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Big Pitch Finalist: James Avant, OCD Cakes



James Avant wants to help start conversations about mental illness with his custom baking business, Obsessive Cake Disorder. He is one of eight finalists in the Artworks Big Pitch program presented by U.S. Bank.
 
Avant is clear that the name of OCD Cakes is not mean to be poking fun at OCD, but rather making mental illness part of the conversation — the baker himself struggles with OCD and anxiety. A recent University of Cincinnati grad, Avant saw his ticks and quirks increase significantly with the increased stress of the first few years of college, which prompted him to seek treatment.
 
“I told my parents, ‘I’m experiencing a lot of stress and I really can’t concentrate or focus, and these rituals I’m doing are really stopping me from being productive,’” Avant says.
 
College was also when Avant began to change a longtime interest in pastry arts into a business. Coming from a family of cooks, Avant hadn’t considered cooking as a profession — he followed the pre-med and neuroscience track in high school and college, which ended up leading him back toward baking.
 
“I really love the scientific element and rigidity of baking, but it can also be creative,” Avant says. “It’s the perfect merger between the two, and I really just found a place where I can be calm, I can be me and I can be in control.”
 
About two years ago, while watching the show Two Broke Girls with a friend, Avant got the idea to start a cupcake business. He eventually went through Artworks’ CO.STARTERS program for new small businesses, where he refined the concept of his baking business: gourmet cakes and desserts to “take a bite” out of the stigma of mental illness.

The idea is to break the ice around talking about mental illness by combining it with something familiar and celebratory — cake.
 
OCD Cakes is not a nonprofit undertaking, but it does aim to have a positive community footprint, making it a kind of social enterprise. Avant donates about 5 percent of his profits back to organizations that do work around mental illness, such as Warrior Run, and gives free talks to community organizations and college campuses to raise awareness about mental illness and start conversations.
 
“I thought as someone who has had a negative experience with OCD, but has also had many positive experiences with it, I think that it’s my job to kind of educate people and get people comfortable talking about it, reaching out and getting help," Avant says.
 
In March, Avant became a founding member of the Findlay Kitchen, which gives him the space and resources to do his baking. Now, he has brought enough success to his business that he’s looking to branch out through the Big Pitch. With the competition’s prize — up to $20,000 in business grants — Avant hopes to start a sort of sister brand to OCD Cakes.
 
“Bakeologie” would focus on the experience of baking by offering professional baking classes in an affordable, accessible way. Avant wants to help people think of baking as more than cakes and cookies, but as a medium for food preparation, allowing the oven to become the star of the show.
 
Avant entered the competition to start a new step, but has found the structure and mentorship offered by the program useful in enhancing the practices of his existing business.
 
“It gives me the opportunity to kind of get my ducks in a row and do this next piece right from the beginning,” Avant says. “I’m excited for just the opportunity to be on this type of platform and have other people excited about my business and learn about my business for the first time.”

ArtWorks Big Pitch Presented by U.S. Bank is a 10-week mentorship program that culminates in a pitch competition Oct. 6 at Rhinegeist. You can purchase tickets here.
 

Read more articles by Nancy Yerian.

Nancy Yerian is an independent public historian interested in local history and the power of museums. She graduated from Smith College with a major in American History and a concentration in Museum Studies.
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