As a 14-year-old growing up in Long Island, N.Y., John Fernandez saved his money, bought a small boat and took to the seas. He'd fish and set up crab cages, bringing his catch home and filling up the refrigerator and freezer. One day his father warned him, “You've got to stop with all the fish.”
So Fernandez decided to start cooking the fish, and soon he was feeding his family, church members — whoever showed up. “I'd cook the fish and people got really excited about it,” he recalls.
He became a chef. Fernandez graduated from the Culinary Institute of America at 19 and began cooking at upscale restaurants in New York and, briefly, Italy. By 1998 he and a partner decided to start their own business, baking desserts and selling them to restaurants. In 2004 they purchased a cheesecake factory in Hanover County.
Fernandez lost $700,000 in his first year in Hanover, but slowly regrouped. By 2006 he began shifting his focus from wholesalers — caterers and food service — to retailers, which became a hedge against the recession in 2008. Daystar supplied grocery chains such as Kroger Co. and Martin's Food Markets while people began eating out less and at home more.
The business is improving. Daystar cranks out 10,000 cakes every day and the company is pushing $20 million in sales with 110 employees. This year the U.S. Small Business Administration named him the Virginia Small Business Person of the Year.
Fernandez also is giving back. He's involved in work force training for troubled teenagers through the Capital Region Workforce Investment Board, and teaches Sunday school at his church. He loves his work, but realizes that the sweets alone won't exactly save the world.
“When it comes down to it, I make dessert. I make people fat for a living,” Fernandez says. “All the work I do has got to be more than just making dessert.”