LAKEVIEW — Jenni Vee has spent six years creating vibrant, homemade desserts at her namesake bakery in the heart of Lakeview.
Now, Vee, a trans Filipina baker, is primed to expand her business and bring more of her signature treats to nearby Lincoln Park. She’s scouting a second location with the goal of opening by spring 2024, she said.
Vee opened Jennivee’s Bakery, 3301 N. Sheffield Ave. in 2017. The “late-night dessert bakery,” as she calls it, specializes in classic, custom and specialty cakes and cupcakes, cookies, fudge brownies and other sweet treats.
For Pride Month this year, Vee’s bakery is selling Rainbow Pride cookies and its signature Rainbow Pride flag and Trans Pride cakes, a yearly tradition to honor the LGBTQ+ community and Vee’s experience as a transgender woman, she said.
Vee said she welcomes the attention that comes from Pride Month and the uptick in customers seeking out LGBTQ+-owned businesses. She hopes her customers see a successful trans business owner and feel comfortable there, she said.
“As a trans woman [with] a trans-owned business, I wanted to create a safe space,” Vee said. “I wanted to be very inclusive, with not just welcoming all customers, but I wanted my team, my staff, [to] also reflect that. We’re very inclusive and we’re very diverse and we embrace that.”
‘Everyone Is Welcome … Everyone Deserves Cake’
Vee started baking as a child growing up in the Philippines and long dreamed of opening her own bakery. She spent 10 years working as a physical therapist before leaving that job to start Jennivee’s, she said.
Knowing her identity as a queer person would be a big part of her business, Vee initially wanted Jennivee’s Bakery to be in Northalsted, she said. She’d hoped her business, staff and customers would feel welcome at a bakery within the city’s most recognizable queer district.
After struggling to find an affordable location, Vee headed a bit west to set up shop at a cozy corner between Clark Street and Sheffield Avenue.
Many of the flavors featured on Vee’s regular menu are inspired by global palates, from classic American flavors to Filipino flavors like ube and pandan, she said.
Some treats inspired by her heritage include the Purple Velvet, an ube chiffon cake with coconut, ube mousse and ube toppings; and the Mango Pandan, a pandan chiffon cake with mango filling, mango mousse and pandan cake crumbs.
Vee also finds inspiration from other Asian countries, European baking and by reinterpreting “things that we enjoy, whether it’s flavors of coffee drinks from Starbucks, or ice cream flavors, or a dessert from Thailand, or things like that,” she said.
Vee believes the variety helps set Jennivee’s Bakery apart from other bakeries in the city, she said.
“I wanted to showcase things that I personally enjoyed growing up, like a lot of the things I wanted to do are things that are very nostalgic for me that I liked as a child, and I wanted to bring that back and put my own little interpretation on it,” Vee said.
Being a visible trans business owner is especially important in today’s political climate, where trans people face discrimination and politicians increasingly crack down on LGBTQ+ rights, Vee said.
“There’s still a lot of backlash and criticisms and discrimination against the community, especially when it comes to businesses claiming to have the right to refuse service for members of the community, based on religious beliefs and all that. There are still couples that are being refused wedding cakes … because it’s a Christian-owned company and they believe it doesn’t align with their Christian values,” Vee said.
“So, we wanted to be that business to say, ‘Hey, we don’t discriminate; everyone is welcome; everyone deserves love; everyone deserves cake.'”
Vee said she and her business have been embraced in Lakeview, and in the city’s queer and Asian communities. Jennivee’s has been featured on shows like WTTW Chicago’s “Check, Please!” and Netflix’s “Sugar Rush,” two high points in her career, she said.
“We’ve had parents of trans kids come and support us and tell me, ‘Oh my God, you’re such a positive role model for my kids; thank you so much.’ We’ve had couples from the community come in and say, ‘We love your bakery; we want to get our wedding cakes from you; you’re such an inspiration; we love you.’ It’s just so overwhelming and I feel very grateful,” Vee said.
Vee’s newest business in Lincoln Park is in the works.
It will be more of a traditional cafe for the morning crowd with pastries and other items not normally offered at her bakery, she said. No location has been finalized, but Vee said she is looking for a space with a bigger kitchen where she can create treats that can be shipped nationwide.
Once open, hopefully by spring 2024, Vee hopes to collaborate with other small businesses and cafes to supply some of her products, she said.
As she grows her business, Vee said she hopes other queer entrepreneurs can follow her example.
“We want to continue to be able to reach out and inspire other people, other businesses, other people in the community that want to pursue a business,” Vee said. “We, hopefully, could be that example that anything’s possible as long as you pursue your passion and your dream.”
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