There are bakeries. And then there’s Brown Sugar Bakery. Nestled on a busy street in the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, Brown Sugar Bakery provides all the comforts of home with cakes that are steeped in African-American traditions. With treats so good they’d make your grandma proud (or jealous), owner Stephanie Hart and her staff have been serving up generous helpings of cakes and pies for the last 12 years. But please be forewarned that these cakes are not for the faint of heart. Her legendary caramel cake is the closest thing to perfection you will ever taste on this earth. Trust me.
I had a chance to chat with Hart to get the story behind the story of Brown Sugar Bakery, her commitment to connecting families through food and the one thing that she says she is terrible at baking. You just might (or might not) be surprised.
Hilary Christian: What was your inspiration for opening up a bakery?
Stephanie Hart: Well, my grandmother inspired me – or the lack of having her inspired me – to bake cakes. I have always been an entrepreneur, and I‘ve never really had a job. So this was not my first business. But the whole baking of the cakes came from my grandmother who baked, passing (away) and I never learned how to do it.
I started experimenting, which was a disaster in the beginning. I approached it from a scientific point of view. I kept refining and refining and probably too many days in, I finally got it right. So then I was baking out of a blind kitchen and selling cakes in stores. That lasted only a few months because I started being bombarded with people who wanted whole cakes immediately. So it was basic demand. It’s not romantic.
But I realized that, just like me, other people were longing for an experience with food. It was more than cake. It’s a feeling. It’s the memories. Whoever that lady was that baked with love and care from your childhood, that’s what people wanted and that’s really how it got started. It wasn’t thought out the way it should have been thought out. But here I am 12 years later.
HC: You say that it’s more than cake, it’s a feeling, and there is definitely a friendly and cozy feeling you get when you come into the bakery. Was having that kind of homey feeling intentional?
SH: Unfortunately, how I setup shop was not well thought. I think what you have is place that feels like home because it got developed like a lot of our homes get developed: under budget. It kind of evolved over time, kind of like a home does. The décor is kind of eclectic, which makes it feel like home and gives it that feeling. Usually with a new business, when they cut the ribbon, everything is perfect because they had a budget and money to work with, and I just didn’t have that.
‘A Mississippi Type of Tradition’
HC: Brown Sugary has a variety of unique cake flavors. Did those recipes evolve over time as well?
SH: The food came from a Mississippi type of tradition from the south, and I stay as true to it as a I can while having fun. I have injected my own personality and some of my other memories into the cakes. My grandmother didn’t like Rainbow sherbet cake, but we all had rainbow sherbet when we were kids, right? So I make a rainbow sherbet cake. I love Almond Joy candy bars, so I make an Almond Joy cake that is off the chain! I love peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, too, so I have a peanut butter and jelly cake that has its own fandom. And that’s how I’ve expanded my line of cakes, with my own childhood memories, but with a twist. And that makes it fun.
HC: Your cakes are definitely reminiscent of those childhood memories and feelings. Personally I’m a fan of the caramel cake and when I eat it, it makes me go back to that feeling…
SH: And that’s the objective. This is a celebratory part of food. It should not be a part of your regular diet. If you’ve been in my store you know that this is an adult treat. You don’t see children in here, unless they are with their parents. This is an adult treat, for that memory. I hope, though, as I grow my line and grow the things I am able to do, to start getting younger people to understand what the power of food is and the influence it has on family. Because in my generation, we ate together as a family growing up. It was one of the reasons why grandmother’s house was so loved, because you knew you were going to get something good from her.
HC: That’s true, But Soul food and what’s known as traditional African-American cuisine generally gets vilified because of the high salt or fat content. However, other well-known chefs like the Barefoot Contessa and Paula Dean make very rich dishes that call for a lot of butter and sugar in their recipes.
SH: Absolutely! I think it’s just ridiculous that people tend to vilify African American food versus any other food. You hear people saying how our food is traditionally so bad for us, right? But at the same time, macaroni and cheese has the exact same basic make-up as Fettuccini Alfredo, and I have never really seen that vilified as much. A family can go to a restaurant and have fettuccini and then followed with tiramisu or whatever else, and no one ever says anything.
HC: While I can understand some of the general health concerns, I was surprised to learn that you have been getting backlash for baking cakes. Why do you think that is?
SH: I don’t let people vilify the fact that I make cakes. I’ve had people say to me, ‘Well the black community has diabetes so why are you making cakes?’ I’m making cakes because it’s a part of life. It is. But choices you make are another thing.
But I think that the whole thing behind it is to drive us away from culture. And if you drive us away from culture, then we don’t stand up for anything. And we’ll eat anything. And when I say we’ll eat anything, I mean any nugget or any processed piece of garbage that comes out. So my response is, if I was feeding children, a piece of my pound cake may be better than probably the breakfast they get at home. There’s no artificial color. There’s no artificial flavor.
I am standing up for the fact that this (food) is part of our culture. Our culture, every culture has their own desserts. And you know caramel cake is black! I even spell it differently. It’s not caramel cake, it’s CARMEL cake. C-A-R-M-E-L. I’ve had people attack, as well, on the website for that. ‘Oh you spelled caramel wrong’. No, I spelled it the way I wanted to spell it! But this is what makes us, us. It’s what we make.
HC: So it’s not just about connecting community to culture but also bringing natural foods, even in sweets back to the community.
SH: Yes, it’s farm to table, which is really the foundation of our culture and food, but we don’t get credit for that in our community. I think more than organic – and this is really important to me – I think that when you prepare food and the outcome is intended to be something good, then that’s important. You know that these cakes are made with love. When you get a cake from Whole Foods it’s not going make you feel like this.
‘As Far as Baking? You Can’t Mess with Me’
HC: Chicago is a world-renowned food destination. But when media highlights our eateries, the South Side is largely ignored. What is it important to you to have a business located on the south side?
SH: Not only that, it was important to me to open up a shop on 75th Street because there’s a certain community here. There were other black businesses that were here when I opened up. Army and Lou’s was here, Lem’s Barbeque which is still open, Quench, Soul Vegetarian were here. We just had a community of businesses that attracted people to this street. I was actually looking in another neighborhood to start my business, but I was driving down 75th Street one day and saw all of these thriving businesses. I knew that could be incubated here.
HC: The restaurant business can be tough, and it is still male dominated. As a woman, did you find it difficult getting into the business?
SH: There’s tons of challenges being in a business. But as far as me baking? You can’t mess with me. I’m sorry I don’t give a dang who you are. Man woman child. (laughs)
But I think that men do dominate baking, and that’s because it’s heavy work. As you grow your business, it isn’t just one cake at a time. But what I have done successfully is take that one-cake-at-a-time recipe and make it into scalable mass production recipes. I am very proud of that.
HC: And that’s one of the hardest challenges for a small business. To scale up their business and not lose the authenticity.
SH: And the flavor! I’m proud of that. If you tell me your mama makes a better cake than me, I’m giving you the praise. But if you tell me a bakery makes a better cake than me, then I want to know where, because I’m getting ready to throw down. That gauntlet I will take. Any grandma can beat me. But any bakery? Nope.
HC: Well, is there something you can’t bake?
SH: I can’t make a boxed cake. I ruin it every time. I follow the directions, but every time they come out lopsided and lumpy. I don’t know what I do. It’s terrible.
‘I Am Absolutely Rebellious!’
HC: You’ve gotten quite a bit of media attention over the years. How does it feel to be recognized and to see how far you have come?
SH: It feels really good. I also feel … that there is more to do, and new places to go. I feel really excited about this second phase of what’s going to happen and potentially reaching more people with my product. I plan on going into a scenario where you can bake me at home. The frostings are pre-made, and you can frost your own cakes at home. I’m so excited about that.
HC: That is exciting! Congratulations to you.
SH: You know, I work my tail off. But there are times, like at Thanksgiving for example, when I finally crawl out of bed to eat my dinner, it’s always so humbling to think about how many times I am blessed by all the people partaking in my cake. It’s overwhelming.
HC: So what would you say makes you Rebellious?
SH: Oh, I’m absolutely Rebellious! Are you kidding me? I am on the block rebuking everything they say about us in the community. I am a food anarchist. My absolute demonstration of freedom in my community is my active rebellion. I ain’t acting right for anybody!
Visit Brown Sugar Bakery at 328 E. 75th St. in Chicago or at www.brownsugarbakerychicago.com