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Educator to Professional Baker

Shifting gears was a natural thing for Jamesville educator

By Margaret McCormick

Half moon and other custom cookies are some of the specialties of Half Moon Bakery and Bistro in Jamesville.
Half moon and other custom cookies are some of the specialties of Half Moon Bakery and Bistro in Jamesville.

When Debra Titus retired after nearly 30 years as an educator, she wasn’t ready to sleep in and putter around the house. She was ready to roll up her sleeves, put on an apron and cook up a second career. Now, instead of rising early with lessons, tests and evaluations on her mind, she rises early with baking and cooking on her mind.

Titus, who goes by Debbe (prounounced “Deb”), is the owner and creative spark behind the Half Moon Bakery and Bistro in Jamesville. After serving in a variety of positions at several school districts in Central New York — including teacher, building principal, administrator, reading specialist and staff developer — Titus took a leap of faith and made the transition to life as a professional baker. She was always that staff member who showed up for meetings with homemade muffins, cookies or cupcakes. Why not take it to another level?

“Some people, probably most people, they retire and enjoy retirement,’’ Titus says with a smile. “I’ve just always been one who doesn’t think of her age. I just do it. I thought, ‘here’s an opportunity to try something new.’ I’ve always baked at home and I’ve always had a passion for it.’’

Titus, 62, shifted gears in the summer of 2013, selling cupcakes, cookies, brownies and more on Saturdays at the Cazenovia Farmers Market. Before long, customers began to ask if she had a storefront location. She didn’t have to look far for one: the Sweet Endings Bakeshop in Jamesville, where Titus and her family live, was up for sale. Titus negotiated the purchase and launched her “brick and mortar’’ storefront. Her market experience introduced her to a variety of local producers, whose products she incorporates into the bistro menu and sells in the bakery. The bistro menu features soups, salads, sandwiches, quiche and daily specials, like macaroni and cheese and pulled pork macaroni and cheese.

Half-MoonThe bakery offerings, meanwhile, change regularly and include cookies, decorated cutout cookies, cakes, cupcakes, mini cupcakes, moon drops (Titus’ version of cake balls), muffins, scones, tarts, brownies and other bar cookies — the list goes on. Titus developed the recipe for her signature half moon cookies and has finessed them over the years. They feature a sturdy vanilla cookie base embellished with the familiar two-toned frosting, one half vanilla and one half chocolate — and not too heavy on the icing, so the flavor of the cookie shines through. Titus and her team bake pies, custom cakes for birthdays, anniversaries and other special occasions and show-stopping wedding cakes — a major part of the business that keeps bakers and decorators busy from May to December.

Titus keeps up with baking and cake trends, so when customers request unicorn cakes or “PAW Patrol’’ cakes for their son or daughter’s birthday or a “naked” cake (with minimal icing) for a wedding, she is prepared. She has worked hard to make certain that the Half Moon is an inclusive bakery that offers a wide range of vegan, gluten -free and dairy-free items, available by special request. Recently, a woman in Indianapolis who found the Half Moon Bakery online placed a special order for a vegan layer cake to be shipped to her home. Titus fulfilled her request and shipped the cake layers frozen, with the icing carefully packaged in containers, for the customer to assemble.

“Every day is different,’’ Titus says. “We always have fun.’’

Five years into owning her business, Titus says her recipe for success is trying new things, spotlighting local food producers, exploring new avenues to bring people in and offering excellent customer service. The Half Moon offers events, like a recent “Ink and Drink’’ hand-lettering workshop, and recently joined Grubhub, an online food ordering and delivery service. “We pull from different office buildings and social media and good word of mouth helps people find us,’’ Titus says. “People don’t really think of coming to Jamesville.’’

Tina McPherson, founder of SalsaCuse Salsa, a specialty food business based in Cazenovia, considers Titus both a friend and supportive colleague. Titus has featured McPherson’s salsas in soups, chili and egg dishes, like huevos rancheros and offers them for sale in her shop. “At Christmas she bundles my salsa and other goodies from her shop for ‘buy local’ gift baskets,’’ McPherson says. “Whenever I make a delivery, I receive a cup of coffee and a treat for the road. I wish I could mention a favorite, but they’re all so good.

“Nine out of 10 deliveries we also talk shop,’’ McPherson adds. “We discuss how business is going, any recent struggles and new ideas.’’

As an encore entrepreneur in “unretirement,’’ Titus says it’s important to keep herself informed and up-to-date. To that end, she attends events like the annual WISE Symposium (Women Igniting the Spirit of Entrepreneurship) to network, hear speakers and soak up energy and inspiration.

It’s also important to try and strike a balance between work and life. Owning a business is consuming, Titus says, and vacations are few and far between. She makes eating healthily a priority and carves out time for activities like walking and working in her garden.

For those who wonder what a career in education has in common with a career running a bakery, Titus says the common threads are pleasing people, customer service and common sense. At the end of the day, she says, the biggest reward of running her business is enthusiastic response to her food and baked goods.

“One of joys of the business is when kids come in with their parents and you have been able to execute something to order and you bring to them exactly what they wanted,’’ Titus says. “Or when you feed someone a meal and you know they like it … that makes you feel good. We have wonderful customers. We really do.’’

The Half Moon Bakery and Bistro

6500 E. Seneca Turnpike, Jamesville.

10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday; 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday; 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday to Friday; and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday (closed Sundays).