Kate Bakes
Kate Bakes

What started as a way to improve her health because of dietary restrictions has turned into a protein-bar business that owner Katelyn Sornik now considers her full-time career.

When she developed digestive issues several years ago, Sornik, a 2005 university alumna, had to completely change her diet. Many of the foods she had grown up eating suddenly became off limits, and she sought to replicate them in bar form.

Not only did she need to find things that made her body feel good and that also tasted good, she needed something that was convenient enough to eat in a time crunch. After her health issues caused her to drop out of law school, Sornik was looking to make a new career out of something. Her solution: Kate Bakes.

Kate Bakes’ gluten-free, vegan and high-protein bars maintain their soft and chewy texture, setting them apart from other gluten-free products. Sornik and her team carefully choose ingredients such as agave nectar that help not only to bind her bars, but keep them soft and moist.

The team works to create flavor combinations typically not found in protein bars, including chocolate coffee, sunflower butter raisin, cardamom date, cherry cordial, French toast — its newest flavor ­— and banana cinnamon oatmeal, its most popular flavor. Kate Bakes’ cocoa date, cherry almond and apricot pecan bars are also paleo and vegetarian.

Sornik said the desire to be innovative and recreate things she can no longer eat inspire her flavors. The banana cinnamon oatmeal flavor was intended to replace banana bread, and the seasonal pumpkin bar was envisioned to recreate pumpkin pie.

Though Sornik’s diet is restricted, through her work she has found many people who have had similar issues and have turned to her bars to help change their diets and live healthier.

“It’s always really reassuring and reaffirming that what I’m doing is valuable and helping people, and it’s also comforting sometimes to know that I wasn’t the only one going through something like this,” she said.

At their commercial kitchen in Arlington, Virginia, Sornik and her team of three, which includes two bakers, handmake the small-batch bars using Sornik’s special recipe and process three days a week. They typically produce about 1,000 bars a week.

In addition to its online shop, Kate Bakes can be found in 30 retailers in the DMV area, including Glen’s Garden Market and Zeke’s Coffee in Washington, D.C., Misha’s in Virginia and Bump ‘n Grind and Capital City Cheesecake in Maryland. You can also find them in New York and Connecticut and through online grocers such as Washington’s Green Grocer, Relay Foods, Hometown Harvest and Eat Boutique.

Although she had no previous baking or entrepreneurial experience, Sornik said her experiences along the way with the business and advice from other small business owners have helped her.

Despite the success so far, it has not been without challenges. Sornik said managing her time and knowing when to hire extra people are two of the biggest challenges she deals with every day. In addition to her two bakers, Sornik has a general assistant, but otherwise handles everything else herself, she said. Though every day is different, she said each is busy and long, and that finding a work-life balance has been one of the major lessons she has learned so far.

“This is a marathon, not a sprint,” she said. “I’ve got years and years ahead of me, and I can’t burn out three years in.”

Though so far the business has been self-sustaining, Sornik, who used her savings to start the company, has also been hesitant to take out any small business loans, sometimes preventing her from doing things to help grow the business such as hire more employees and initiate a new product launch. She hopes to promote growth in 2016 through loans and expansion along the East Coast.

Even with the challenges, Sornik said one of the highlights of the experience so far has been meeting, networking and collaborating with the other small business owners in the D.C. foodie community.

In the future, she plans to work with Commonwealth Joe, a specialty coffee roaster based in Northern Virginia, using its coffee beans in the chocolate coffee bars.

One of Sornik’s favorite parts of Kate Bakes, she said, is that she can be confident and proud of everything she bakes. Sornik said she feels lucky to have a job that doesn’t feel like work.

“Even on rough days, because there are some,” she said, “I always try to look at the bigger picture.”