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Monday, Apr 22, 2024

Liv, Love, Local: Thistle and Honey

Bowdish currently takes orders for pickup and local delivery in addition to custom cake services for weddings and hopes to open a physical storefront in Middlebury in the future.
Bowdish currently takes orders for pickup and local delivery in addition to custom cake services for weddings and hopes to open a physical storefront in Middlebury in the future.

Nikki Bowdish has provided the town of Middlebury with cakes, cookies and other treats from her home-based bakery, Thistle and Honey, since the fall of 2019. While Bowdish currently takes orders for pickup and local delivery in addition to custom cake services for weddings, she aspires to eventually open a physical storefront in Middlebury.

Bowdish has long had a passion and talent for baking. “It's just the one thing that I've always known I was good at,” she said.

She grew up baking for her family and has since worked as a professional at the former Fresh Market in Burlington, while taking on part-time gigs as a pastry chef as she worked other front-of-house roles at various establishments in the city.

When Bowdish moved to Middlebury in 2015, there were no bakeries hiring, so she found a full-time role as a server at Rosie’s Restaurant. She eventually started Thistle and Honey as a side hustle to continue channeling her passion for baking.

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, Bowdish and some of her coworkers were laid off, so she decided to pursue Thistle and Honey full-time. Curating an array of treats for a craft fair at Mary Hogan Elementary School helped her formulate her original menu, which was compact, aiming to be simple and sustainable for one person to manage. Bowdish decided to start with cake, scones and brownies. She opted for one rotating monthly cake flavor at the outset to simplify ingredient costs as she began to scale up her business.

“I think the first cake I started with was the vanilla confetti one, because it's so nostalgic and everybody loves it,” Bowdish said. 

Bowdish prioritizes local ingredients whenever possible, often from producers in Middlebury or surrounding areas, such as butter from Cabot Creamery in Cabot, Vt., heavy cream and milk from Monument Farms Dairy in Weybridge, Vt., and local honey from Middlebury’s Champlain Valley Apiaries.

She visits local orchards and farms for apples, cherries, blueberries and other fruit, preferring to hand-pick in the summer when possible. Thistle and Honey’s maple cream comes from Werner Tree Farm in Middlebury.

“The maple syrup I use is actually made from my plumber,” Bowdish explained, referring to Jon Fuller, who operates a small sugaring operation as a hobby.

As the sole owner and operator of Thistle and Honey, a typical day for Bowdish involves not only baking goods to fulfill orders for daily pickup, but also managing her online sales, providing customer service and checking inventory. She juggles all the operations of her business while raising her three children.

“One of the biggest challenges is the part where it's me trying to be a present mom. And also trying to be present and fully invested in these desserts,” she said. “I don't want people to be disappointed, even if it's ‘just’ a birthday cake.” 

The business grew organically after Bowdish began posting on Front Porch Forum and connecting with parents of Middlebury students seeking safe treat deliveries for students confined to campus during the pandemic. 

During Covid-19, Bowdish learned about the delivery huts placed on campus at the Shannon Street and Hillcrest parking lots for contactless delivery from a friend in Dining Services and soon began a robust delivery of treat boxes and cakes to Middlebury students. 

“It was really nice having the ability to be a part of a glimmer of sunshine in an otherwise deeply bleak landscape,” Bowdish said.

Currently, deliveries and pickup orders for students at the college make up just over half of Bowdish’s non-wedding dessert orders. She appreciates how customer relationships have evolved over the past four years.

“I've gone from making their birthday cakes as freshmen to their graduation cakes and it's just the coolest,” she added. 

Local relationships have been a highlight of growing Thistle and Honey. Bowdish has particularly appreciated the support of Beth Bluestein, owner of Sparrow Art Supply.

“[Bluestein] has been so lovely in getting my business name out there locally in ways that I could not because she has adorably coined me as her official treat dealer,” Bowdish said. 

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Thistle and Honey has made the desserts for every gallery opening at Sparrow Art Supply and will also make the desserts for the business’ grand reopening party on April 5 at 44 Main Street.

In 2021, Bowdish began working with Deniz Sehovic, an online business coach who encouraged her to diversify and start creating wedding cakes. Bowdish had a goal of booking five weddings for 2021 and ended the year having made cakes for 21. While she no longer works with Sehovic as a coach, Bowdish has slowly increased her annual wedding count, reaching 36 cakes in 2023. 

Thistle and Honey receives most of its wedding dessert requests between July and November, meaning some months require delivering multiple cakes per weekend or even per day. After an initial inquiry call with a couple to plan, Bowdish organizes a tasting to settle on the flavors and finalizes the design about a month and a half before the wedding day. She asks for inspiration pictures and then puts her own spin on the design. 

“My favorite part is when it gets to the point of finalizing visually what they want the cake to look like,” she said. “And I love any chance to work with florists because I think flowers are just the best thing on earth.”

Bowdish has a long-term dream to open up a physical storefront for the dessert shop. For the coming year, however, she is focusing on maintaining a sustainable wedding clientele and growing her local client base within Middlebury in support of a larger scale venture. 

“I want a bakery where people can walk in, see my face — or someone else's maybe — and buy desserts that I have made,” she said. “That’s the dream right there.”

Olivia Mueller

Olivia Mueller '24 (she/her) is a News Editor.

Previously an Arts and Culture editor, Olivia is an International Politics and Economics major with a Spanish minor. Outside of the Campus, she is a spin instructor for YouPower, an avid runner and hiker, and a member of the Middlebury Mischords a cappella group.