My original goal was to represent or build a space where African-American desserts could be celebrated. Bakeries in my community were dying, and a cake like my grandmother made wasn’t available unless you had the hookup with the lady on the block, or you had a cousin that did it. So my goal was to celebrate the women that I felt the most love from. And I felt love through their desserts. Our family, like many African-American families, we didn’t go on vacations. We went on the Fourth of July to a wonderful barbecue that my grandmother would do that ended in some fabulous peach cobbler or cherry pie or whatever the thing was for that season. And it was made with so much love and care. Desserts are something that I’m very picky about, and that most people are not. Most people, if they get their shot of sugar, that’s good enough. And for me, it’s not good enough.
Our caramel cake is our biggest seller – it constitutes about 60 percent of my sales. To make the caramel that I make was such a challenge, but it also made my business, and I swear I was able to do it because I’m more of a scientist than I am an artist. And when I got that caramel right, the floodgates open, literally, I’ve started selling cake slices in gas stations and fast food places like Harold’s Chicken, which is a very popular Chicago food chain. And I put an 800 number on the packag because the city said, “You have to be accountable. You can’t put these cakes in here blindly. You have to have a way for the customer to reach you.” And people were calling me saying, “I’m at 63rd and Stony Island, and they don’t have any cake.” And I’d be like, “Okay, what do you want me to do about it?”
If you’re going to scale up at all, the first thing you’ve got to do is look at how you can be faster, stronger, better, with the same quality. I would say prep is the number one thing. Coming in after that is organizing to be as close to production as you can. So if you get 10 orders, do you put the two that are alike together, or do you just work the orders? Oftentimes people are behind. So what you need for today has to be done yesterday. I would say my biggest tip to getting faster and more efficient is proper prep. And for some reason, people in the bakery industry believe that everything has to be made today to be the highest quality, and that’s a lie from hell. That’s how we function. Restaurants prep all the time, but bakeries don’t tend to prep. They tend to work, right? It’s coming out of the oven now. Well, we start at four o’clock. Well, as you get bigger, you can’t start at four o’clock. You need to start at six the day before.
One of the first things that really helped me was an adjustable blade for cutting cakes. I really needed to make my cakes even, and I started using a level blade. The one that we use in our bakery is kind of band saw system that we had a guy come in and make for us. Actually, I just invested in major cake automating equipment, so we won’t be hand cutting our cake anymore. Another tool we use all the time is the cake turntable. I’ve got the flat ones, the Wilton ones, and I can set up a whole table of cakes that I can spin at one time. So I’ll have 18 of those set up on a table, and then as I fill the layer I move along, somebody comes behind me and puts the next layer on, and then I go back and fill the next layer. And we work like we’re a factory.
Secret of Success
Consistency – I’m a freak about it. And by that I mean I use the same milk, the same butter, the same everything. If I have to change a vendor, it is a major situation because I’ve got to test everything. I’ve got to know how it’s going to affect everything else. I use one brand of butter, or whatever, just like my grandmother did. This is what I do, and I’ve stayed true to what I do and how it came out for me. So yeah, I think consistency and doing it the same is the most important thing. Just don’t take it for granted that you can make a change without it affecting your business. And maybe it’s a change for the better, but you better monitor it.
On the horizon for us is really moving this taste that we have created – and that I feel makes people happy and brings back happy memories – across this nation. And to do that, I am growing into a factory. I’m moving. And it’s not easy to do this because we just talked about my fanaticalness around ingredients that go into our cakes. Now I have to work to get all of my recipes to come out the same as they were coming out at the bakery in this factory. And it’s challenging. I’m knocking them down one at a time. We plan on cutting our ribbon in June of 2023, and we’ll be moving in there. We’re also adding ice cream cakes to our menu for summer.
For more info, visit www.brownsugarbakerychicago.com/
(This article appeared in the Spring 2023 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)