It all started with one cake — not just any cake — the pineapple coconut cake that Stephanie Hart’s grandmother baked for her every birthday and Christmas. The power of a childhood food memory set Hart on a journey to recreate a taste she’d been longing for, “I let my grandmother leave the planet without figuring out how to make my birthday cake,” says Hart. After testing dozens of recipes in her home kitchen, Hart finally found her cake once again and birthed a new business called Brown Sugar Bakery.
Brown Sugar is not your typical bakery. You won’t find pastel-colored macaron towers, cannolis nor cakes with Louboutin toppers here because as the former baker-owner now owner simply states, “That is not my childhood memory. That’s not what I crave.”
Brown Sugar’s cases are filled with banana pudding, cobblers, classic cakes like caramel, dreamsicle and German chocolate and new classics like the Obama cake which is made with layers of red velvet, yellow and chocolate cake and topped with cream cheese frosting, chocolate and pecans. There’s no question that the array of Southern-style desserts also tap into the food memories of the community she serves, “I picked a lane purposely because I saw it was being underserved. I’m giving them what they want.” And all signs indicate she is giving them what they want. This past holiday season, in the days leading up to Thanksgiving and Christmas, Brown Sugar serviced 2,000 customers in just six days.
Hart calls herself a “food anarchist,” wears locks, sometimes with a bandana, and does not sugarcoat words. As the face of Brown Sugar, Hart has mindfully decided to be her authentic self, a reflection of her grandmother. "I brand myself that way for a reason — because I can. I am her. It’s mine to do it with. We disown a lot of our power. Why would I do that?” Hart smiles, “But my bandana has some sparkle on it."
After running her own software company for 20 years, Hart got burned out by the business and left the tech industry to embark upon a new career in the food and beverage industry. Her entrepreneurial journey is an inspiring example for women looking to take the leap into business ownership. She advises, “Decide first if you are willing to do business because that’s a big decision. I took this [bakery] on but I was already a business person, so it was a little easier.”
A piece of advice that Hart wishes she’d followed while planning Brown Sugar is to have a bold vision for her company’s future. “If I could go back, I would have the confidence [to know] that as hard as I am pressing, it will happen. So I kept moving forward in a way where my head was deep in the sand. I didn’t see me here now,” Hart says. “I didn’t plan for being here ten years later. I was so focused on making it now.” She cautions entrepreneurs, “I would not overestimate what you can do in one year and underestimate what you can do in ten.”
Positive affirmations are a key ingredient to Hart’s success, “Feed your head. Get yourself up and look in the mirror and say, ‘I’m great. I’m wonderful. I love myself. Today is going to go the way I want it to go.’ You’ve got to combat the stereotypes because black women have it rough. I’ve dealt with every stereotype in this business. At the end of the day I have to go to that mirror and be like ‘I can. I can. I can. I can.’ You’ve got to be popping those positive pills.”
Brown Sugar is located in Chicago’s Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood in a thriving historic business district on 75th Street where predominately black-owned businesses have been community staples for several generations. Nearing 15 years into her own business, Hart attributes both the neighborhood and her tech background to Brown Sugar’s longevity, “I think it’s a great place for black entrepreneurs to be.”
Ever the advocate for new businesses considering setting up shop in the neighborhood, Hart urges the city to support the South Side business district with the same resources given to North Side ones, “All I want is the city to afford us the same opportunities as you do Montrose. This is a real business district, we have serious longevity.” She also advocates for fellow black business owners by combating unfair misconceptions, “They think we will skimp or try to provide you with less. Every [black-owned] establishment that I have been to is giving more. They’re putting more in, it’s a larger portion, it’s got more ingredients.”
The next phase of Brown Sugar Bakery involves expansion. They’ve recently opened a second location at major Chicago tourist attraction Navy Pier and Hart has plans to open a third location on Chicago’s West Side. “I’m expanding to meet the opportunities that Brown Sugar has. Brown Sugar is bigger than me,” says Hart, “and I’m a servant of it now, for real, for real. I’m not driving, I’m guiding a vehicle that is autonomous in some sense.” Hung above an archway in the bakery’s foyer is a painted wooden sign that reads “Life is Sweet,” Hart calls it her motto and with “Sugar” in its name, business certainly is, too.