowa in Des Moines and the River Bend Food Bank in the Quad Cities.

“More and more, we found so many groups and organizations that needed our help,” Barajas said.

But admittedly, the work in baking cakes has slowed in 2020 compared to previous years. But Barajas Sr., his son said, did not want the pandemic to negatively impact company employees.

Many Dave’s Coffee Cakes staff were able to adjust and work at Barajas Sr.’s other businesses including a La Familia Restaurant in Rock Falls, Ill. (co-owned with Mercedes Barajas) and two restaurants in Prophetstown, Ill. – Pizza Joe’s and The Panther Restaurant.

“My Dad has always been very keen in making sure we find ways to take care of our people,” Barajas said.

The pandemic did prompt Dave’s Coffee Cake to dip its toes into the retail market, when opportunities to sell cakes during the holiday season opened up at two large malls in Iowa – Jordan Creek Center in West Des Moines and Coral Ridge Mall in Coralville/Iowa City.

“We were looking for more ways to market and sell our cakes and I spoke with some folks over there and ultimately we were able to come to an agreement,” Barajas said.

Currently, Dave’s sells cakes at the those venues only on the weekends and will until the end of December.

But make no mistake, Dave’s Coffee Cake is still a mainstay at fairs and specialty events.

Despite the pandemic, organizers of the Chris Kringle Market in Ottawa, Ill., were able to put together an event where social distancing practices could be observed, along with other strict measures. The result was a boon in sales for Dave’s Coffee Cake last weekend.

“It’s been a great success,” Barajas said.

Overall, what has helped Dave’s Coffee Cake during this time of uncertainty is the ability to adapt. What’s appropriate for events in Illinois vs. Iowa, Wisconsin, Missouri, etc., are all different.

“We’ve sort of really had to pay attention to individual states as to what the rules and regulations were,” Barajas said.

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With vaccines on the horizon and new hope that 2021 will return to some normalcy, Barajas said the recent show in Ottawa offers, perhaps, a sign of things to come.

“We feel like we’re getting to the top of this mountain. But this pandemic has certainly forced us to step back and take a look at who we were and what we are going to do in the future,” Barajas said.

Bottom line, Barajas said his father’s main concern throughout this, as well as his own, was the safety and well-being of the employees and the customers of Dave’s Coffee Cake. 

“If we weren’t going to be able to do that, then there’s no point,” Barajas said. “But we found a safe way to do it and subscribed to the philosophy of (American Civil Rights Activist) Cesar Chavez: ’Si se puede.’ Yes we can!”

For more information about Dave’s Coffee Cake, go to www.davescoffeecake.com

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