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America’s largest dessert festival is coming to Tampa

The Tampa baker who took home the top prize last year said it was a great way to meet up with other “sweet people.”
Shonnika Denise, 35, was the winner of last year's Dessert Wars competition in Tampa. She now operates Synergy Sweets out of her home in Tampa.
Shonnika Denise, 35, was the winner of last year's Dessert Wars competition in Tampa. She now operates Synergy Sweets out of her home in Tampa. [ Shonnika Denise ]
Published Oct. 12|Updated Oct. 13

When Shonnika Denise saw on social media last year that Dessert Wars, dubbed “the largest dessert festival in America,” was coming to Tampa, she cranked up her oven and her creativity.

After the judges dubbed her Snickers Cupcake the winner, she quit her job at the post office. Her “black velvet”-based cupcake was topped with a brown butter cream cheese icing, stuffed with peanut butter nougat and finished with a homemade Snickers topping.

With her trophy in hand, she dove head-first into her cottage dessert and cake business.

“I really think it’s great for exposure,” said Denise, 35. “People want to talk to you and ask you questions and you really get to know them. That’s what I loved the most about it. You are with your sweet people.”

Some of Shonnika Denise's entries at Dessert Wars included her Toffee Cookie Butter Cupcake, left, and her Red Velvet Cupcake.
Some of Shonnika Denise's entries at Dessert Wars included her Toffee Cookie Butter Cupcake, left, and her Red Velvet Cupcake. [ Shonnika Denise ]

Brad Matthews, creator of Dessert Wars, worked in marketing and events for the University of Miami and the Miami Heat before he came up with the idea of a sugar soiree in 2016. The pandemic sidelined events, but he is back on track to make stops in a half-dozen cities this year. His ultimate goal is to have a grand champion event with all the winners in one city.

This will be the event’s third stop in Tampa, which has produced 30 to 50 small businesses and vendors each time to coax the audience with everything from cookies and cupcakes to doughnuts and ice cream. His biggest audience is women age 24 to 35, but he said he has a surprisingly large following among bodybuilders.

“When you want your guilty pleasure, empty calories and hard-earned money, you are going to make sure it’s right,” Matthews said. “They are there to discover.”

These are people who save themselves for just a few desserts per week, so they want to make sure it’s worth it, he said.

The touring festival will take place on Oct. 22 from 3 to 7 p.m. at the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa. Guests will get a to-go box and 30 sample tickets and have a choice of more than 50 vendors.

“This is your chance to sample local vendors that you might not know about,” Matthews said.

Denise, 35, now operates her Synergy Sweets business out of her home using a website and Instagram to get the word out. She also offers her goodies at a twice-monthly Saturday market at the Shops at Wiregrass in Wesley Chapel called the Fresh Market. She makes custom cakes and treats including cakecicles, brownies and cupcakes.

She attended culinary school in Fort Lauderdale and originally envisioned herself as a chef of savory dishes. But after her first baking and pastry class, she switched her major.

For Dessert Wars she made a variety of temptations, including a turtle brownie, a guava cheesecake that is one of Synergy Sweets’ bestsellers and the winning Snickers Cupcake with homemade peanut butter nougat.

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“I’m so big on flavors, that’s really why I bake,” Denise said.

If you go

Dessert Wars: Dozens of vendors will compete for the People’s Choice and judges’ trophy. General admission is $45 for 30 sample dessert tickets with a to-go box. A $20 upgrade gets 50 sample tickets. 3-7 p.m. Oct. 22. Florida State Fairgrounds, 4802 U.S. 301 N, Tampa. dessert-wars.com/tampa.

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