CHATHAM — For Stephanie Hart, the owner of Brown Sugar Bakery, the secret behind creating any dessert is appreciating its imperfections.
Hart has spent countless days and even longer nights nailing the imperfections she embraces. Today, not only does she own one of the South Side’s most notable bakeries, she owns the building that houses it, too, at 328 E. 75th St.
“We got the keys,” the bakery posted Aug. 2 on Instagram.
For Hart, it’s a culmination of 17 years in the business as a self-taught baker.
“People always strive for perfection, and I love that my cakes are perfectly imperfect,” Hart said. “And my hope is after you eat them, you feel something that reminds you of family and friends and times of being loved. That’s my goal.”
Hart said there would be no Brown Sugar Bakery without the love and labor of grandmothers past.
As a child, desserts were more than a treat after dinner; they were a gift, Hart said. If a loved one labored over a hot oven to prepare a cake, pie or plate of cookies for you, it was a special day.
Most importantly, Hart said, it was a sweet sign you were loved.
“I revered the women in my community that made the red velvet cakes, pound cakes, butter rolls and the butter cookies,” Hart said. “They were goddesses to me because of how wonderful I felt when I had those foods.”
Over sweet cakes and hearty dinners, Hart’s family united as one, she said.
Conversations about the world from the point of view of the young and old infiltrated most meals. The kitchen was a safe place, but it was also a place where lessons, like how to ice a cake, were taught, Hart said.
Hart said she knew she wanted to bring that feeling of love and community to the world before she started the bakery.
“Family to me is everything. It’s how I learned,” Hart said. “My dream was that people would feel the love that I felt from cakes of my culture in the African-American community. My memories of receiving these cakes is a big thing that I wanted to be able to give to people.”
‘Maybe I Stand A Chance’
Hart spent 20 years working in the technology industry in Chicago. By 2003, she was ready to open her own bakery, she said.
She’d searched endlessly for a place to set up shop without success — until she arrived in Chatham for a hair appointment for her daughter, Hart said.
“When I drove down 75th Street, I was amazed,” Hart said. “There was an art gallery, shoe shops and tailor shops. There was Lem’s Bar-B-Q and Soul Vegetarian. I had never seen anything like that in Chicago that was all Black-owned. I thought, ‘Wow, maybe I stand a chance.’”
Without a doubt, Hart knew she wanted to bring a bakery to the community, she said. In 2004, she opened the doors to her own business at 720 E. 75th St. The move to the bakery’s current location would come a few years later.
An avid rock and roll fan, Hart said she plucked the name of her business from one of her favorite bands, the Rolling Stones. The tune: “Brown Sugar.”
“That was the song I used to protect myself in high school,” Hart said. “I was at Downers Grove South [High School] in the late ’70s, and although that area has changed, I was definitely on the open end of integration. I used to tell them, ‘I don’t care if you call me something and I’m not, because you sing about me every day.’”
‘One Day, I’m Going To Buy This Building’
Hart said she hit the ground running.
Her dream had always been to open her business. With that checked off of her list, she faced a new challenge: affording rent.
“Back in 2007 and 2008, I used to go down to the liquor store and work after I closed my business until 2 a.m. to make the money to pay the rent,” Hart said. “I’ve been here a long time and, when you start out, you have to decide what you’re willing to do. I was willing to do it.”
On days when Hart was exhausted from the tiring work of having two jobs and raising a child, she said she still kept going.
She would tell people that one day she was going to buy the building, Hart said.
“I said it probably a million times. I’d tell them to just hold on and wait and see.”
Eventually, though, Hart learned what giving your all to something could do if you don’t take the time to breathe along the way, she said. She hit a wall in 2009 when she broke her leg after a bad fall.
“I was about to give up,” Hart said. “After I’d fallen and cracked my leg, I was in a wheelchair. But a lady walked into the bakery, and she told me that she had just gotten her certificate for being two years clean and sober. She told me that she had been watching me come here every day. I motivated her.”
That feeling of community and support encouraged Hart to keep going, she said.
That experience also helped her find her forever customers: people who love family and creating a community of love as much as she does.
“I’ve learned that being part of a community like this is so much more rewarding than I really ever knew,” Hart said. “My customers are people who have felt love through dessert. Over time, I have found that it doesn’t even mean that you have to be African American. You just have had to have that experience in your culture, and the cake crosses cultures because love crosses cultures.”
‘Dotting I’s And Crossing T’s’
The journey to ownership took years of maturing, Hart said.
When she opened her bakery, Hart was focused on accomplishing goals within a year and wasn’t looking at the bigger picture, she said.
“I feel like my focus was always really tight,” Hart said. “I wish someone had told me that you can accomplish more in 10 years instead of focusing on one year. I wish I had thought more long-term.”
Hart said she also had to mature to learn how to manage her business the right way.
“Ownership requires that you keep your books in a certain way and that you have financial statements and file your taxes on time,” Hart said. “It took business maturity to start doing the things that ownership requires.”
Three years ago, Steve Hall, senior director for economic development lending and small business at the Local Initiative Services Corporation, which supports small business owners, told Hart she should own the building, she said.
“I had a lot of ‘buts,’ and he was like, ‘There are no buts,’ ” she said.
Over the next three years, Hart “worked her butt off” to become the owner of the building, she said.
“It was a journey of me becoming a better business person; dotting my I’s and crossing my T’s.”
On Aug. 2, Ahmad “Eddie” Elkhatib, owner of A&S Beverages and Brown Sugar Bakery’s building, handed Hart the keys to the establishment.
“None of my accomplishments means as much as this,” Hart said. “Ahmad and I have been on a very long journey together. There was a lot of lean times, a lot of ups and downs, as the business grew and we found our audience. But he believed in the bakery, and the day came.”
‘Securing A Legacy’
Today, Hart, who seven years ago appeared on the Food Network, said her new goal is to secure her legacy in the bakery industry.
She said she plans to make her desserts available everywhere with nationwide shipping. After that, she wants to sell her cake mixes at grocery stores across the country.
And after 17 years of mastering the perfection of imperfection, Hart said she wants to continue to honor the women before her who showed her love can be shared with a slice of pie, a piece of cake and all the sweet things in between.
“Everything that I do is for all the old ladies that got overlooked for somebody that made a fondant cake,” Hart said. “I’m hoping and praying that these cakes represent good times, family and a resurgence of the love of soul food like the cakes that my grandmother made.”
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