Dallas alumnae takes the cake
by Kathryn Hopper
Updated: Tuesday, June 29, 2010
Susan Apple-Graass ’83, a home economics grad, winning a sweet surprise: Best of Show in the cakes category at the Texas State Fair this fall.
When Susan Apple-Graass ’83 was 8 years old, she asked to take a cake-decorating class at the YMCA in her hometown, Shreveport, La.
Apple-Graass didn’t know it then, but the class would lead to a lifelong passion for creating melt-in-your-mouth goodness, which would eventually land her on stage with entertainment icon Oprah Winfrey.
“My mom was one of those moms who didn’t mind if we made a mess in the kitchen, so we were always making cakes, making cookies, icing dripping off the counter,” she says. “Now people feel like you have to sign up your kids up in a professional class. That’s great, but I think it’s nice to let kids do their own thing in the kitchen, let them explore. That’s what we did.”
Her mother, Billie Sneed Apple ’56, laughs when remembering those days. “One time I came home and found blue icing on the ceiling,” she says. “I never did find out how that happened.”
Practice makes perfect and Apple-Graass grew into a top chef as a teen, even selling cakes to friends and neighbors for special occasions.
“I always made this one Betty Crocker recipe, a black midnight cake, it was chocolate with white frosting and ganache drippings,” she says.
After high school, she joined her sisters Cindy Apple Hobgood ’80 and Sandra Apple Stewart ’81 at TCU but had a hard time settling on a major. In her junior year, she declared her major as geology, but when she was less than enthusiastic about a required field trip to West Texas, her mother suggested another possibility.
“My mom said, ‘You’re in the wrong major,’ ” Apple-Graass says, remembering their fateful phone conversation. “ ‘Just go talk to Margaret McWhorter in the home economics department. Go talk to her today.’ So I did.”
McWhorter welcomed her into the department and Apple-Graass quickly became a star pupil, going back to the skills she had honed in food preparation, sewing and pattern drafting.
For her pattern-drafting class project, a course taught by McWhorter, Apple-Graass made a dress with a smocked collar that was popular with friends, who subsequently asked her to make them dresses. She spent the summer between her junior and senior years sewing and taking summer school classes.
In the fall, McWhorter called her into her office.
“I thought, Oh gosh. I was sure I’d forgotten something,” Apple-Graass says. “She said, ‘I know you’ve been sewing your dresses. Would you like to start a business together?’ ”
Soon Apple-Graass was traveling across Texas taking orders for the dress and managing production, all made possible by McWhorter’s start-up funding. By the end of May, the dresses had shipped and Apple-Graass had graduated.
“Susan has always worked hard at what she wanted to do,” says McWhorter, who retired in 2000. “She’s very focused.”
Apple-Graass’ parents gave her the next round of venture capital, which launched the young graduate’s own line. She started small, living at home, sewing samples and traveling to boutiques to sell them. Eventually she got a space at the International Apparel Mart in Dallas.
“I was leasing a table at first because that was all I could afford — one table in a showroom,” Apple-Graass says. “Eventually a sales rep picked up my line and I ended up having my own showroom in Dallas.”
Her label, Susan Apple, grew to 250 accounts in the South and Southwest, including retailers such as Harold’s and Pappagallo. The business flourished as her personal life expanded. In 1990, she married Jim Graass. They had four children comfortably settled in North Dallas. When her fourth child, Ben, was born in 2001, Apple-Graass re-assessed her life and sold the label.
“It was hard to manage the demands of a business and a family,” she says. “I wanted to focus more on my children.”
She eventually got involved in the State Fair of Texas Creative Arts Contests and Competitions, something she had heard about at a Junior League meeting.
Each year the fair includes contests in more than 1,000 categories in 12 departments, including ceramics, needlepoint, photography and scale models.
Apple-Graass involves her children — James, 16; Catherine, 15; John Thomas, 13; and Ben, 8 — encouraging them to create mosaics, build papier-maché sculptures and devise Spam recipes for the youth competitions.
Her passion became the cooking contests — specifically baking cakes.
“The first year I showed up with a chocolate cake — it rained and it was kind of a disaster,” she says. “I laid out a couple of years, then came back and won a blue ribbon. I was hooked.”
Apple-Graass and family have earned over 50 ribbons in the contests, including 20 blue ribbons.
She approaches each year like an Olympic athlete, with plenty of training sessions — in her case perfecting and tweeking a new recipe five or six times. She also carefully selects which cakes to enter.
“They limit you to five cakes,” she says. “They used to not limit people and women would enter 20 cakes!”
Last fall her lemon cake won a blue ribbon and also captured a Best in Show honors, which means it captured top honors among all 12 cake-category winners. That would be an accomplishment in any year, but 2009 was special because Oprah Winfrey had taken her show on the road to the Texas State Fair and her producers were working to include a competition among the fair’s cooking-category winners.
Soon Apple-Graass found herself on stage with Oprah and Gayle King, Oprah’s friend and editor. The two had secretly judged the winners and come up with their personal favorite. Hoards of Oprah fans had flooded the fair and helicopters hovered overhead as television crews captured the event from on high.
“I would look over and here was this film crew trailing Oprah, and she was walking over to me,” Apple-Graass says. “The crowd was going crazy. It was really fun.”
While Apple-Graass didn’t win the Oprah cook-off, she did well enough to have her recipe featured in O magazine and its website.
“It was also great for the State Fair because it gave the fair national recognition, which was fabulous,” she says.
In April, Apple-Graass led a cooking class for Dallas alumni, handing out recipes and slices of her lemon cake and a strawberry angel food cake. Cake lovers who would like to taste some of her creations can place an order through her website, susanapple.com. While her cake-baking business is growing, she doesn’t want to take on Betty Crocker — yet.
“It’s enough for me manage between car pools,” says Apple-Graass.
winning recipe is on Oprah’s Web site.
Check out this photo
gallery from an alumni event featuring Apple-Graass.