Duluth bakery owner follows own business model

I’m running late for my interview with Eileen Brown and when I burst through the door to her bakery I’m hoping she’ll be patiently waiting. Instead I find no one. It’s completely deserted. Following my ears I head back to the kitchen where I find everyone laughing hysterically.  April Peterson, an intern from Le Cordon Blue, is on her hands and knees on the shelf beneath the industrial sink holding a broom and crying with laughter.  Katie Berg, another employee, is doubled over beside her.

The reason for their near hysteria: a petrified cinnamon roll, which could probably break the floor if thrown at it, lies between them on the floor.  I found out later that the bakery hasn’t made any cinnamon rolls for about two years. Eileen looks at me, smiles, and says in the most charming voice, “Welcome to How Sweet it is Cakes!”

Eileen Brown, known to those close to her as “Leaker” for embarrassing baby moments that shall remain anonymous, is the type of person the word “gumption” was created for. She doesn’t have a business degree, never took any classes, didn’t shadow a single baker, and never intended for any of this to happen.  Yet according to her customers she owns arguably the most successful bakery in town.

Eileen Brown

“I eat lunch here whenever I’m downtown,” said Robert Carlsen, a Duluth resident.  “Best sandwiches ever.”

And the bakery that some customers and Women’s Today Magazine call “The Cake Boss of Duluth,” really just started as a joke.

Eileen was forced to jump into this business with both feet when a friend requested she make her a wedding cake.  A twelve tier wedding cake.  Even though she had been baking since the age of 7, Eileen said nothing could have prepared her for a cake that big.  “I swore never again,” Eileen said.  And now, 17 years later, cakes are her life.

I want to make a confession right away:  I didn’t just happen to stumble across Eileen and her bakery, or have someone mention it to me in passing.   I know her because I chose her to make my wedding cake.

The one hour meeting we had about my cake left my journalistic side hungering for more, so eventually I called her up and said “Hey remember me?  Can I do a story on you?”  The rest is history, and my crazy journey through the bakery began.

The bakery is officially known as How Sweet It Is Cakes and Other Deliciousness. “But I don’t answer my phone with that,” laughed Eileen.  It started when Eileen was 25-years-old and lived in Oregon.

The bakery ran out of various church basements who rented their industrial kitchens to Eileen and her small staff for 12 years until she moved back to Duluth.

“I got married and my husband had a stable job in Minnesota so I moved back,” Eileen said, not seemingly sad at all about shutting down her business. “Duluth was always my home.”

However none of her licenses or grants would transfer from state to state, so she had to start her business all over again from scratch. By using how-to books and the knowledge she gained from her own mistakes, Eileen opened another bakery in the basement of the First Presbyterian Church in Cloquet, Minn.

In September of 2010 she realized her growing business needed its own home, so she moved it to where it is today in Downtown Duluth near the corner of Fourth Avenue West and Superior Street. With the new space she was able to add a deli and catering to her list of services, and for the past two years she has had more business than ever.

“Our revenue almost tripled last year and we’re on pace at this point to make at least 50 percent more than we did last year,” said Bob Brown, Eileen’s husband.  “The growth potential is pretty large, and there’s still things we haven’t tapped into yet.

Only 20 minutes into our first interview it was clear how passionate Eileen was about her bakery, but it wasn’t until my third day shadowing her that I began to see how successful that passion has made her.

It was 2:30 in the afternoon and Eileen was just getting around to eating lunch.  This was almost two hours after her blood sugar test told her to.  One bite and her phone rang.  Without missing a beat she turned on the Bluetooth and had an articulate conversation with her mouth still full.

Thirty minutes later she put away her calendar and went back to her lunch.  Before she could pick up her spork you hear Rockwell start to sing:  “I always feel like, somebody’s watching me!”

It’s her phone again.  This time she recognizes the unsaved number and answers with a big smile and a “well hello dear how are you today?”

There’s a short pause, and Eileen starts talking details about a cake.

“Well, we could do that but those flavors don’t go great together.”

Another pause.

“Well.  Hmmm.  I can make you a sample cake, and if you decide you like it we...Ok great, I’ll mark you down.”  (I should note that when Eileen says sample cake, she usually means free cake.)

Eileen pulls out a pen and starts writing, making sounds like “mhmm,” and “yup.”  If you didn’t see her Bluetooth earpiece you might think she’s just talking to herself.

“It’s frustrating but funny at times,” said Joe Hauss, the gluten-free specialist of the bakery.  “I’ll ask her a question not knowing she has her Bluetooth on, and I’ll hear, ‘Yeah good idea,’ but then realize she’s not talking to me.”

Now its 3:30 and Eileen still isn’t more than five or six bites into her salad. I ask her if she ever has time to sit down and eat. She smiles, goes to the front to grab a chair then drags it back to the work bench where she has been frosting cakes all day. I decided to try and give her a moment and wander the bakery. Perfect timing as her phone has started ringing again.

The kitchen is a maze.  You weave in and out of shelves full of cookie cutouts, tissue paper, pieces of fabric, paint brushes, a candy selection that would make Willy Wonka proud, three-foot high containers full of flour and sugar, and a shelf full of booze. “For cakes of course,” Berg said with a grin.

There’s an oven in the back big enough to hold 32 small cakes, but for now it only has one.  Next to it sits a mason jar full of uncooked spaghetti noodles, in lieu of toothpicks, for checking the doneness of the cake.  Getting hot, I head back, but Eileen is still on the phone so I go out to the deli area.

The front is just as interesting as the back.  The walls and counters are full of babies covered in green frosting, brides and grooms smiling, that memorable first bite,  and my personal favorite: a cartoon  cow hanging upside down with a bullwhip laying next to him.  “The horrible truth about whipped cream” reads the caption underneath.

Everyone who happens to glance up at it smiles.  A girl eating a cupcake almost as pink as her shirt looks up at it confused. “Mommy is that cow in time-out,” she asks.  I hear an explosion of laughter and turn to see Eileen ducking around the corner in giggles.

The bakery’s artwork isn’t the only thing that makes it unique; it’s also Eileen’s drive and her workers passion to keep the creative flow going.

“With the staff that we have we’re so versatile and so wide spread, that we literally can do anything,” Hauss said.  “You want a catered dinner for 250 people, no problem.  You want a home style meal for 10, done.  You want a cake in the shape of Superman, we’ll figure it out.”

The catering options are endless.  There is no meal list to choose from.  Instead you tell them what you want to eat, and they will make it happen.  If you want them to cater a wedding and make the cake, no problem.  You have more than enough options to choose from.

“At the last count we had 150 cake flavors, but I’m going to say that was 25 recipes ago,” Hauss said. With an additional 75 different cake fillings to also choose from, the number of cake combinations is mind boggling.

Aside from that, every cake is made completely from scratch, another unique aspect the bakery has.  “I can tell you every single ingredient in every single cake,” Eileen said.  “There’s no boxes, no preservatives, just goodness.”

The business itself has no loans out.  It also has no credit cards, and no line of credit to speak of.  If it needs something, it has to make enough profit first to buy it.  Eileen won’t have it any other way.  “Right now I could shut the doors and walk away and everyone would be paid,” she said.

This cash only idea comes from Eileen’s personal life.  “I’ve been in debt before, it’s a miserable feeling.  We have three mortgages to pay, medical debt,” Eileen said. “I want to be honest and have integrity.  Running on cash only allows me to make payments as we go along and if we can’t pay for it we can’t do it or we don’t need it.”

This can be a risky way to run a business, but as far as her staff is concerned it works just fine.

“We (the staff) don’t see any issues with it,” Hauss said. “We always have stock we always get paid. There’s never a time where she’s to the point where she can’t afford anything…It’s worked out for her. It doesn’t always work out for people but I’m glad it’s worked out for her.”

However running a business on a cash only basis does come with some headaches. First there are the long hours. Fifteen to eighteen hour days sometimes become a normal shift, but only for Eileen. She doesn’t make her staff stay that long.

“I do have a cot in my office,” Eileen said. “It gets used regularly, especially during the summer.”

Her husband will also come into the bakery to help out when more hands are needed.  “I spend about 5 to 10 hours a week at the bakery,” Bob said.  “But that’s now. During the summer I’ll probably spend about 20-30 hours there, depending.”  That’s on top of his full time consulting job.

Seeing that Eileen is now off the phone, I stop my wandering and go back around to the kitchen.  Prying a little, I ask what her phone conversation was about.

“Oh, it’s just a bride wanting sample cupcakes,” Eileen said.  She frowns a bit.

When a bride and groom book their wedding cake with Eileen and put a deposit down, they get three free sample cakes of their choosing.  The cakes themselves are five inches in diameter, with two layers of filling. So they are relatively tall.  I’d never heard of sample cupcakes before though.

Tim Noake decorating a cake

“Well, she doesn’t want to make a commitment yet and book with us, but she still wants to try our cake,” Eileen said.  “We did this once before and lost money on it because the customer never did book…I’m kind of hesitant to do it again.”

Eileen looks at her phone, her calendar, her now wilting salad, and said:  “I guess I’ll just have to trust this customer won’t do the same thing.”

“This business is really important to her and it’s a big part of her life,” said Tim Noake, also known as Eileen’s “number two.”  He’s been working for her for six months now, and swears he’s never heard her complain once.

“She has the heart for it.  She has the passion, for cakes, for desserts, for what she does,” Hauss said.  “A lot of business owners, by the time they get to the year she’s put into it, they don’t have that passion anymore.  How she works 15 hour days and works her entire life around it, I don’t understand.”

“She’s crazy,” Berg said.  “Crazy good.”


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