Small Business Spotlight: Brown Sugar Bakery Hits the Sweet Spot Between Homey and Gourmet
“Some people talk about passion,” said Stephanie Hart, owner of Brown Sugar Bakery on East 75th Street in Chicago’s Chatham neighborhood, “I’m about discipline.”
That nose-to-the-grindstone practicality has helped Hart establish the go-to place for sweet treats on the city’s Southside and a bakery known throughout the city for its delicious cakes and confections. Even Vice President Kamala Harris knew to grab dessert there when she was in town two years ago.
The bakery offers pies, cobblers, cookies, cupcakes, puddings, chocolates, and more in addition to cakes. Customers can make in-house purchases and place orders through the bakery’s website for local delivery, pickup, or nationwide shipping. Cakes also ship nationwide through the Goldbelly and Tastes of Chicago websites.
Brown Sugar’s most popular dessert is a decadent caramel cake, and Hart’s personal favorite is the pineapple coconut cake. Vice President Harris had the German chocolate cake and received caramel, lemon, and strawberry cupcakes to take home.
Hart, a participant in The Polsky Center’s Small Business Growth Program, launched the Southern-style bakery in 2002 after 20 years running her own technology company. The serial entrepreneur said she wanted to create a space to honor and celebrate the types of cakes her grandmother and the other women in her community made, and to share the messages they sent via dessert.
“I wanted to share the sense of family and community that I felt while eating cakes like these,” she said. “Desserts were more than an after-dinner treat to me. They were a gift. A way to show you loved someone and a sign that you were loved.”
Awards bring awareness, business
A self-taught baker, Hart spent years perfecting her recipes. She traveled the country tasting cakes and consulting traditional Southern bakers to ensure the right textures and flavors.
“One thing I am is a scientist, so my product has always been good,” Hart says.
That statement was confirmed in 2014, when Brown Sugar Bakery was named Best Bakery in America by the Steve Harvey Show. A customer nominated the bakery for the award and contenders vied for the most votes through social media.
The recognition started a wave of awareness that raised the profile of the bakery, which had struggled financially until that point. Later that same year, Hart competed in the Food Network’s Holiday Baking Championship.
“The first few years at the bakery were just horrible,” Hart said. “Every entrepreneurial nightmare you can think of, I had. But once I started getting national exposure, things started getting easier.”
More awards soon followed. The James Beard Foundation named Hart a finalist for its Outstanding Baker Award in 2019. In 2022, the Southern Food Alliance named her the Karen Barker Baker, an especially meaningful award for Hart.
“That really moved me because I received the award in Oxford, Mississippi, which is the area that my grandmother hails from and the kinds of food and cake I grew up eating and treasuring,” she said. “Like for real, for real? It’s the old lady from Mississippi that I care about.”
Big plans for the future
Hart now plans to build on the momentum the awards and the awareness have brought her. Her first step was purchasing a 10,000-square-foot factory in 2020 that formerly housed Cupid Candies. Through the purchase, she inherited candy making equipment and has started a line of chocolates called “Brown Sugar Life is Sweet,” which is available at the bakery, Macy’s, and other retailers.
She plans to renovate the factory’s kitchen space to allow her to bake there, freeing up space on 75th street and allowing her to increase production. She can then expand retail at her 75th street location.
“My goal for 75th is to make it an experience so when you walk in, you can learn about cake making and the history of brown sugar cakes,” she said.
She’s also in the process of turning her famous recipes into cake mixes for national distribution and has recently partnered with global food distributor Sysco to sell her desserts to restaurants.
Part of what drives Hart to grow and succeed is the impact she has had in the bakery’s predominantly African-American neighborhood.
“In many ways, the health of my business is a litmus test for the health of businesses in my community, which is extremely motivating,” said Hart, who employees 44 people between the factory and the bakery. “I want to provide sustainable jobs in my community and prove that if you struggle and fight to the next level, you can achieve it.”
The Polsky Center has provided guidance and advice throughout the growth of Hart’s business. She first worked with the center in 2015 to complete market research for a now-closed Navy Pier location. Then, Polsky helped her navigate the pandemic by showing her how to integrate shipping into her business, eliminating the need to use third-party vendors that charge as much as 40% of the purchase price, she said. Today, she’s implementing research conducted with The Polsky Center on how to automate her factory.
“I think what The Polsky Center offers to entrepreneurs is extremely critical,” she said. “I think one of the hardest things for entrepreneurs who want to grow is having that person that has that next level experience. If you don’t personally have the experience, you probably don’t at that point have the money to pay for it. So, having those kinds of resources that you can dream with and create with is invaluable.”