Three Sweet Success Stories of North Carolina Bakers
photograph by Johnny Autry

 

Short Street Cakes • Asheville

Jodi Rhoden looks back and forth, back and forth between the wedding cake and the window. It’s late afternoon on a bright day in Asheville: honeysuckle air, pillowy clouds, robin’s-egg skies.

The three-tier cake, which Rhoden just stacked, is lemon with cream cheese frosting, covered in 4 o’clock sunshine. At 6, her friends will be married.

She looks back and forth again. Wedding cake, window. Frosting, sun. The table has to move.

Rhoden grabs one side and enlists a helper to pick up the other. She counts aloud — “One, two, three!” — then tiptoes toward the shade. “One, two, three!”

Rhoden pulls out her pastry bag and offset spatula. She squeezes and swooshes and spreads. The sides stay unfrosted — or, in industry terms, “naked.”

Rhoden strolls around the room, plucking blossoms from arrangements. She fastens them to the cake, then steps backward and tilts her head. She adds a flower here and there, then smiles and nods.

It’s ready.

• • •
 

Rhoden made her first wedding cake 10 years ago. It was the summer of 2006, less than a year after she had her son, Jasper. It was a trying time: “Very difficult and beautiful and rewarding — constantly having to catch up,” she says. As she settled into her new role as a mother, Rhoden dealt with financial stresses and loneliness. She craved a way to support not just her family, but her community, too.

Then a friend got engaged. She asked if Rhoden, who used to work at West End Bakery in Asheville, wanted to make the cake. Though Rhoden had specialized in breads, she agreed.

Three Sweet Success Stories of North Carolina Bakers

Cake ladies of the New South: Olga Perez (left), the new owner of Short Street Cakes, and former owner Jodi Rhoden share a slice and a memory. photograph by Johnny Autry

It went well. And so did another. And another.

“It was kind of accidental,” Rhoden laughs. “I found myself doing wedding cakes every weekend, and I was like, ‘Oh! I’m actually running a business now.’”

She worked out of her pink house on Short Street for three years, during which time the demand surged for her products. Rhoden learned to write a business plan and started searching for brick-and-mortar locales.

On Mardi Gras in 2009, Short Street Cakes opened on Haywood Road. The space is intimate and colorful, with mismatched cake stands and vintage aprons, racks and mixing bowls, pans of dark chocolate cake and piping bags of peanut butter frosting. From the few tables up front, where customers enjoy slices of sour-cream pound cake and lemon poppy seed cupcakes, you can smell sugar and watch the kitchen buzz. It feels like a home.

“I want your grandmother to be able to come into the cake shop, understand what we’re doing, and appreciate it,” Rhoden says.

Short Street Cakes’ menu celebrates classic recipes with contemporary spirit. Fresh-grated coconut cake with seven-minute frosting. Skillet-baked pineapple upside-down cake. Banana pudding cake.

One regular, who happened to be an editor at Lark Crafts, was so smitten with Short Street — and Rhoden’s baking blog, “My Life in Cake” — that one day, she asked for more than just a cupcake. She wanted a book proposal.

• • •
 

“Almost every town in the South, large or small, has a cake lady,” Rhoden writes in Cake Ladies: Celebrating a Southern Tradition. “My work as a baker was a part of something larger than myself, a lineage of women who were in similar circumstances and had come to the same conclusions, and met with the same challenges and rewards.”

“I encountered all of these wisdom-keepers, not just of cake, but of life.”

The “cake lady” archetype is as much about butter and sugar as it is about family, community, and self-sufficiency. If convenience-food products were initially advertised to liberate women from domesticity, cake ladies take back the kitchen. By making homemade cakes and selling them for local celebrations, the women are also making their own success.

Rhoden’s cookbook, which was published in 2011, collects the stories and recipes of 17 cake ladies from six states across the South.

“I was interested in learning about the lives of women who, like me, had used cake to elevate themselves,” she says. “I encountered all of these characters and wisdom-keepers — not just of cake, but of life.”

Indeed, flipping through the pages of Cake Ladies evokes a poignant sense of sisterhood. There is Betty Compton, from Cedar Grove, in Orange County, and her famous vanilla almond pound cake — plus the equally famous 50-cent antique Bundt pan she bakes it in.

There is Johnnie Gabriel, from Marietta, Georgia, and her family recipe for lemon cheese layer cake, a yellow cake smothered in bright, tart lemon curd.

And then there is Olga Perez.

• • •
 

Rhoden first met Perez through her fieldwork for Cake Ladies. At the time, Perez, a native of Hidalgo, Mexico, was selling tres leches cakes and flan out of her home in Asheville, where she lives with her husband, Tomas Aguilar, and their three daughters.

In a scene from Cake Ladies, Perez talks to Rhoden about her aspirations — to pursue baking, to further her education, to provide for her family: “Like all Mexican women, I’m trying to get ahead,” Perez says.

Three Sweet Success Stories of North Carolina Bakers

After seven years at Short Street Cakes, Jodi Rhoden passed the torch to her main baker, Olga Perez, whose dream was to own a cake shop. photograph by Johnny Autry

Two years after Cake Ladies’ release, Rhoden hired Perez, who was looking for a job. “She’s the fastest, most prolific, most perfect baker I’ve ever met in my life,” Rhoden says.

Perhaps that’s because, to Perez, the work doesn’t feel like work: “From the first time I started working here, I thought, ‘This is the best job ever.’”

• • •
 

Last year, Rhoden broke the news: She was selling Short Street Cakes. The announcement shook the tight-knit staff, but it was Perez who started sobbing.

Short Street Cakes was successful. But as the business demanded more from Rhoden, she’d put her passions for writing and social justice work on the back burner.

Rhoden now teaches business planning and baking classes. She also bakes at home with her family and friends, more than she has in years.

“The shop carried me over troubled waters to a better place,” she says. “It carried me across this decade into who I am now, and who I was supposed to be.”

• • •
 

On Mardi Gras 2016, exactly seven years after Short Street Cakes opened, the shop celebrated a new owner: Perez. Of course, she made a seven-tier cake for the party.

“Everything happened within a month,” Aguilar says. “We went from thinking, ‘It would be so nice to own the cake shop,’ to thinking, ‘We’re going to own the cake shop!’”

Aguilar smiles at his wife. “She was the most excited, though. It’s always been her dream. This cake shop means everything to her, really.”

When Rhoden visits the shop, she and Perez act less like colleagues and more like friends, even sisters — two cake ladies whose stories support each other, like cake and frosting.

Perez epitomizes “the New South,” Rhoden says — someone who grew up with a dream and chased it for miles, for years. “Olga’s harnessed all her power and leveraged it toward this thing that uplifts herself and her family — and I think that’s what it means to be a cake lady.”

— Emma Laperruque

Short Street Cakes
225 Haywood Road, Asheville, NC 28806
(828) 505-4822 or shortstreetcakes.com


Cindy’s Kitchen • Barco

You’re driving down Caratoke Highway south of the Virginia border when your tummy rumbles. Lucky for you, a gas station called Kevin’s appears alongside the highway in Barco, just before Coinjock. Even luckier, what’s inside isn’t your typical gas-station fare. Lined up on a shelf, luscious homemade cakes glisten under plastic wrap with labels that read, “Cindy’s Kitchen 12-Layer Chocolate Cake.” On another shelf, more 12-layer cakes vie for your attention: coconut, caramel, and raspberry-coconut cream cheese. In the fridge behind you, plastic containers of chicken salad are stacked neatly beside fresh green salads topped with grated carrots.

You buy a slice of chocolate cake along with some sweet tea in a Styrofoam cup. When you walk outside, you don’t even make it to the car before you unwrap the cake and dig in. Twelve thin layers of buttery goodness, with chocolate icing sandwiched between, washed down with cold sweet tea. You turn around, head back into Kevin’s, and grab a whole cake to go because you want more.

Who’d have guessed that this hidden treasure of homemade goodies could be found in a convenience store? And where did Cindy learn to bake such great cakes?

• • •
 

Wearing a navy blue baseball cap with a narrow ponytail down her back and silver wire-rimmed glasses, Cindy Spain gives a tour of her busy kitchen, located in a nondescript building next to the filling station, where five or six employees are elbow-deep in food prep. This is her domain, where she’s most comfortable. “I’m just a back-house kind of person,” she says with a shy smile.

Cindy grew up in a house where food wasn’t a big deal. Her mama ran a bait and tackle store on NC Highway 158 after Cindy’s dad retired. “We sold worms,” Cindy says. “I never remember Mama baking a cake. She was a tomboy.”

Three Sweet Success Stories of North Carolina Bakers

Married 32 years, Kevin and Cindy Spain run a filling station, but their true calling is cakes — big ones. photograph by Chris Hannant

It was Cindy’s husband, Kevin, who got her into the food business. “We were running a gas station next to my mama’s bait business,” she explains. “Folks would always ask, ‘Where’s a good place to eat?’ At that time, there was no place on the highway in Coinjock, so we decided we would give the food business a shot.”

They set up a kitchen and started cooking. Cindy says she threw a lot of food out the window and worried about which side of the hamburger to put the ketchup on, but she persevered, thanks to Kevin’s constant encouragement.

“He said, ‘You can do this!’ He still thinks that,” Cindy says. “He thinks I can do anything. People will order pies or cakes, and I’ll say, ‘Come on, I’ve never done that,’ and he’ll say, ‘I know, but you can.’ ” They’ve been married 32 years. “We have been partners from the very beginning,” Cindy says.

At first, Cindy’s Kitchen did takeout. “Mostly we did seafood and sandwiches,” she says. “It wasn’t a lot of baking.” She and Kevin added a small dining area, but ended up needing the space for food prep as Cindy’s to-go food items became more popular. Around the same time, they built the gas station next door and started selling Cindy’s food there.

“It’s never been about getting rich. It’s about making a difference.”

Kevin made most decisions about what kind of food Cindy should make, but the cakes were her idea. “There was a lady on Church’s Island that made a 10-layer cake,” says Cindy, who decided to bake one with 12 layers and create her own recipe. Afterward, she heard that many women on Hatteras Island made layered cakes. “They call them funeral cakes because, when somebody died, that’s what the women would make to carry to the families,” she says.

Multilayer cakes like Cindy’s have a long history in the South, and you can find them from Alabama to Smith Island in the Chesapeake Bay. “I’ve also heard that in Richmond at Thalhimer’s, which isn’t there anymore, they used to sell a layer cake in a red-checker box,” Cindy says. “People say this reminds them of that a lot, too.”

The 12-layer chocolate cake is everyone’s favorite, hands-down. “Right now we’re baking about 60 a week,” Cindy says. “Holidays we do maybe 125, so it’ll fall around 80 or 90 in the summertime for that one cake.”

• • •
 

Cindy and Kevin work long days. They’re both up at 3:30 a.m., and Kevin opens the store at 4:30 every morning. Next door, Cindy’s Kitchen is humming with activity long before that. Employees arrive at 10 p.m. to start baking biscuits for the next morning. Cindy comes in at 4:30 a.m. to bake cakes. Their daughters and granddaughters show up at 6 a.m. to help before heading to school.

Three Sweet Success Stories of North Carolina Bakers

Cindy Spain builds a 12-layer masterpiece at her cake shop next door to Kevin’s gas station in Barco. photograph by Chris Hannant

Kevin’s is a popular gathering spot for students from nearby Currituck County High School, who line up to buy sweet tea and biscuits every morning. “Generations of the children come in and leave and go to college and come back, and they’ll say, ‘You know, I’ll never forget coming here for Kevin’s sweet tea,’” Cindy says.

Kevin was diagnosed with cancer last year, and the students all came to have tea as a show of support. “Kevin and I were in Philadelphia at the oncologist when the kids decided to do this,” she says. “We went through at least a thousand gallons of iced tea that day. We had to go buy more 50-pound bags of sugar.

“Kevin is very humble, and when he got sick, the outpouring of this community was incredible,” Cindy continues. She puts on a brave smile. “This cancer will probably take Kev, but you know, I’ve said it a hundred times, if people will just see all you had to do was be kind. That’s all: Be nice. I don’t think we could leave a better legacy than that.”

Being nice, being kind. It’s a recipe that has served Cindy and Kevin well as they’ve built their business and their lives together.

“It’s never been about getting rich. It’s about making a difference in the community,” Cindy says. She heads back into the kitchen to put icing on her cake.

— Peggy Sijswerda

Kevin’s Store and Cindy’s Kitchen
4511 Caratoke Highway, Barco, NC 27917
Store: (252) 453-6800
Kitchen: (252) 453-4855


Scratch Baking • Durham

Behind glass rests a most perfect pie: a cumulus cloud of cream floating atop knolls of fruit. The strawberry cream pie at Scratch Baking in Durham is one of baker and owner Phoebe Lawless’s favorites, and it’s clearly sought-after by her customers. If she places it in the chilled case by mid-morning, the pie will have disappeared, piece by piece, by mid-afternoon.

The bakery’s name is a nod to her mother. Lawless, the youngest of eight children, grew up in Hendersonville, prime apple country. (Nonetheless, she always ate pumpkin pie on her birthday. She was born in September.) Although her mother cooked family meals from scratch, “she wasn’t a baker,” Lawless says. Undaunted by her lack of experience and interest, her mother entered the Henderson County apple pie contest — and won. Lawless laughs, just remembering it. “I’m sure she did not make her own crust.”

To master the pie, you must become one with the fruit. You must make peace with the pastry.

Lawless does make her own crust, and that makes her customers happy. With about 10 tables, Scratch is always packed for breakfast and lunch. Yet the bakery’s better known as a mecca for pie lovers. Year-round, a slice of chocolate chess or buttermilk sugar is available. For fruit pies, though, Lawless uses locally grown ingredients, and marks the seasons with pie: blueberry-rhubarb, strawberry-rhubarb, and honeysuckle chess in spring; blackberry, peach, and sweet-corn chess in summer; sweet potato, pecan, and apple in fall and winter.

“If you’re new to pie-making, expect to spend some time with the pastry to come out with something successful,” Lawless says. That’s precisely what she and her team of three bakers do. On this particular Friday, they’re making 48 blueberry pies, just for the weekend.

To master the pie, you must become one with the fruit. You must make peace with the pastry.

Three Sweet Success Stories of North Carolina Bakers

She knows her dough: Phoebe Lawless of Scratch Baking is one of North Carolina’s best pie-makers. photograph by Lissa Gotwals

Fruit pies are the most challenging to teach and to master. Locally grown fruits are not as perfect and uniform as commercially produced varieties, and have to be gleaned and pampered. Like people, fruits change throughout their lives, not only because of their own internal rhythms, but also because of the weather. “The same pie you make in April will have a different result in June,” Lawless says. “When we mess up a pie, it usually happens at the beginning of the season.”

An early strawberry is whiter on the inside and contains more pectin. While that’s a perfect combination for strawberry-rhubarb pie, “it’s not something you want to eat a bowl of,” she says.

Blueberries, though, are dependable and less prone to mood swings because of the weather. “I love them because they’re a workhorse,” Lawless says. Scratch’s blueberry-rhubarb pie, with fruit swaddled in a crisp crust, is both sweet and tangy.

Come cold weather, when the warm aroma of apples fills the bakery, the counter of Scratch isn’t bare like the trees, but it is less colorful than in the summer. The vibrant blues and reds and yellows have faded, replaced by the garnet hues of apples and the tawny tones of pecans. “Our counter looks brown,” Lawless says, laughing. “It gets old, cooking brown food.”

When you’ve perfected the art of managing fruit, you can understand the science of how pastry behaves. Overwork it or add too much water, and the pastry becomes tough and crumbly. The key to crafting pie pastry, Lawless says, “is to be relaxed when you’re making it.” Stop for a while. Place the pastry in the fridge. Pop a berry in your mouth. Maybe pour a glass of wine. The pastry won’t mind.

— ­Lisa Sorg

Scratch Baking
111 Orange Street, Durham, NC 27701
(919) 956-5200 or piefantasy.com

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