Madison teen brings in the dough
Photos by JOSHUA BERRY
A baker. An entrepreneur. A teenager. Meet Joshua Wortham.
When he was 10 years old, Wortham faced a dilemma. He wanted to attend the Peacebuilders Camp in Georgia for a week in the summer, but he did not have the funds. His family, struggling financially because of his younger brother being in Children’s Hospital, suggested he start a business to raise the money. Wortham was clueless about how to start his own business, but he was not clueless about baking.
“Not only did I make enough money to attend the camp, but I also got to help another boy from Huntsville attend the following year,” Wortham said. “I got to return to Plains, Georgia, and meet and bake cookies for President Jimmy Carter the next year.”
Now 15 years old and a freshman at James Clemens High School, Wortham is the sole proprietor of Peaceful Pastries and Sweets, a bakery he runs out of his home in Madison. “I wanted the name to contain the word peace to connect to Peacebuilders Camp. My parents and I sat around the kitchen table and threw out names, and I came up with Peaceful Pastries,” he said. “We decided to add ‘and Sweets’ to the name because we did not want to limit ourselves to pastries.”
Baking has always been a part of Wortham’s life. He said his family made cookies for all of his and his eight brothers’ teachers, and his dad taught him how to make cheesecake and pie. The family has a tradition of making sweets for every family night.
“I enjoy baking because it makes me feel calm and relaxed. I love preparing cookies because it is soothing to knead and roll out dough,” Wortham said. “I love the way the kitchen and our home smells when I bake.”
His first paid order was from his grandmother, who ordered Rice Krispie treats and two dozen snickerdoodle cookies. He soon snagged a corporate client, who ordered five dozen decorated airplane cookies for FlyQuest, an organization that promotes aviation for girls. He said he spent an entire weekend decorating the cookies.
“I thought they looked okay, but now when I look at pictures of them, I am horrified,” he said. “Miss Ramona loved them, though, and she took photos of the girls devouring them.”
Although Wortham bakes wedding cakes, birthday cakes and pastries, cookies are his speciality. To perfect his decorating skills, Wortham watched YouTube videos, took art lessons and participated in decorating classes at Williams Sonoma and Lynelle’s. He also sought out advice from two mentor chefs, Michael Girard and Stephanie Thomas.
“The decorating part is where I get to be creative. It’s exciting to explore different designs and blend different colors and textures,” he said. “Baking is the perfect art because I get to pass along my creations to other people. It is also a humbling art because everything I spend so much time creating gets eaten, so it keeps me grounded.”
Wortham said he loves sharing his passion for baking with others. That’s why he decided to offer classes to the community. His Peaceful Prodigy classes are open to children, and he conducts classes to promote team building, girl nights, bachelorette parties, church parties and birthday parties. He supplies everything for the classes, including boxes to carry finished “masterpieces” home. Customers can also book private classes at select locations.
“I give out prizes or certificates and put a chef hat on the most kind or talented Peaceful Prodigy of the class,” Wortham said. “We laugh a lot, and I get to know my customers better. They ask me a lot about my life, and I ask them about theirs. It is important for me to form relationships with my customers or at least learn a little about them and share a little about myself.”
Wortham’s parents, William and Rebecca, have always supported their son’s love of baking. When he was 4 years old, he asked for a pretend kitchen for Christmas. Despite some of his parents’ friends’ opinions that boys should not play with a kitchen, they fulfilled his wish. That support has not waned as he has gotten older. “When I wanted to move on from my pretend kitchen and use real appliances and knives, my parents were not afraid to let me explore,” he said. “When I mess up, they’re there, and when I do well, they’re there. It’s reassuring to know they’ll always believe in me.”
The business is now a family affair. William helps with cakes and the business end, and Rebecca helps with cookies, weddings and classes. A couple of Wortham’s brothers get in on the business as well. His 13-year-old brother Caleb uses a 3D printer to create the custom cookie cutters and runs the “chocolate division.” His 11-year-old brother Ben is in charge of the “comfort cookie division,” including chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin, snickerdoodle, peanut butter, no-bake and sugar.
“Benny has special needs and sometimes gets told everything he can’t do. So it’s good to have him help in the bakery so people can focus on everything he can do,” Wortham said. “He’s our official taste tester, and he is basically a genius, just like Caleb.”
Wortham backs his business with a Cottage Food Industry License and also has Madison County and Madison City business licenses and an LLC. He said his goal is to get into a brick-and-mortar bakery in Madison and to eventually sell online.
“A brick-and-mortar building will allow me to expand and to hire people to work for me,” he said. “I already have a commercial mixer, bun rack, dedicated freezer and 10 commercial utensil carts. Now I’m saving for a dual convection oven.”
The young baker posts photos of his baked goods on Facebook and Instagram Business pages. He has 4,800 followers on Facebook and a five-star rating. He has garnered invitations to pop-up events and bridal fairs. “I need to get better at Instagram because that’s what teenagers use, but I really like Facebook better. I guess I’m an old soul,” Wortham said. “Most of my business, though, comes through word of mouth.”
“Old-soul” marketing must be working because Wortham has clients from all over north and central Alabama and southern Tennessee. He said his customers include U.S. presidents and senators, Nobel Peace Prize recipients, teachers, veterans, pastors, doctors, janitors, welders and all sorts of people. “I try to reach as many diverse populations as I can because learning about them opens space in my mind and my heart,” Wortham said.
When Wortham uses words like mind and heart, he means it. The teen started the Coexist with Cookies and Shared Sweets campaigns to help spotlight and unite diverse or marginalized people over the love of cookies. He donates a dozen cookies per month to a business or individual who is making a positive difference in the community. After donating cakes and cookies to children with cancer and other illnesses through the Icing Smiles Corporation, he was chosen to be a “Sugar Angel.”
“I ask my customers to tag people they feel deserve sweets, and people get to read the comments and learn about others,” Wortham said.
Wortham has been honored for his entrepreneurial spirit, including being named Entrepreneur of the Year for North Alabama three consecutive years and Youth Entrepreneur of the Year for North Alabama. Most recently he won a Hero Award for the Best Social Enterprise Act of 2019 and was one of 12 – from 13 million nominees worldwide – to be named to the 2019 World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates. He accepted the award in Merida, Mexico.
“Mrs. Marilyn McGinnis from the Peacebuilders Camp nominated me,” Wortham said. “I was happy to represent Alabama and meet so many world leaders and peace builders at this summit. I got to share the stage with six Nobel Peace Prize recipients. It was a life-changing event.”
If all the accolades those accolades are not enough, Wortham is an A student and a member of the James Clemens competition band and jazz band, and he uses his musical talent to teach classes. Participating in these things might take away from his baking during the week, but he does not let it get in the way of satisfying his customers.
“My main goal with the bakery is to connect with my customers and bake them happy,” Wortham said. “When I make mistakes or over-book and run a little behind, my customers are gracious. I think they realize I am still a teenager who is learning, and their patience with me makes me want to learn even more so I can get better. I just love baking people happy.”