Meet Maggie Øyen and Ola Ustad: The Norwegian-American duo behind MandelCake

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MandelCake, the Norwegian-American small business renowned for its stunning Kransekaker, has ignited a fresh wave of enthusiasm among Scandinavians and Americans alike.

With their captivating Instagram account, I stumbled upon MandelCake at the very inception of their venture in 2020. A year later, I was compelled to include their extraordinary cakes in The Scandinavia Box’s Norwegian-themed Heritage Box. Since then, their success has been nothing short of remarkable.

Situated in New York, this petite bakery has swiftly become a sought-after destination for a diverse clientele, ranging from celebrities and ambassadors to Scandinavian expatriates yearning for a taste of home. The driving forces behind MandelCake‘s awe-inspiring confections are Maggie Øyen and Ola Ustad, a Norwegian-American couple deeply rooted in their Norwegian heritage. Ola, hailing from Namsos, Norway, and Maggie, born in the United States to a Norwegian father, have charted an incredible journey as small business owners, now nestled in Rhinebeck, at the heart of the Hudson Valley.

As Syttende Mai approaches, a celebration of Norwegian independence, I decided it was an opportune time to shine the spotlight on MandelCake, and decided to interview Maggie and Ola.

Interview by Natalie Söderberg, Founder & Editor at Swedes in the States.

Can you tell us more about the Kransekake, its deep-rooted connection to Norwegian culture, or share some tidbits about its origin?

Its origin is a tougher question to answer. It’s a Persian confection that originally came through Denmark. The Danish version is different from our Norwegian version, but they look similar. I don’t know why it was adopted in Norway or how it became an iconic dessert, but my guess is that the fact it’s a shelf-stable food item is the critical factor. Growing up, I witnessed a lot of food insecurity in Norway, where basic staples like coffee, tea, and sugar were scarce. This was, of course, before Norway found oil, and Norwegians were very skilled at managing minimal food waste. We had and still have one at every celebration.

How does the Danish version of the cake differ from the Norwegian? 

Firstly, the spelling is different! Danes use “Kransekage,” while we use “Kransekake.”

The Danish version is much more akin to the ‘Marzipan Gris‘ in taste and texture, whereas the Norwegian version is more like a cookie with a coarser texture. Our Kransekake has three ingredients: equal parts ground almonds and sugar, and 1/8 of an egg white used as a binding agent.

What inspired you to start MandelCake?

It’s my favorite dessert, and it takes an inordinate amount of time to make. We found ourselves with plenty of time on our hands during the COVID lockdowns, so all we did was cook and bake as a family. MandelCake evolved from there. We couldn’t find one that we liked or one that could be shipped, so we figured other Norwegians probably faced the same issue. Entering the food space in the USA is something I would never do or be interested in doing. However, because Kransekake is so iconic and is such a cultural tradition, I recognized that we wouldn’t need to educate anyone in our niche market.

Our clientele immediately know what they are looking at, what it tastes like, and what it’s used for, so marketing challenges that face 99.9% of companies entering the food space in the USA have been successfully managed for us centuries ago by the Norwegian people themselves.

How has it been received in the United States so far?

We can barely keep up with the demand! Our website tracks our analytics, and yesterday we were notified that we had 1,164 active visitors at that moment. My heart stopped because we cannot produce more than 170 per day, and we don’t like to disappoint anyone. However, we often sell out due to our full bake schedules.

Who is your main clientele?

Our main customers are Norwegians and people who identify as Norwegian Americans. Our motto is “traditions matter,” and we have been working hard to develop a younger clientele with our bespoke ‘Bryllup kransekake’ and our 36-ring kransekaker, which are primarily used for weddings and larger formal events here in the USA. We also have clientele in Norway, and we have even shipped our products as far as Japan.

In September of 2022, we were asked to bake a kransekake for Dronning Sonja. We baked a 36-ring kransekake and flew it to Minnesota for the occasion. I was only able to be in Minnesota for 3 hours due to our bake schedule here in New York, but it was a wonderful honor. We also baked a kransekake for Machine Gun Kelly’s 33rd birthday this April, as well as one for Erin and Ben Napier, the hosts of Home Town on HGTV. We also bake for several well-known Norwegians living and doing business here in the USA, but they are not public figures, so we need to protect their privacy. Additionally, I recently traveled to Norway by special request to bake there as well.

Can you tell us more about your connection to Norway?

Ola grew up in Namsos and moved to the US in 1987 for flight school. My immediate family has been back and forth my entire life, and they still are to this day. However, other than my mother and brother, all of my family is still in the Oslo area. Ola’s entire family remains in the valley of Orkanger, just outside of Trondheim.

Ola and I met while flying airplanes and got married in 1990. We had our daughter Lillian in 1997. We are all blessed to carry Norwegian passports.

So, if I understand correctly, both of you were pilots before transitioning to the baking industry?

Yes, Ola continues to fly commercially. He was “grounded” during COVID but started flying again full-time in 2022. I stopped flying when our daughter was born and have been in the wedding and events business since 1998. MandelCake is a wholly owned subsidiary of my company, Stems Inc.

How often do you go back to Norway, and what are your favorite places?

We share a favorite place, Verdens Ende on Tjøme, and we were just there this month for a very short week. Before COVID, we used to go back and forth often (around 6 times per year), and now that the COVID restrictions have been lifted, we will get back to our regular visits. We expect to go back again at the end of June.

Before we say goodbye, how will you be celebrating Syttende Mai this year?

This year, we will be baking until the day, but it’s also our 34th wedding anniversary, so maybe we will fit in a “skål” (toast) as well. 😊

 

 

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