It was 1991 in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, and after 20 years of marriage, Nadja Piatka was left on her own to make a living. Her dentist husband had just taken up with a toothy model, leaving a slew of debt, two children -- and a stay-at-home mom who was scared but determined. With creditors banging at her back door, Piatka grabbed the only thing she could find to write on before diving under the kitchen table to hide.
"I wrote outrageous goals on pantyhose cardboard," she recalled, "and then I hid it because I thought people would think I'm certifiable if they ever read:
"I will have a national business.
"I will have my own newspaper column.
" I will write a best-selling book.
" I will be a public speaker, have my own TV show and bring value to people's lives."
As it turned out, all but one of those goals would come true.
Piatka translated her home-made muffin recipe into $2.6 million in breakfast sales at McDonald's of Canada. Her healthy brownies have become a staple in Subway restaurants and school systems throughout the United States -- including the Buffalo Public Schools. As a former freelance food columnist for the Edmonton Journal, she created recipe makeovers to promote healthy eating. She has written two cookbooks: "The Joy of Losing Weight" and "Outrageously Delicious Fat-Wise Cookbook." And don't forget a side business called the Ultimate Pajama Party, where six times a year she hosts women's getaway weekends in locations on both sides of the border.
Three years ago -- after she married local businessman Doug Smith -- Piatka, 55, moved to Buffalo, where her business is conducted out of a tony condo on West Ferry Street. Production facilities in Alberta, Canada and Boston, and a warehouse in Pueblo, Colo., enable her baked goods to be transported throughout the States and into Mexico.
In all, her business has raked up $20 million in sales, earning her a spot on the "Oprah Winfrey Show."
"When these terrible things happen that rock your world, it's opening the window to something better," Piatka said during an interview in her home. "You have to find a new normal. As a preschool teacher, I was the wife who put her husband through dental school. When my husband left, I could not find work so I started doing what I knew how to do: bake."
Piatka was raised in St. Catharines, Ont., where her family lived above a diner they owned called St. Patrick's Grocery Store. A move to Toronto for the Ukrainian family saw another restaurant, this one named Nadja's. Of three sisters, Piatka was already acknowledged as the one with her fingers in the food business.
"I am a chocoholic who grew up with a weight problem which comes when you live above a restaurant," she explained. "So I was a chubby kid who started creating recipes that I could eat because I loved desserts and struggled with weight."
Not that she didn't try to get other employment. Piatka sent out 30 resumes and was granted only one interview. Her self-esteem was low. She was 20 years out of teaching, and no one wanted to hire her.
"When your self-esteem is low, you don't give a good interview anyway," she said. "That's why I wrote down that last goal. I thought that if I could give value to other people, that would mean that I am now a person of value."
At the time, Piatka's two young teenagers had become accustomed to taste-testing their mother's creations. It was not unusual to see Piatka baking in the middle of the night.
"At first they were scared because I couldn't find work and I was really struggling," she said. "Seeing me work so hard was good and bad. They helped with the taste testing, but sometimes I called them into the kitchen and they wouldn't come in. I remember the day my daughter walked in to taste the muffin and she gave me a thumbs up. Don't forget we were dealing with healthy food: low fat, no sugar, low calorie."
Soon it became obvious Piatka could not continue baking alone. She was working hard, all right, but was she working smart? What would happen if she grew sick, or her car conked out? She quickly learned the business concept called outsourcing.
"That's when I went to a small bakery and asked them to make the muffins," she said. "The bakery was busy part of the day, but the rest of the day the ovens were cold. I gave them my muffin recipe, and I asked them to sign a confidentiality agreement. I couldn't afford a lawyer, so I took an old aerobics waiver and changed "participant" to "baker" using White-Out. It worked just as fine as the $2,000 one we got from the lawyer."
By that time, Piatka lived in Edmonton, where she pitched her muffins to the local McDonald's -- just as they were starting a breakfast program. More taste tests followed, and this time Piatka's muffins beat the high-fat product of a major manufacturer.
"Why McDonald's?" she repeated. "Because I thought always go to the biggest and the best. I thought if I could get to McDonald's I would sell a lot of muffins. It was a lot of steps, with every step sort of proving that your sales were strong, that people like the product and will continue to buy it."
It's obvious that Piatka does not feast upon her creations -- even though she could, considering their fat count -- her trim figure clad in low-riding jeans that are cinched with a buckle belt and topped by a silk blouse. Yet she has not forgotten what helped win a spot at Oprah's table: her 145-calorie brownie.
"I put in my wallet two years ago that I was going to be on Oprah and I carried that around," Piatka said. "I had tried to contact her before, but the walls are impenetrable. Coincidentally, her staff would go to the Subway across the street from her studio and eat my brownies. They asked who made my brownies. They called me."
Finding success has not been a cake walk for Piatka. Consider the time she discovered that freezing batter breaks down baking powder, turning her muffins into door-stopping hockey pucks. Or her offer to write her recipe column for free, just to get it published.
"Supplying food is a privilege and a responsibility," she declared. "That's where I get my most satisfaction, oddly enough. I had a school dietitian call me today from Florida, where they're serving our brownies. There's a sugar issue and a lot of our sugar comes from pureed fruit. Those kinds of calls make my day. That, to me, is exciting."