Taking the cake: Central DeWitt High School senior Drew Dunlavey was selected as a finalist — and $1,500 scholarship recipient — in the Herbert Hoover Uncommon Student Award program. Dunlavey owns and operates “Drew’s Gourmet Cheesecakes,” and recently taught a cheesecake-baking class to students from Central DeWitt, Calamus-Wheatland and Northeast. 

While it often is said in jest, when Drew Dunlavey’s family says he is creating a “cheesecake empire,” there honestly is a lot of truth to it.

After all, the 17-year-old Central DeWitt High School senior has been running his own, highly successful business — Drew’s Gourmet Cheesecakes — out of his family’s home for a few years.

Visitors to DeWitt’s Farmers Market, where he sells miniature versions of his cheesecakes, line up for the scrumptious concoctions.

In fact, many people try to pre-order as it is almost always a given that Dunlavey will sell out before the close of business each day.

So when his mom, Cassie Dunlavey — who also happens to be the art teacher at Central DeWitt High School — saw an advertisement on social media for the Herbert Hoover Uncommon Student Award, she knew her son had a real chance.

The program annually identifies and honors up to 14 Iowa high school juniors, who propose and then accomplish a “passion project” of their own choosing and design.

Students applied their junior year by submitting a proposal for a project showing entrepreneurship, community or humanitarian service, conservation or special use of technology.

The 14 finalists were selected and given over the summer to work on their projects, record their results and gave a detailed presentation of their work before a panel of judges in October.

Much to Dunlavey’s surprise — but not his mom’s — he was chosen as a finalist.

Dunlavey even can remember where he was the day his principal, George Pickup, gave him the news — helping his fellow FFA members at the test plot.

“There are hundreds of kids who apply and they only select 14,” Dunlavey related. “I never expected to be chosen. Mr. Pickup called me to the office to shake my hand and read to me the letter that I was chosen.”

“Drew’s Gourmet Cheesecake Food Truck Trailer” was the title of his project, which focused on his desire to purchase a food truck out of which he can sell mini gourmet cheesecakes at various locations.

“The food truck trailer will expand my current, very small business into a successful enterprise,” Dunlavey noted in his presentation. “I will purchase and fabricate a bumper hitch trailer to accommodate a window, counter, generator, freezer and refrigerator.”

The food truck will allow Dunlavey to grow his business and cater to large events, farmers markets, festivals and other festivities.

The 14 finalists each received $1,500 scholarships to put toward their projects. Four of the 14 finalists received a $10,000 scholarship to the college or university of their choice

While Dunlavey was not among the four, he couldn’t be happier to have funding to put toward the purchase of his trailer.

“I had planned on purchasing one this summer, but I have not found the one that I think will work well,” he said. “With COVID, there is less inventory and the prices of trailers really went up. I’m going to wait until I find the right one to buy.”

After graduation, Dunlavey said he plans to take culinary classes at Scott Community College, and to get his CDL (commercial driver’s license). He intends to continue his growing business and maybe — eventually — expand his menu.

“Cheesecake and desserts are my favorite things to make,” he shared. “It’s something you don’t usually have every day, but people love it and look forward to it.”

Dunlavey, whose interest in baking developed after he outgrew an egg allergy and started preparing them in all variety of ways so he finally could enjoy them, said he would encourage any and all high school juniors who have a passion to apply for the Uncommon Student Award.

“It is something I’m never going to forget and will always be grateful for being chosen,” he shared. “I learned so much during the process and met so many great people. My project — and being chosen — gave me a lot of confidence.”