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Former nurse Dianne Tillman finds sweet smell of success creating funnel cakes

It isn’t hard to find Diane Tillman’s tent at the Democratic National Convention’s Legacy Village – just follow the unmistakable smell of funnel cakes.

By 11 a.m. Tuesday, setup at the Funnel Cake by Diane tent was nearly finished. All Tillman had left was to create the elaborate display that welcomes customers to the tent:3-inch-tall funnel cakes, some topped with vibrant red strawberry topping, some with chocolate fudge, others with her “special caramel sauce” and all with a delicate dusting of powdered sugar.

Pink tulle flower in her hair, you would never know the 58-year-old great-grandmother had been setting up in the humidity since 8:30 that morning.

“This is like the highlight of my whole funnel cake adventure – being here at this convention,” she said. “I never thought I would do anything this big. It’s been a ride.”

Funnel Cake by Diane was one of 10 food vendors approved by the Charlotte in 2012 Convention Host Committee to sell at Legacy Village all week. While Tillman was glad to say that on Monday she had made back all of the $4,500 fee paid to rent the 7-by-7-foot space for four days, the 11-year funnel cake veteran said the money is not the most important thing for her.

“The money is wonderful, too, but it’s not really about that. I just love what I do.”

Frying up fluffy funnel cakes wasn’t always what this Charlottean did. Twelve years ago she was working as a private-duty nurse for Presbyterian Hospital when she had her first taste of funnel cake at Carowinds.

“I said, ‘Oh this tastes good, but it’s so greasy,’ ” she recalled. “I just had a vision right there – right then – that I could make a funnel cake that wasn’t greasy.”

Tillman asked her supervisor at the hospital if she could adjust her hours, to work mostly weekends, while she perfected her recipe. Nine months and many samples by her family and neighbors later, she created her funnel cake batter. She drew from her mother’s family recipe for what she called “sweetbread,” adding a secret ingredient that keeps the final fried goodness from leaving the grease slick typical of many funnel cakes.

“I kept on making it until God gave me that recipe and I felt like this was the best thing I ever tasted in my life,” she said. “I tell you, it was so good and I decided I would take this on the road.”

So Tillman took a container of batter out to the Freedom Drive Flea Market with a promise to herself: “I said if I sell 10 funnel cakes, I will sell funnel cakes for the rest of my life.

“I sold 25 funnel cakes that day. I used up that whole little container of batter. I could not believe it.”

Hitting the road

After expanding her business to sell at local housing complexes or residential streets, Tillman decided to go to the Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation Department to see if they could help her grow her business. That is where she met Isaac Applewhite.

Applewhite, now treasurer for the Mecklenburg County Democratic Party, was a district supervisor for Park and Rec at the time. As someone who believed in supporting small businesses, he gave Tillman the opportunity to sell her funnel cakes at special events and on weekends.

“She built the business from zero. She just had her car and funnel cake machinery,” he said. “And now, she’s the queen of funnel cakes in this area.”

With the help of Applewhite, Tillman gave up nursing to focus on her sweet treats full time. “Isaac gave me my start, and I will never forget that. He believed in me,” she said.

Having traveled to sell her funnel cakes at countless high-school games, Christmas parades and other events in the Carolinas and Georgia, Tillman looks to the future of Funnel Cake by Diane. She says she’s getting older – her 59th birthday is next week—and can’t travel as much anymore. She also wants to be near her five grandchildren and twin great-grandsons who are less than a year old.

“I want to open a funnel cake store. We’ll have funnel cakes already made, and you could buy the batter and take it home with you,” Tillman said.

She hopes this week will help her make money and gain the exposure to local customers that will help her open her own shop.

Yet she said she had one more wish for the week:

“For Michelle Obama to come with Sasha and Malia to come eat one of my funnel cakes,” she said with a smile. “If my funnel cakes are good enough for them, they are good enough for everybody.”