At the heart of why I write special pieces about Featured Bakers, is to celebrate their talents, gifts and to inspire others. Life is short, it’s precious, and I encourage you to spend it doing something you love, finding joy in every day. Our latest Featured Baker, Justina Rucinski, owner of Sweetems Co., had a successful cookie decorating business that lit a fire in her that nothing else ever had. Until a horrific, traumatic and life-changing event took place that almost took it all away. This piece not only shares Justina’s incredible talent and artistry that but teaches us a lesson in resiliency and overcoming the darkest of days.
Justina grew up in Iowa as one of seven children her mom raised on her own. Justina admits she had a tough childhood, but her happiest memories were baking with her mom. Since her mom was raising a big family on her own, birthday cakes and other treats were always homemade. These happy memories stayed with Justina as she grew and even as she attended college for dental hygiene. However, she knew it was not where she was meant to be. She left college to pursue a baking career, while working retail to pay the bills. Looking back now, Justina can’t believe she left college but at the time, she knew “this is it; I want to do this!”
In September 2014, she started a side business decorating custom cakes and was having success. Decorated cookies always intimidated her and the first time she tried making them, “I cried”, and she swore she’d never do them again. Then a customer requested a custom Toy Story-themed cookie set and she gave it another try. She found a spark there and decided to immerse herself in custom cookies. She is completely self-taught, never attended a class or even watched YouTube videos. Her business quickly grew to the point that she was able to quit her retail jobs and focus on her business full-time. Justina, a mother of 2 children thought she had found her place, her future and the success she wanted.
“I was just cleaning my house and working”
Then the unimaginable happened. One evening in August 2019, a man came to her house under the guise of picking up an order. What took place changed Justina’s life forever. However, the details of what happened to Justina is not the focus of this story. Today we celebrate Justina’s resiliency, her decision to take her life back, how she turned this trauma into something to help others and how cookies have become the therapy she never knew she’d need. If you’d like to know more about what happened to Justina, THIS article covers it accurately, albeit graphically. Justina is in a good place now and is comfortable sharing her story, for awareness. She will also be featured in a Lifetime TV special airing this summer, to tell her story.
Justina did not know how she was going to move forward, she thought “I can’t do something that hurt me so badly.” She spent a couple months trying to determine her next steps, even thinking “I easily could have given up what I do, and there was a moment I almost did. But I fought for myself, and I fought for others.”
See, in Iowa, cottage bakers are only allowed to have customers pick up their goods from their homes; they are not allowed to meet in a safe space. Product labeling also requires them to have their home address on all products they sell. Most other states allow for bakers to deliver or meet in a safe space and don’t require home addresses on labels. Many of these laws have been updated in response to Justina’s advocacy work to protect bakers. “I’ve worked really hard to get these laws changed,” Justina shared. Surprisingly, Iowa’s laws remain unchanged, which is very disheartening. Despite unchanged laws in Iowa, “I’m happy I was able to take such a dark situation and turn it into something to help others.”
moving forward one cookie at a time
While Justina pondered her next move, she received a message from a customer requesting a custom Toy Story-themed cookie set. “It was a sign,” Justina felt. That was a pivotal moment for Justina, and her passion has only fueled her to grow as an artist.
Hearing Justina explain that “Growing up, I was not an artistic person. I didn’t even know I had that skill,” is pretty unbelievable looking at her work. But now she knows, “I was never meant to do cakes, I was always meant to do cookies, I just didn’t know it.”
Justina designs all of her work, without ever looking at other cookier’s work on Pinterest or Instagram. She’s known for telling a story with her cookies. Commonly picking a scene from a movie, serving as her inspiration, she’ll sit down with blank cookies and just creates, “consuming myself in my work.”
finding another source of passion
Justina was tasting success and then she met a special man. She admits she was not looking for a relationship, but it found her. He is everything she’s ever wanted in a partner, he’s incredibly supportive of her art and her business and they fell in love quickly. So much so that when he was placed in San Antonio, Texas for his medical residency, they made the move together, with her two children. Justina had been wanting to move to get a fresh start and be able to reinvent herself. She shared, “you can’t heal where you’ve been hurt. And as soon as we moved down here, I could breathe.” Further explaining, “I couldn’t fully breathe for a very long time and that felt amazing.” “We’re very happy,” Justina gushed.
She knew starting her business over in a new state was risky, but the community’s response to her work has been incredible. Her business has more than doubled since the move one year ago and her schedule is booked several months out. “My clientele truly value what I do,” which is why people happily pay top dollar for her artwork. They trust her artistic talent to create stunning work, unlike any other. She does, however, find opportunities such as holiday sales and “deluxe deals” to make her work accessible to more people at lower rates. She is known for “art on a cookie” and she is so appreciative that her clientele values her.
What Does The Future Hold for Sweetems Co?
Justina has created a big name for herself in the cookie industry, but she wants more than that. People want to learn from her, so she has recently launched her first online cookie decorating class. She would like to be able to help other bakers be better cookiers while still delighting her clientele with custom cookie artwork. She would also love to have a product line and wants to continue to bring awareness to sexual assault issues and causes. Her logo, a penguin with a teal bandage, which signifies healing from sexual assault, is very meaningful to her. She’s hoping her logo will serve to “bring awareness and bring change”.
Justina is truly an artist in every sense of the word, and she deserves all the success in the world. All the pieces are falling into place for an incredible future. When Justina reflects on what she endured, she told me, “If they were trying to ruin my life, they completely failed,” which is so powerful.
Talking with Justina, you would never know what she’s been through. She’s bubbly, giggly and she attributes some of this to what she calls “traumatic superpower”. When you’ve experienced such trauma, your view and perspective changes. “You don’t sweat the small stuff and you are far more resilient”. Personally, as a mom of a child with cancer, this resonated with me. Life is different after experiencing trauma, but it can be oh so sweet.
I feel honored and privileged to be able to share a little bit of Justina’s story. When Justina and I connected, it was out of admiration of her work, I was not aware of her full story. But I can honestly say that the cottage baking industry is lucky to have someone like Justina. She embodies all of the passion, joy, creativity and artistry that bakers aspire to become. We also have a warrior in Justina, fighting for better laws to protect bakers and for that I am grateful. I’m excited to see her career evolve because I know nothing can extinguish the fire in her. She has a very large following of people rooting for her and watching her succeed. With her boyfriend by her side and her two kids who are her world, there’s no limit to the success of Justina and Sweetems Co.
I hope you enjoy this gallery of Justina’s stunning work. I also encourage you to follow Sweetems Co.’s journey via the Facebook link below.
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