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. 

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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. 

“[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,”

Katarina Poletto, Founder of Dolled Up Desserts

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.

“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,”

Katarina Poletto, Founder of Dolled Up Desserts
Photos by Kyle West

By: Andrew Richards

Being on the other side of my five years here at McMaster, I cannot picture my journey any other way. Although there were times when things may not have gone as planned, there was never a moment in time where I felt like I was not in the right spot.

When I was first asked to write this article, I was kind of uncomfortable because I felt like it makes it seem like I have my act together when I really do not. I am just a senior university student who is still figuring things out. But these are the things that I have learned during my time at Mac and maybe they can help others, especially those who are just starting out on their journey.

Focus on small improvements daily

One thing we are often told to do in athletics and academics is to set these goals for ourselves, especially big end goals. I used to be a big believer of that, and I have made my own goals, but I think there's a different way to look at it.

If you change your mind from, ‘I'm focusing on one big goal’ to, ‘what's one thing today I can get better at’, you are able to get more results. Instead of just chasing after one thing, you are also trying to make yourself better. For me, working on improving every day has made me go further. For example, instead of setting a goal of getting a certain grade, set a goal to study harder every day, and eventually you can reach that goal of getting the grade you want.

 

Be your own friend

It sounds a little cheesy, but I think university is very hard especially as a first-year. Everyone experiences those moments where things really are not going well. So I think one thing that's really important, no matter what you're going through, is to be your own advocate and your own friend.

Things are not always going to go so well, so you have to be the first one to let yourself off the hook and forgive yourself. In the past, I have put a lot of pressure on myself and have been my own worst critic. Looking back now, I know that you cannot expect other people to forgive you or let you off the hook if you can't do that for yourself.

Connect with those around you

One thing that we are lucky to have at Mac is the amazing people that are around us. It is a lost opportunity for someone to try and get through four or five years on their own. Everyone you meet at McMaster, you can take something away for them. Whether it be by building a relationship with them, or by being inspired by them.

Even if you don't love stuff about them you can still learn from them, and it would be a disservice to yourself and to others to not take advantage of these connections.

 

There is no rush to get where you are going

This is something that I struggled with earlier on. Before I came into university, all the teams that I played on before I had a large role. But when I first got here, I was a small fish in a big pond. So it was difficult for me, and I'm sure a lot of other athletes, because you want to start feeling like you're contributing right away.

Though when I look back at the past five years, I am super proud of everything I have done with my team. I know now that everything happens in time and if you try to force things to happen when it is not time, it will not always work out the way you want it to. Don't be upset if things are not going your way right away, just know that you have time and if you have a plan, things will work out eventually.

Be authentic to who you are

One really important thing in all this is realizing there's no one way to do all of this. There's a lot of amazing people at Mac, but the coolest thing is that everyone is unique. As athletes, we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to fit a mould, or to be a certain way.

Looking back, something I wish I allowed myself to do more was just be my unique self. I think it is exhausting trying to put on a face. After being around so many unique people at Mac, if I could go back and encourage my first-year self anything, it would be to just be myself.

I may not have it all figured out, but one thing I do know is that these five things are principles I am going to carry with me as I move forward in life. Whether I go on to play professional volleyball or into the work world, I know that if I always take these lessons with me, it will help take me to my next goal.

 

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A few days ago I struck up a conversation with a cab driver that led me to question some of the things that usually go without thought. He seemed vastly overqualified for what he was doing. He spent roughly two years doing communications work for the Canadian army, on nightly flights over Afghanistan. He speaks six languag- es. He has an electrical engineering degree from a respected post-second- ary institution from his home country. It didn’t quite seem right that he was driving unruly students to and from Hess.

The world needs doctors and engineers. There’s no disputing that. Does that world need as many as a standard university enrollment may lead one to expect? Perhaps not.

Too often I see students who were pressured by their parents or relatives into pursuing a path that would lead to a lucrative but difficult career. I’m sure a fair number of these students grew up wanting to take these paths, but I find it difficult to believe that they all imagined themselves doing open-heart surgery at age six.

And a great deal of those students won’t make it. That’s just the harsh reality of the rigourous standards that are in place for medical, judicial or engineering professions. There’s the age-old frosh week chant “half of you will fail.” It’s funny because it has an element of truth.

So instead of spending your gold- en years pursuing a path that you may not actually want might not succeed in, why not do something that might make you happy?

My own parents spent much of my childhood urging me to pursue dentistry or math, which only made me want to do it that much less. It wasn’t my calling, and if I’m being honest with myself, I would probably be a pretty shitty dentist, if they would even ever let me get remotely close to the point of finding that out.

I’m not optimistic about my financial future, but very few jobs nowadays can actually provide that, and with little guarantee.

That cab driver pursued a path that ultimately led him looking for work in his field to no avail, and settled on something that gets him less income, but is, in his words, “extremely calming.”

If you want to cut people open and save lives, more power to you. I will probably need you one day. If you are trying to do it for the salary, you are setting yourself up for disappointment.

The world needs writers. The world needs analysts and event planners. The world even needs snobby restaurant critics. They don’t make as much but we get by.

Your life is only so long. Don’t spend the majority of it preparing yourself for a future that someone else wanted.

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