Lena Geller makes cakes. Cakes with flowers. Truly clever cakes, with insults spelled out in bright colors. Lovely cakes with layers and berries.
So when the George Washington University freshman moved from Durham, N.C., to the school’s Foggy Bottom campus in August, she brought her light blue mixer and loads of baking supplies. And this month, she was featured in the school’s student newspaper, the Hatchet, which chronicled the arrival of the baking business she’d hoped to run out of her residence hall’s kitchen.
Then she got an email from her resident adviser.
“And she was like, just a heads-up, if you read the housing agreement, it says that you aren’t allowed to run a business from the residence hall,” she said. “Which makes sense, I guess.”
Yeah, OK, actually, it does. But from the university’s perspective, there’s more to it than that.
“GW loves that spirit of innovation for our students,” said Peter Konwerski, vice provost and dean of student affairs. “Anytime a student comes — especially a freshman student — who’s really passionate about something, we want to support them. I think at the same time . . . there’s a teachable moment here.”
Generally, Konwerski said, the university has policies and procedures to protect the campus community. In this case, GWU wants to work with Geller to help her learn about the school and the city — and the ordinances she might need to know.
“It’s probably different when you prepare food for friends than when you actually operate a business,” he said. “And these are things that the D.C. government would set, not necessarily the university. But to help her be successful, we want her to understand that.”
There also are questions of liability, he said.
But in case anyone thinks otherwise, this does not appear to be some David vs. Goliath conflict, pitting Geller, 18, against a coldhearted, cake-hating institution.
“I’m the dean of students, so I’m inspired by students every day,” Konwerski said. “I want to help them achieve their aspirations and dreams.”
Geller met with a university official. It went better than she expected.
“I’m super surprised,” she said. “I thought that they were going to yell at me.”
The official said he would check for on-campus kitchens that Geller could use, she said. He had culinary training himself, so he also had local connections he could explore, according to Geller. The two also discussed food safety, training and making sure the kitchen she uses is certified.
There are parts of the university that could help Geller, the dean said, such as the Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, which regularly works with students. And there are faculty and staff members who support an incubator culture, something the university encourages, he said.
. . .
It was about eighth grade when Geller began baking more intensely. She learned through YouTube tutorials and food blogs, plus there was a phase when she would camp out in Barnes & Noble’s cookbook section every day and read.
“It lets me be creative,” she said. “I really enjoy art, and my preferred medium is food. It’s really rewarding for me to give people baked goods.”
She turned the hobby into a business a few years ago, when she was in high school. Before that, she had been giving away the treats she baked. “And people were like, ‘You could really just sell this,’ ” she said. Her first event was a prom after-party. She made cake pops decorated like tuxedos and dresses. From there, word spread.
Her prices: $30 for a standard six-inch layer cake; $120 for a sheet cake, which serves 85 to 100 people. Cookies were $1 each.
Her business, called Lena’s Lunchbox, grew over the years, but as Geller’s start date for college approached, she realized she might have to leave it behind, which saddened her. Still, she hauled kitchen gear to college, because she knew she would want to bake, regardless of whether the finished products were for sale.
After she arrived at the university, Geller made a chocolate layer cake and raffled it off. She decorated the door to her dorm room with photos of her cakes.
Geller keeps baking supplies in the dorm room she shares with her roommate: piping tips, dye colors, a cake ring, pans, a turntable, mixer attachments. A string of lights hangs above her bed, and below it, there is a crate packed with ingredients. The residence hall kitchen isn’t exactly spacious or state of the art, but it gets the job done.
“There’s not much counter space,” Geller said. “But the oven works well there’s a microwave and stovetop. There’s no dishwasher, so I have to do everything by hand. But it’s a pretty decent kitchen.”
Since arriving at GWU, Geller has knocked out some red velvet cupcakes and chocolate chip cookies, and she’s also made a few layer cakes, efforts she completed on top of the whole freshman-starting-college thing.
Geller, who is majoring in journalism and mass communication, said she has been accepted as a writer for the Hatchet, the student newspaper. And she’s participating in GW-TV, a student-run television station. Oh, also, she has classes.
At least for now, Lena’s Lunchbox is stalled. Geller had been turning down orders and wasn’t going to start taking them again until she figured out a legal solution. But after her meeting with the university official, she said, the business was “definitely still there.”
“It’s not dead,” she said. “I would say it’s alive and well and will be growing.”