By Keith Lawrence
Messenger-Inquirer, Owensboro, Ky.
When she was a little girl, Alisha Payton Hardison remembers, “I watched Julia Child’s cooking shows instead of cartoons.”
By the time she was 6, Hardison was in the kitchen of her family’s Central City home, helping her mother cook and bake.
“My mom was an awesome cook and baker,” she says. “She had me in the kitchen helping her when I was little.”
That set Hardison on a career path that led to the opening of Dalisha’s Desserts inside the Centre for Business & Research at 1010 Allen St. two years ago.
But the road from her mother’s kitchen to her own bakery-restaurant was hardly straight.
In 2003, Hardison received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in painting and art education from Murray State University.
And she taught art for a year at Daviess County Middle School.
But the cooking bug had bitten her early.
Hardison decided to quit teaching and attend Sullivan University in Louisville, where she earned an associate degree in baking and pastry sciences in 2005, along with the certified pastry chef title.
In 2004, she won a cookie recipe contest for the “Emeril Live” television show on the Food Network.
Her Pumpkin Pinwheels recipe was selected from more than 4,000 entries.
Hardison was even flown to New York City to be on the show.
Business started in her kitchen
In 2007, she started Dalisha’s Desserts in the kitchen of her home in Landsdowne.
“I always wanted to have my own business,” Hardison said last week. “I started baking cakes at home. Most of my business came from Facebook and word of mouth. But I got too big for what I could do at home. I was turning away more business than I could take.”
In 2009, eMergingVentures, a Greater Owensboro Economic Development Corp. agency, had a contest for the best business plan by an emerging entrepreneur.
Hardison won over three other finalists.
The prize included a $15,000 investment in her business and a six-month free lease in the Centre for Business & Research, the community’s business incubator.
But renovations of the building took longer than expected.
Hardison wasn’t able to move in until about two years ago, she said.
Today, Dalisha’s Desserts is the only retail business in the center, which is mostly offices and labs.
“I’m the oddball,” Hardison says with a laugh.
In August, Owensboro Public Schools opened its Innovation Academy, a new high school, in the building.
This year’s freshman class has 84 students.
But new classes will be added in each of the next three years until the Academy is a complete high school with about 400 students.
That’s good for Hardison’s business.
A lot of the kids stop by before and after school to buy cookies, brownies and other treats like lemon chess bars and gourmet carmel apples.
Growing lunch crowd
Despite its location in the business and research center, Dalisha’s has a growing lunch crowd from outside the building.
“I get a lot of business for lunch now from people in this building,” Hardison said. “But people also come from the Midtown Building (920 Frederica St.) and other places in the neighborhood. Some teachers eat here, too. Lunch has really picked up.”
She serves soup, salad, sandwiches and quiches.
Dalisha’s entrance is on the 11th Street side of the building.
She can seat about 40 people at tables inside the building with more seating available on the porch during good weather.
Hardison’s cakes — especially wedding cakes — are still a big part of the business.
“The biggest cake I ever baked was six tiers,” she said. “It was at least four feet tall. Something like that takes three days. The carved cakes take a long time too. All my characters are hand drawn. I don’t use a printer. I’m using my art degree in a different way now.”
Hardison is considering moving away from specialty cakes.
“They’re so time-consuming,” she said. “I want to have more cakes for people to stop in and pick up.”
Hardison also wants to grow her lunch business.
Dalisha’s now has six employees.
And it’s all because she won that contest in 2009.
“I couldn’t have grown without it,” Hardison said. “I would still be in my kitchen, turning down business.”
Her goal is to stay in the Centre for Business & Research “until I outgrow it or get taken over” by the center’s need for space, she said.
Oh, and her name is Alisha — not Dalisha.
She just added the D to her name for alliteration.