We had the good fortune of connecting with Christine Pepe and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Christine, we’d love to hear more about how you thought about starting your own business?
Voted most artistic in my graduating high school class, I have always craved a creative outlet. However, life lead me to a career in the corporate world until fate stepped in. After becoming ill with an extremely rare disease in 2012, I found myself unable to function to complete the simplest of tasks. Going from neurologist to neurologist with no answer to what what was causing severe fatigue, pain, sensitivity to light and noise, balance and coordination issues, weakness, visual disturbance, tremors, visual disturbance, inability to use my limbs and falls, I was left without a diagnosis or treatment. Time became a blur and I was no longer the person I once was. I was physically and mentally unable to participate in life. Finally, five months later a Neurologist in the Houston Medical Center. Reviewing all previous testing and labs; he ordered a few additional tests, labs and consulted with the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. A name was finally given to what had taken so much from me; Autoimmune Encephalopathy. Previously diagnosed with Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, an autoimmune disease, the antibodies that usually attack the thyroid gland broke through the blood brain barrier attacking the neurons in my brain causing stroke and MS type symptoms. Treatment was started which included high dose steroids and physical therapy to address the balance issues, weakness, impaired muscle performance and motor function but having gone undiagnosed for a significant period of time, I was left with residual impairments from the brain inflammation including nerve damage in my arms. As I regained hope, mental clarity and began physical therapy with some positive results, I thought to myself; you can not give up, you made it this far where most would have not; keep fighting, do it for your three young children who desperately needed their mom back. Believing in the benefits of Art therapy and needing to feel productive, I found myself back in the creative world by purchasing a simple fake lemon cake to display in my kitchen. I loved this cake and found myself studying it and saying to myself, I bet I could have made this and can not believe how much I spent for it…….. and so started my “Fakery”. I found myself searching for the necessary craft and building supplies needed to make my very first fake display cake which was a lemon cake for my mother. It wasn’t perfect but it kept my arms moving and mind productive. I continued making more until I perfected the ingredients and methods. Creating each fake cake was both mentally and physically therapeutic. I took pride and felt happy crafting different designs and felt my arms getting stronger and my fine motor skills improving. Soon friends would see my cakes and wonder where I bought them and were surprised to learn I had created them. They would put in an order for one of my designs or something custom and I was able to deliver. Friends of their friends would then see their cakes and put in an order. Being in a tight nit community, I then hosted open houses to display my cakes and cupcakes and invited local buyers who became customers. I brought samples of my cakes to local home decor stores and shared them with interior designers, home stagers, and photographers. Some of my first cakes were purchased and sold out of Arcadia Floral and Home Decor in Houston as well as local markets where I would rent a booth and sell my cakes. This was the start of “Zero Calorie Cakes by Chris”. My creative juices were flowing, I had always wanted to sell Art and despite my impairments I was achieving a lifelong goal. I was productive, proud and found physical and mental benefits in my creations. I began experimenting and making other fake treats including fake pies, fake hot chocolates, fake ice cream, sundaes, fake cookies, fake candies, party and photo props and my customer base increased. After proving there was a market for my product, I created an Esty shop, expanded my customer base, began getting orders and shipping to all 50 states. In addition, to offering fake treats, photo props and party props; my shop now offers home decor items that can be paired with my fake treats to create seasonal and holiday displays such as cake stands, bead garlands, mugs, canisters, hand painted milk bottles, wooden signs and more. My thought process today; I am thankful and grateful. I did not think I would survive the darkest and hopeless days or all that my illness had stolen, but I did. Remember your inner strength and passions; Channel them abs something you never imagined and good will come. Not only did my illness bring me back to the creative world I desired, it helped in my recovery process and allowed me to accomplish two life long goals; selling art and being published. In an educational book written to help others diagnosed with Autoimmune Encephalopathy, I wrote and contributed the story of my illness in a book titled, “Understanding Hashimoto’s Encephalopathy”, An expanded and Updated Guide for Patients, Families, and Caregivers (2016 Edition,Page 243 under Christine P.). Zero Calorie Cakes has grown into a shop offering more than fake display cakes and treats. As coordinating products and other home decor items are in the process of being added into inventory, I feel re-branding the name will further grow my shop. Therefore, I will be initiating the re-branding process and Zero Calorie Cakes by Chris will soon become Ribbons, Lace & All Things Cakes.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
I would want the world to know that creating my fake cake designs was never intended to become a business. It was meant to be part of my recovery process and to help heal my broken self. Going back to something I’ve always had a passion and desire to do not only helped me mentally and physically but gave me a purpose. I found pride in my creations and joy when others found appreciation in my work and desire to own a piece. Despite thinking there wasn’t a large market for my product offering, I took a chance and put myself out there and hit the streets to test the market. Once again believing in myself, I began sharing my creations with the vendors and clients I believed may be interested or find use. I would never had dreamed that my “fakery” would have grown to what it is today and that I can truly say I am a working artist. My experiences in general, illness and recovery process have taught me that life can be mean, harsh and can suddenly throw a curve ball that can wreck your well thought out plans and vision of what your life and future should be. My dad taught me that life “Is what it is”. This holds true for most any situation and while you can’t change what life throws at you, you can make choices to move forward and create a new path and be open to just letting life play out, enjoying simple pleasures and letting your passion lead your direction and new path.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
Enjoying simple pleasures, I would host my best friend or visitors first at my home gathering around the fire pit enjoying quality time, catching up with s’mores, and a glass of wine or a favorite beverage. The next day I would take them to Bisou for dinner, good food, and night out with live entertainment. A must during their visit would include a day of shopping at the Houston Galleria and a relaxing Spa day at Fiori. If in season, strawberry picking at Froberg Farm is always fun. I would then consider any places they had on their list of things they wanted to do or see in the Houston area. Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
To my children; Julia, Nicolas and Molly, thank you for being the reason I did not give up during the worst time in my life. You are what I live and fight for. I have learned so much from your resiliency. Thank you for telling me you are proud of my designs, shop and helping me make fake sprinkles, paint cakes and carry shipments. Mom/Dad, thank you for helping with the kids when I was unable to care for them or myself. You’ll never how stopping over one day to check on me with a can of soup changed my destiny and that of my children’s. You truly saved my life, when I thought it was over. Thank you to my parents and sister, Mauri for believing in me and supporting the creation of my shop and being proud of me! Pauline, my friend, thank you for always having a listening ear, recognizing I was in need and pulling strings to get me into see Dr. S at the Texas Medical Center. I will forever be grateful for your compassion, persistent nature and action that initiated my recovery and gave me a future. To Dr. S, my Neurologist in the Houston medical center, thank you for fitting me in when you had a year waiting list, thank you for truly listening to me, for accepting my input into my illness and treatment, for putting me back together and for continuing to always be there for me during relapses, on-going treatment and general advice! There are not enough words for what you have done for me with your knowledge, expertise, and compassion. Thank you does not seem enough. To Kim at Arcadia Floral & Home Decor, thank you for taking a chance on me and selling my cakes in your store which gave me my beginning and confidence that there was a market for my product offering. Shout out to Susan for being my top customer and friend! Last but not least, thank you to ALL of my customers who purchase from my shop, display my products in their homes, photoshoots, photo cards, homes for sale, store displays and the like. Thank you to all who support small business and have helped Zero Calorie Cakes grow into what will soon become Ribbonns, Lace & All Things Cakes!!
For Personal Photo of me credit goes to my daughter Julia Pepe For Product photos, no credit needed, I took