KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — A Kalamazoo teacher is looking back at the women in her life as she looks toward starting her small business.

Carolyn Coulter will celebrate the grand opening of Coulter Cakes LLC at Maple Hill Mall on Aug. 17. The tent will serve funnel cakes, including dairy-free options, with fun toppings including strawberry, Oreo and caramel drizzle.

Coulter, who grew up in Chicago, said her Auntie Boom first introduced her to baking sweets.

“She used to teach us how to do like peanut butter cookies with a fork and roll it and get our hands sticky at like 12 o’clock at night. It didn’t matter when we was doing it, we were always doing it,” she said.

The Kalamazoo Public Schools kindergarten teacher said her aunt, who has since died, would be proud to see her new business.

“She’s a playful one. She’d be like, ‘My girl, my girl, my girl.’ And then she’d be like, ‘You took this long, I had to die to do that?’ … She was a playful soul,” Coulter said. “And she would’ve been like, ‘I’m proud of you. I probably would’ve never did it because I don’t have the patience, but thank you for seeing me in a different light,’ because she did have troublesome paths and then turning around was what I saw in her.”

When she was around 12 or 13, she had her first funnel cake at Six Flags.

“At first I was like, ‘That looks weird.’ … And then I had this weird obsession with it for years and years. Everywhere I went, I had to find a funnel cake, find a funnel cake,” Coulter recalled.

Seven years ago, she moved to Kalamazoo to study at Kalamazoo College.

“I ended up applying to a city named Kalamazoo that I’ve never heard of before,” she said. “…I applied there, but I never visited. So I got on the Amtrak train and I visited Kalamazoo and I was like, ‘Oh, this is the one.'”

The family-orientated business owner said she loves how connected the Kalamazoo community is.

“I graduated in 2020 and now it’s (2023) and my parents are like, ‘You’re not coming back?’ And I’m like, ‘Absolutely not,'” she said. “The community base here is phenomenal. They care and they reach out and they support.”

She asked her friends about places in Kalamazoo where she could get a funnel cake, but they didn’t know of any. She called a few places up that said while they didn’t have funnel cakes, they did have elephant ears.

“I’m like, ‘That is not the same thing. How dare you compare it?'” she joked. “And then I was like, ‘Man, I’m just going to make my own funnel cake stand.’ So last year I started making it at home just for me and my partner.”

Coulter started gathering management experience when she was 15, when she got a job supervising at a Mediterranean restaurant in downtown Chicago. While in Kalamazoo, she managed a fast food restaurant and a Chuck E. Cheese. 

Some of the Coulter Cakes employees have moved with her from job to job, including Alea Price, who will help manage the food tent. Coulter said she took her under her wing at the fast food restaurant and Price followed her to Chuck E. Cheese.

“She said, ‘Hey, I’m down. You taught me everything I know, I’m coming with,'” Coulter recalled. “I was like, ‘For real?’ She said, ‘Yeah. You’ve always thrived in everything you’ve done, and I trust you with this process.’ And she had four kids, so that gives me a little jitters. … That was something that gave me a little more power and strength, because she trusted me.”

The teacher said she’s used to having multiple jobs. She worked three jobs during her undergraduate studies, she said, and three while getting her master’s degree at Western Michigan University.

Coulter said she was scared of teaching at first because it is “just too important of a role.” But her teacher growing up at Chicago Public Schools eventually pushed her to make the jump.

“(She) told me … ‘Your work, this is the best writing I’ve ever seen in my life. But I need you not to be a product of your environment. I need you to speak what I see in you,'” Coulter said. “I was like, man, these kids need people like that, because I’m pretty sure if I didn’t have that conversation with her, I wouldn’t have been so driven to keep going.”

She said in each role she’s had throughout her life, she was helping people. She said she’s excited to serve food and do something that honors her family history.

Coulter said she also wants to serve as an inspiration for “a lot of people of color seeing it’s a Black woman opening the first funnel cake stand in Kalamazoo,” she said. “Just being that inspiration for people to keep going and not to be the product of what they see. … The sky is not the limit because we have outer space.”

There have been some challenges Coulter has faced while getting the funnel cake stand ready, like having to switch from electric to propane due to the cost of a portable electric box.

“You can’t just jump to the next part of the ladder,” Coulter said. “You have to have those baby steps. … Eventually, I’ll be able to afford that portable box or even a storefront.”

Coulter Cakes will celebrate its grand opening on Aug. 17 from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. at Maple Hill Mall, located at 5022 West Main St. near Drake Road. Coulter said there will be music and a raffle for people who bring at least two friends.

Following the grand opening, Coulter Cakes will be open Thursdays and Fridays from 4:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.