Black baker rising on global stage two years after opening a second shop at Navy Pier
By Erick Johnson
It’s Thursday morning at Brown Sugar Bakery.
Owner Stephanie Hart is running late for her interview. She had to pick up 300 pounds of sugar after learning that the delivery did not come that morning for the day’s batch of goodies. She had reason to be stressed out. It was one day before another busy Memorial Day weekend kicked off at a location that is growing her business in ways she never imagined.
For two years, Hart has reaped big returns from a tiny shop at Navy Pier in what has become the sweetest deal in her lifetime. What started out as a small venture in Chicago’s biggest tourist attraction has morphed into a booming, lucrative operation that has cooked up big profits and exposed her brand to world travelers from as far away as Dubai.
It’s a dream that began 15 years ago in Chatham, where Hart’s moist cakes and pies made her a household name and a successful businesswoman in a growing Black business district.
Now it’s a whole new world of rich possibilities and new opportunities for Hart after she took a gamble and created a smaller store that’s 11 times smaller than her Chatham shop. Today she is a refined, savvy businesswoman, who is on the verge of even bigger fortunes with more projects in the oven, and a Navy Pier location that continues to spawn new opportunities that keep her rolling in dough. Today she is beaming with excitement and a new outlook on life and her business.
“It’s been exciting,” Hart said during an hour-long interview near her shop at Navy Pier. “I think that culturally it’s been an exciting time for both the Pier and 75th Street. I know there are Michigan customers, and Indiana customers that have sampled us at the Pier and they find their way to 75th street. It (the Navy Pier shop) exposes the other entrepreneurs on 75th street to new customers because they will say ‘Is there some place to eat, and I will say well do you like barbeque, then Lem’s is across the street’.”
Fifteen years ago Hart opened Brown Sugar Bakery at 328 E 75th St. With a unique variety of sweet and massive four-layer cakes and giant slices, Hart’s business gained a loyal following among residents near and far. Her caramel cakes became her business’ signature treat and the Food Network became one of several media outlets to showcase her product to dessert lovers across the country.
Then came 2017. By then, Hart’s business in Chatham was pumping out as many as 2,000 cakes and pies for Thanksgiving orders. Meanwhile, the top brass at Navy Pier were looking for a minority entrepreneur who would open a shop at the popular tourist attraction that draws 9 million tourists a year. There are 70 businesses at Navy Pier, but only 6 are Black-owned.
Hart would be among the few. Born in Detroit, she went to high school in Downers Grove. She said she began baking because she missed the cakes of her childhood. Wherever she went, Hart said she could not find a pineapple coconut cake, her personal favorite. After 13 years of living her passion, Hart was now presented with the opportunity of showcasing her brand on a bigger stage.
The shop at Navy Pier would be located between the Ferris Wheel and the Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
“I was like OK God. You got this because you put it on my table. There’s got to be a way. I had absolutely no clue on how I was going to do it and my first bid for construction was $350,000. I had never worked with an architect. It was just so many firsts around getting this done. Building workers, union workers. It was really challenging.
“I’ve been turned down by banks. People didn’t think it would be as well as it went. I had estimated that in order to pay the bills, we had to do $250,000 a year in sales in our first year.
The shop at Navy Pier presented other challenges.
For one, the space was only 288 square feet, providing little room for Hart to carry full cakes like her Chatham location, which is 3200 square feet.
There was also a different type of customer base at Navy Pier. It’s a transient, come and go environment where many customers are from out of town and prefer smaller treats that they can easily carry and consume quicker. On top of that, the customers were also looking for an entertaining experience.
Hart was forced to fine tune her operations. Instead of full cakes, she opted to carry slices that were also smaller than her huge ones in Chatham. She decided to carry more cupcakes and slices of cheesecakes and pies. Then she turned to the Magic Kingdom to spice up excitement among customers.
“When I came here I studied how they do things at Disney World. People here-it’s not like-they may only come once. They’re looking for an experience and so we’re a little bit more lively here. We’ll be a little bit more over the top. Everyone is trained to be super accommodating and not just about our business, but about the Pier in general.
“We’re not just thinking about the customer experience here (Chatham). Now I can think about the customer experience at my other location. I want them to have an experience. I’m thinking about branding and what other things you can buy and how you can solidify the experience you have at Brown Sugar Bakery by what you hear, what you taste and what you see.”
With the new setting, Hart has added new treats to fit the needs of Navy Pier. After a trip to New York City last fall, Hart created a special Twinkie, which led to a full new line of Twinkie cakes with filling in her Chatham shop. This summer at Navy Pier, Hart will carry strawberry and chocolate Twinkies and even a vanilla Twinkie cupcake. She also carries some Twinkies in her Chatham shop. Hart says she will serve them during Piertastic, a special open house event at Navy Pier held every Tuesday.
With its moist and sweet frosting, Hart’s caramel cake is her biggest hit in Chatham, but at Navy Pier, Hart says some of her most popular items are various cheesecakes. There is now a brownie cheesecake and Hart is preparing to debut a taffy apple cheesecake in the fall at Navy Pier.
Hart said the response to her cakes has been overwhelmingly positive.
“[They say] My God, I never had cake like this before; how can I get this cake from home? So that brought me to where I’m at right now. I’m about to launch a shipping business. I will be shipping my cakes nationwide. And the Pier gave me the impetus to really do that. I’ve got a file of about 300 Pier customers that say let me know when you start shipping.”
Hart said she recently met with a McDonald’s franchise owner about selling baked goods at his franchises at O’Hare Airport.
Then there are her customers, many of whom wait in long lines to get Hart’s taste confections. For the last two New Years’ Eves, Hart said she served a man from Dubai who ordered 80 cupcakes for a large group he brings to America. He wants Hart to open a shop in Dubai.
And last year Pastor John Hannah of the 20,000-member new Life Covenant Church bought 8,000 cupcakes at Navy Pier. The order was Hart’s highest ever, but Hannah has been ordering 5,000 cupcakes every year from Hart’s bakery since 2015. After several years of experience and fine-tuning operations, Hart said she fulfilled the 8,000 order in one day as opposed to three days in years past.
Hart isn’t disclosing her annual revenues but from the looks of her orders, opportunities and future business possibilities, she’s making a killing. She plans to transform her Chatham location into a full-fledged retail shop with piped-in music to sweeten the customer experience.
Then there are other opportunities. Winter Wonderfest, festivals, and special events have sent customers flooding Hart’s shop at Navy Pier. The demand has forced her to work 60 to 70 hours a week. Hart says she sometimes makes two trips a day to Chatham to replenish her stock at Navy Pier. Her Chatham shop remains her flagship location where most of the baking is done.
Recently, Hart said she began to meet growing demands to sell iced coffee for patrons from the Shakespeare Theater who walk downstairs during intermission.
Art shows and festivals bring people from all over the world. Next summer, a new 200-room hotel will open several hundred yards from Hart’s shop. She’s preparing to capitalize on the new business with plans to bake butter cookies to place in hotel guest rooms.
Hart said she will soon debut a major product after getting input from another entrepreneur at Navy Pier, but she’s not giving any hints other than “it’s a hand food” that you put in the oven.
Hart said her success at Navy Pier has brought new people to her Chatham shop.
“As a business, Navy Pier has exposed us to the world. We’ve gotten interesting feedback and it is driving our brand.
“Here, I think we get better and it’s not just because of our experience. It’s because of the interaction with the other entrepreneurs that are here.”