April Richardson didn’t know a thing about frosting. Until a few years ago, she refused to even eat cake.
So the president of a suburban Maryland bake shop was at a loss when Starbucks responded to a lark e-mail she sent the company earlier this year and asked her to send a few samples of her wares to its Seattle headquarters. Her sister Deborah started Googling: How do you mail cake?
Richardson, 39, is in the business of saving businesses. For the past five years, it has been her mission to save Delectable Cakery. To her, it didn’t seem like savvy marketing to dispatch a cake on a 2,700-mile journey and pray that it would work out.
So she booked a flight, checked in at a hotel and sent the coffee giant an e-mail:
“I know you’re expecting UPS,” it read, “but you’re going to get me instead.”
Richardson met Derek Lowery sometime around 2010, at a Prince George’s County cafe where the baker was dishing out samples of his sweet potato cake. The health-conscious Richardson passed, but the two got to talking, and Lowery eventually confessed that Delectable Cakery, the company he’d founded years earlier, was in trouble.
Lowery says he had shrugged off the business for a few months to care for his mother in Oregon when her health worsened. Then, a few years later, the snowstorms of winter 2010 hit, and the problems began to compound.
Richardson listened. And then, finally, she ate some cake. And she promised to help.
The sweet potato cake that launched Lowery’s business came from his mother, Laurine. It was his signature from the moment he started selling them from a commercial kitchen at 14th and U streets NW in the 1990s. The recipe was simple: flour, sugar, oil, butter, nutmeg and tender sweet potato.
If he were on 14th Street today, Lowery’s quaint, old-school method of baking might be called artisanal. He peels, cooks and mashes the ochre-hued tuber himself. His operation, with four full-time employees (among the job titles is “head froster”), would be considered scrappy and upstart.
Along that stretch, and to any millennial with a Kickstarter and a dream of quitting his or her consulting job to bake biscuits, Washington seems to be the land of opportunity. It is less promising for long-established food businesses such as Lowery’s, which hinge not on trendy Korean tacos or mango-habanero ice creams, but on doing things the way they have always been done.
Meskerem in Adams Morgan, considered one of the nation’s oldest Ethiopian restaurants, quietly shuttered in April after 30 years. Mount Pleasant’s Heller’s Bakery closed last winter. It had been around since 1928. Richardson saw that Delectable Cakery needed to change to avoid the same fate. “I told Derek, ‘If you just do whatever I ask, I can turn the company around,’ ” she says. “Because it was tired at the time. Tired.”
The cake had not changed in 20 years, but the customers had.
“Our original customers, they’re like, just give me the cake. They don’t care what’s in it,” Richardson says. “The newer people are like, ‘What are the ingredients? How are they sourced? You’re using sweet potatoes? What farm?’ ”
Cakes, particularly if you’re not New Jersey’s “Cake Boss,” Baltimore’s “Ace of Cakes” or the sisters of Georgetown Cupcake, rarely make anyone wealthy. And there’s a little-discussed truth about the food business: Nor does a knack for blending flour and eggs automatically confer an affinity for numbers, for doling out payroll, for keeping costs down and for paying the rent on time.
That was Lowery — personable enough to sell birthday and wedding cakes to regulars and make a deal or two with big clients. Yet he never seemed to find solid financial footing.
He was similar to so many of the people Richardson saw every day.
After law school, Richardson worked for a firm that specialized in foreclosures, until she became bothered by all the homeowners who were losing their residences.
She started using her legal skills to help them instead. For a time, she worked as an assistant state’s attorney specializing in mortgage fraud. Frequently, behind the flailing homeowners were failing businesses, she says, and soon, she was offering her assistance wherever she could. (She keeps her day job; these days, she’s a lawyer for the federal government handling white-collar fraud.)
Richardson helped Lowery, 55, stay in his bakery, in a tiny office park near FedEx Field. It’s a GPS no-man’s land where visitors looking for a sugar fix regularly end up ringing the bell at a hair salon one building over. It won’t be home forever.
“Have you been to Dolcezza?” Richardson, who is settled into Delectable Cakery’s offices in Landover Hills asks. That artisanal gelato chainlet’s hip public factory near Union Market, she explains, is a model for the production operation and retail shop that she and Lowery envision opening in the next year. It will be in Hyattsville, Md., in the same strip where a pizza-and-craft-beer restaurant and an arts institution are going in, down the road from a Busboys and Poets, a grass-fed burger chain and a stylish local coffee roaster.
Richardson and Lowery are also rebranding their star product. “We need to rename the cake,” she recalls telling the staff. They landed on “DC Sweet Potato Cake.”
It rolls off the tongue, like, well, DC Brau.
On Saturday, DC Sweet Potato Cake displays, each packed with cupcakes and cake slices, will officially go into the pastry cases of more than 280 Starbucks stores from Baltimore to Front Royal, Va. Woven between the letters of the stylish new logo are cherry blossoms, a nod to all things local.
“My eyebrows kind of went up when she sent me an e-mail saying, ‘Hey, can I meet you today, I decided to hand-deliver the sample because I couldn’t ship it,’ ” says Mesh Gelman, Starbucks’s senior vice president of retail brand partnerships, recalling Richardson’s unexpected arrival at his doorstep.
He was also intrigued. “I have an entrepreneurial background, and that really resonated with me. That’s where I was like, ‘Huh, there’s something here. There’s more than a fascinating product here, there’s a fascinating story.’ ”
When Richardson shared it with him and other executives the next day, he was sold. He was struck most, he says, by her passion “to help the underdog.”
Three weeks later, Starbucks was testing the cakes in its Georgetown and Capitol Hill shops.
Richardson and Lowery joke that they are like “framily” now — friends who have become as tight as kin. With Richardson’s help, Lowery is beginning to think along the lines of millennials, dreaming up new lines, imagining flavors just as exotic as mango-habanero. There will be a cherry-blossom cake, he promises, with cherry frosting, and a Chocolate City cake, with three kinds of chocolate, dipped in white chocolate.
Call him the head of research and development.
“I told April, ‘I want to live in Germany; I want to move to Europe!’ ” he says with a gleam in his eye. “I have a dream to find new desserts we don’t have here. I might go to Italy and bring them here and start an international line.”
But first, he has another mission: to see his mom’s cake on everyone’s lips.
“One day, everyone will eat sweet potato cake,” he says, laughing. “That’s the plan.”