In the 1990s, Theresa Mullan worked in communications and an engineering group in the US military, and monitored the trajectories of military aircraft as part of the US Air Force.
In the 2000s, she cared for patients as a nurse in Latrobe, Westmoreland County and around the country.
Today, she has embarked on a new adventure: turning her pastry hobby into a business.
And she started it at the height of the pandemic.
Theresa Mullan, 62, owner of Kenzaleah’s Cake Cafe in Harrisburg, is a baker who ships her treats to several counties, including Lancaster via Market Wagon, with dreams of one day opening her own brick-and-mortar.
Mullan shared some of her journey from the military to her current career as a baker. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
You joined the army reserve at 28, right? What led to this decision?
Yes. I was a single parent, trying to go to school and trying to support my two children (then 3 and 2 years old). So I thought I would go into the army and it would serve two purposes: I would help my country and I would help my children.
What did you do in the army?
I was in communications and part of an engineering group in Uniontown, Pennsylvania.
How long have you been in the army?
I was in the military for nine years, then I moved to the air force. I stayed there for four years.
Did you do the same with the Air Force?
No. It was called medical administration…that was the title, but each time I was deployed I did different things. I was deployed to Germany and we configured planes.
Have you been deployed elsewhere?
Well, I was deployed to the United States at Scott Air Force Base (in Illinois). When I was there, I had another mission. I tracked aircraft and put crews on crew rest (which included making sure a flight crew rested before a mission). I also made sure the planes got to where they needed to go and got there safely.
What did you do after leaving the army (in 2006)?
That’s when I got into nursing…When I graduated (from the University of California, Pennsylvania), I was one of the oldest in my class. I think I was 50 when I graduated from nursing.
I started out in medical surgery and worked in a small field hospital in Latrobe, PA for about a year and a half. Then after that I started traveling as a nurse. I traveled for probably four or five years across the country.
So how do you go from nurse to baker?
Good question. Well, I can’t say I’ve always been into baking, but when my kids were younger, I was baking. But I really haven’t had the opportunity to sell my wares. I had no money for advertising. I didn’t really have the money to continue buying products. So that just went by the wayside.
Once I became a nurse, I took over baking and started cooking for my colleagues. They always said, “Oh, you should open a bakery” because they were my tasters. So, being a nurse allowed me to get back into it.
So when did you switch completely and focus solely on the baking profession?
I would say it’s been about a year now. I mean, I still have my nursing license, but it’s been about a year since I’ve been there full time.
So you started in the middle of the pandemic? It must have been a scary time to start a new business.
Right? It was. But like I said, I had this opportunity. I was working (through a nursing agency) as a vaccine coordinator. So I had some time to get used to it. Most people didn’t go out. It was a good opportunity to be able to cook and people could still buy the items they wanted even if they couldn’t get to a bakery in front of a store.
The name of your bakery has a meaning. Can you explain it?
Yes. Well, I have two nieces, MacKenzie and Aleah, who have been in my life since they were babies. They are now 16 and soon to be 18. Anyway, I got a phone call one day and asked if I could take care of them. That was over three years ago, and I said yes. So I wanted to be able to build something for them too, so that they would have a good foundation when they got older. That’s why I decided to give it their name, in the hope that one day they can take it back.
Do they help you in the kitchen?
Now it’s a bit uncertain. They will taste the test. But they will also go to sales events with me and things like that. But yeah, even if it’s just manual stuff, like loading stuff, it really helps a lot.
What kind of desserts do you make?
I started making pies and actually liked apple pies and things like that and cakes. Then I got into specialty sugar cookies. I make all kinds of pastries. I sculpt sometimes — I’m not a great sculptor, but you know, but I try. Yeah, everything I see that pops up that might be new and mainstream, so I’m trying.
Are these family recipes or how do you invent all these recipes?
No, not family recipes, but I like experimenting with different things. So if I see something I like, then 99% of the time I adapt it to what I want it to be.
How can people buy your desserts?
I work with Market Wagon which is awesome. Market Wagon has been a lifesaver because it’s big in scale and so much more than I could ever do. So I don’t have to pay for all the advertising and delivery of it all. I could never reach all the people they reach for me.
How does it feel to know your desserts go this far?
Oh my God. It’s really super. I remember the very first time I sold something that wasn’t to family or friends, and seeing that person walking around with it and eating it…it’s amazing. It’s really a good feeling.
What’s next for you?
I would love to one day have a brick and mortar and be able to have a real storefront cafe. With that, I wish I could reach out to the underprivileged, maybe like a Sunday and have something for the homeless. You know something where they can come in and have dessert. I mean, everyone deserves to have good food. So it’s one of my dreams.