I have loved to bake all of my life. When I was a little girl, I would beg my grandmother to let me know when she was going to bake, so I could come over and help her. Nothing was as gratifying as being in her Brooklyn kitchen, smelling the cinnamon, yeast, and butter from her pies. I would break open the coconut, and grate it for her coconut layer cake. I would peel the peaches for her peach cobbler, and then suck on the pits. And, of course, I would peel the sweet potatoes for her famous sweet potato pie. Watching her, I learned each recipe by heart. There was no written recipe, and the ingredients were measured by hand, such as a cup of flour was a handful, and a teaspoon of salt was a pinch. By the time I was 8 years old, I could make several varieties of pies and cakes, all of course under the watchful eye of my grandmother. Whenever I would ask her why she did something, such as put butter into her crust, or grate a lemon to add the juice and rind to her pies, she would explain to me “Baby, the secret to a good pie is a good crust”, “Baby, always add lemon to fruit to bring out the sweetness” I loved the lessons as much as the desserts.
Something else amazing happened when I was 8, which further shaped my desire to bake. I met my great-grandmother, who had been born into slavery. The mother of my grandfather, she was 103 at the time, and she regaled me with stories of being born on the plantation. Slaves were emancipated when she turned 3 years old, and she then grew up during reconstruction. They were free, but few things changed in the way families lived, breathed, and died in Bishopville, South Carolina. Of course, I needed to know what they did for desserts. She gave me a recipe that I use to this day, a tea cake using only two tablespoons of butter, which is the basis for my strawberry shortcake. She couldn’t tell me, however, what temperature to bake it at, or for how long. She did remember how many bricks to put on the hearth, and how long to leave the cake on the baking board. It fascinated me to think of a time with no modern conveniences. For years, when I made whipped cream using an egg beater, or made cake batter using a wooden bowl and wooden spoon, I would pretend that I was a slave girl doing the best I could with what I had. In later years, when I was allowed to use the hand mixer, I would lick the beaters, but nothing ever took the place of that wooden spoon.
When I was 9 years old, I begged my mother for an Easy Bake Oven. For those of you old enough to remember those commercials, they showed a little yellow cake with chocolate frosting, and I soon lost my young mind. My mom did not want me to play with the electricity you needed for that oven to heat, but for some strange reason, she did not mind me playing with gas. She taught me how to make that cake from scratch, in a wooden bowl with a big wooden spoon for creaming the butter and sugar, and mixing the ingredients. I must have been traumatized from opening my gifts on Christmas and not finding that oven, because I never got over my passion for that little yellow cake on the commercial. I have baked hundreds of yellow cakes through the years in a vain attempt to fill the void of not having my Easy Bake. There is no Cakes Anonymous, so I ended up in business instead.
I remember being 10 years old, and that was a really big year for me. I was finally able to bake without supervision. My mother had given birth to my baby brother a year before, and she was back at work as a nurse, and her schedule was very demanding. I would tell her to take a nap, that I would cook dinner for the family, and, of course, make the dessert. I felt so grown-up. It usually consisted of Jell-O with fruit thrown in, topped with handmade whipped cream. But on the weekends, I got to make a cake, and I lived for the weekends.
When I got married, even though it was the 80’s and 90’s, and I was a New York woman, I had the habits of a North Carolina woman in the 50’s, all of which I had developed from my grandmother. My then husband worked at night, and when he came home in the morning he had a full breakfast. I made grits for breakfast, with scratch biscuits, or homemade coffee cake with apple and cinnamon topping, or pancakes with batter from scratch, as well as my own homemade syrup; dinner was fried chicken with shelled peas or fresh string beans with cornbread; I even used fresh tomatoes, and stewed them to make my own spaghetti sauce. And, of course, cake. My in-laws were a large family, and I made cakes for everyone’s birthday. Every year for the holidays, I would make at least 10 sweet potato and apple pies, plus a German Chocolate Cake, and my yellow cake, even though there was just my husband, daughter, and myself. I would invite the whole neighborhood and various assorted friends and relatives over to take a pie home.
In 1995, after running my first New York City Marathon, I attended a party for runners, and each of us had to bring food. I brought my sweet potato pies, and for the first time, people outside of my circle tasted my pies. The rest is history, or as I like to say, her story. Even though I only baked for love, by the end of the evening, people had shoved money into my pockets and insisted I make pies for them. Since I didn’t know what to charge, they gave me what they thought was appropriate, and I left the party with about $100.00, and several orders. Thus was the business born, in a basement, on $10.00 and 8 pies.
I can’t say it took off like a rocket; it was more like a wet firecracker that had to be relit several times, sparked, fizzled, sparked again, and then began a slow burn. My life had its ups and downs, and so did the business. I had a long road to success, with some hazard lights, stop signs, forks in the road, dead ends, and a lot of curves.
Even though I was making good money on the weekends and evenings, I listened to my mom, and I didn’t leave my day job. I brought the pies into work, and delivered on my lunch hour and after work. However, after one too many pies in the office refrigerator, and all over my office, coupled with the fact that my mind was on building a sugar empire, and not on legal briefs, my day job left me. Out of work, I was now in business full time, and set about trying to build that empire. I had too little business experience to realize what lay ahead, or beneath, or around, but what I lacked in experience I more than made up for in enthusiasm.
When trying to come up with a name for the company, my daughter reminded me of the secrets my grandmother had passed on to me, and the company was then named. I cannot tell you how much business has come my way because customers loved the name of the company and decided to give me a try. I hope my daughter will not seek royalties for her part in my success.
With no financing, no resources, and very little money, I had to learn to barter, such as pies for copies, brownies for typing, cakes for publicity. I don’t think I made too many mistakes; I think I found many ways in which to not run a business. I made successes out of my failures. My greatest success came from the fact that I worked from my home, and had no way to open a bakery. I had to bring the desserts to the customers. In the pre-Internet days, home delivery was reserved for Chinese take-out. I kept telling people that I was only delivering until I could open a shop. Every time I said that, the customer would tell me how they loved the delivery, the convenience of not having to schlep a cake or pie all over the place was wonderful. It wasn’t long before I realized I had begun a trend, and decided to make “Home Baked Goods to Go” my slogan. I then emphasized the delivery aspect of the business, and what began as a shortcoming became one of my greatest strengths.
When asked what other items I made, since the pies were so good it was assumed I must be able to make other things, I made a list of those other things, and my menu was then born. It was filled with various pies and cobblers, and of course, that yellow cake. Then, each time I remembered another cake I knew how to make, the menu expanded to include it. Eventually, even though I started as the Pie Lady, I soon came to be known as the Cake Lady. Simple everyday cakes soon became birthday cakes, shower cakes, wedding cakes, and then the custom cakes that are the hallmark of the business today.
So, welcome to my delectable world of delights. Take a tour of the menu, I promise there is something here for everyone. I hope you enjoyed your visit, and I look forward to creating memories for you!