C/O Dolled UP Desserts
Katarina Poletto, the founder of Dolled Up Desserts, reveals her journey from the Health Sciences program at Mac to opening her own bakery
After graduating from her undergraduate studies in health sciences at McMaster University in 2016, Katarina Poletto was ready to begin her master’s degree at the University of Chicago. However, her plans took an unexpected turn when she decided to take a year off to pursue her true passion — baking. She opened her award-winning bakery, Dolled Up Desserts, that same year, specializing in gluten-free, vegan desserts with a pin-up vintage twist.
Poletto entered the health sciences program at McMaster thinking she would go into medicine. But when she realized she didn’t want to pursue it anymore, she began to explore her other interests in holistic health and wellness.
“I really went in a really different direction than most of my peers. In second year, I realized I wanted to [do something different] because I became disenchanted with the medical system,” said Poletto.
For her fourth-year thesis project, Poletto had researched alternative therapies for eating disorder treatment under the supervision of Dr. Parmjit Singh and she wanted to continue on a similar pathway for her career, focusing on research and policy making for alternative therapies and holistic health.
Poletto received an offer and scholarship to attend the University of Chicago for graduate studies in social service administration and policy in the fall of 2016. However, it all changed when she received the Summer Company grant for entrepreneurial students after learning about it from her partner, and now husband, earlier the same year.
With the $3,000 and business mentorship provided through the grant program, Poletto started Dolled Up Desserts.
Poletto had always loved baking and grew up in a household with a sweet tooth. However, during university, she developed intolerances to gluten, dairy and eggs. Following this change in her diet, she began to bake for herself more because she noticed there was a gap in the market for high-quality gluten-free and vegan baked goods.
“Oftentimes, [gluten-free food] tastes like cardboard or sandpaper and I wasn’t going to settle for that. I really focused on trying to make tasty gluten-free items,” said Poletto.
Poletto was already an avid baker, baking at least twice a week, and worked on converting all her recipes into gluten-free and vegan items she could enjoy. With her recipes and knowledge about the gap in the market, she was inspired to create a business to fill that gap.
Dolled Up Desserts started as a wholesale gluten-free and vegan dessert manufacturing business. Within the first few months after the launch, the business saw tremendous growth and the demand for her products were high. In fact, the Union Market at the McMaster Student Union Centre was one of her first customers.
Seeing the great potential for her business, Poletto never turned back to her graduate studies.
“I had no idea what I was doing. I was absolutely just going at it, learning as I was going and I felt confident in that,” said Poletto.
In July of 2020, Dolled Up Desserts finally opened its brick-and-mortar location on James Street to offset the losses during the COVID-19 pandemic. Prior to opening the physical location, Dolled Up Desserts was mainly focused on providing dietary-inclusive desserts for restaurants, school cafeterias, stadiums, hotels, banquet halls and other event centres. However, during the peak of the pandemic, they lost many of their food service customers.
“We were doing some really big things leading up to the beginning of 2020 — huge, massive things — and we lost it all in a week when the lockdown happened because gluten-free and vegan products aren’t part of a restaurant’s core business. It’s an accessory product that’s good to have. So, I’m grateful for the store. It’s definitely given us a bit more presence in the community and given our brand awareness overall,” said Poletto.
Poletto is still looking to get the business back in the food service sector while continuing the store front as it is her firm goal to have inclusive desserts be available and accessible everywhere.
Looking ahead into the holiday season, Dolled Up Desserts will soon launch their holiday menu at the end of November. The holiday menu occurs once a year where every item is replaced with the best of the best, limited-edition Christmas and holiday themed baked goods.
The story of Dolled Up Desserts may not be a typical one. Poletto did not pursue a predictable career in the science field coming out of the health sciences program, but she says the skills and knowledge gained from the program have been integral to her success and starting a business for the first time.
“From the outside, it’s really hard to see this and it’s gotten lost in translation over the years, but the health sciences program really gives learners the opportunity to develop different skills to be lifelong learners and do and learn about things that interest them in a way that makes sense to them,” Poletto explained.
Poletto valued the inquiry learning model from the program the most which allows the students to be directors of their own education.
“[Inquiry] is a free form space or you to try and unlearn all the things you’ve learned from traditional school . . . and that learning model really opened up my mind and awareness to who I am as a person and really helped me develop the skills to be a lifelong learner,” said Poletto.
Today, Poletto often returns to McMaster as a guest speaker and mentor for health sciences and commerce courses.
Poletto’s journey of wanting to go into medicine to opening her own bakery has been challenging and difficult. So what’s the secret ingredient behind her success? She says flexibility and open-mindedness to new opportunities.
“If I was so focused on, ‘This is the way I have to do things and this is the only goal I have,’ I would have never [started Dolled Up Desserts]. I believe having goals is really important, especially long-term goals, but there also has to be room for flexibility and opportunity there. If you are ever presented with a really exciting thing that may be off kilter to what you think you should be doing, just do it because you never know — it could change your life,” said Poletto.