A Baking Family Shares Its Secrets

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in: Editor's Letter

This Thanksgiving, welcome your family into your kitchen and let the adventure begin. This is the story of the Hinton-Brown family’s adventure.

* * *

Fresh from law school at the start of a promising legal career, Norrinda Brown longed for a creative outlet, a way to keep her pressure-filled professional life in balance.

Zester Daily "Brown Betty Cookbook" Giveaway

More than anything, she wanted to bake cakes. Growing up in her grandmother’s kitchen, every day had been baking day, layers of fragrant pound cake cooling on the counter, bowls of fluffy frosting in the fridge, butter was the essential ingredient in everything. Mothers baked with daughters, grandmothers with grandchildren. Baking by yourself, for yourself? Who does that?

Talking with her mother Linda Brown and grandmother Betty Hinton, an idea took hold that grew into a plan that became an obsession. Together, they could bake to their hearts’ content if they opened a cake shop.

Crazy. It was crazier than it sounds. Norrinda Brown Hayat had a full-time job as a lawyer. Her mother was a public school teacher. And her grandmother had long ago sailed past her 70th birthday. None of them had been businesswomen or worked in commercial bakeries.

Faith. Norrinda was convinced this was a particularly good time to open a bakery in their hometown of Philadelphia. Most of the city’s bakeries were Italian cannoli cafés. Competition in her family’s Southern layer cake culture was limited, as many of the older stores had gone out of business. More encouraging, the traditional pace for these bakeries was leisurely. It was common for cake shops to close in the late afternoon and stay closed Sunday mornings and all day Monday.

Recipes. No one made cakes like Norrinda’s grandmother, who baked by instinct and memory as her mother had before her and her mother before her.

ZESTER DAILY

BOOK LINK


"The Brown Betty Cookbook"

"The Brown Betty Cookbook"

By Linda Hinton Brown, Norrinda Brown Hayat

(Wiley, 2012, 192 pages)

There were no index card instructions tucked away in shoe boxes. And when Betty Hinton bothered to write down a recipe for a church or school fundraiser, the measurements were always off, eliminating the possibility that someone could replicate her signature pound cake.

Research. Together they were able to capture their family’s sense memory in recipe and for six months tested their creations on groups of friends, then groups of friends of friends, community gatherings, country club parties, women’s groups. They served their cakes with a chaser of questions. Sweet enough? More butter? How do you like the strawberry cake?

Brown Betty Bakery opened in 2004; its name is a play on her grandmother’s first name, her mother’s married name and a sly reference to Apply Brown Betty, a signature menu item.

Luck. “We stumbled into a really supportive community,” says Norrinda. An abandoned manufacturing area in the Northern Liberty area of Philadelphia was being revitalized with small shops and businesses. Spaces were small, rents were low and the tenants helped each other survive. “Almost all of our neighbors were first-time, one-off female-owned businesses.”

Oops. They needed all of the help they could get. Norrinda had misjudged Philadelphia’s bakery market. “A lot of the older bakeries had closed. And I didn’t fully appreciate why,” says Norrinda. Rather than retiring, as she had assumed, they’d collapsed, unable to keep up with the quickening pace of retail.

Customers patronized shops that were open early and late, every day of the week. “We weren’t ready for this,” says Norrinda. “I didn’t know how hard it would be. Baking had always been relaxing. I underestimated how successful we’d be and how demanding it was to serve the public.”

Sweat equity. For the first three years, Norrinda and her mom ran Brown Betty Bakery by themselves with only one extra employee. Betty came in every Friday night and left Saturday morning to test new recipes and oversee quality control. If that meant fewer cakes than buyers, so be it. “We did everything so we could keep overhead low,” she says.

It wasn’t until Norrinda Brown became Norrinda Brown Hayat that they broke down and hired more staff. “We knew we couldn’t continue to be the ones who took out the trash and swept the floor.” And, of course, as soon as they delegated more work to others, business grew quickly.

Success. There are two Brown Betty Bakeries in Philadelphia now operated by a staff of 25 with plans to open more shops as well as an online store. But what has them “traumatized,” says Norrinda, is the book. “Mom really didn’t want to do the cookbook and give out the recipes.” “The Brown Betty Cookbook” (Wiley), released last month, is the first time they’ve shared their family’s secrets.

“We’ve stayed close to what baking means to our family. It brings us together.” Though she is 89 years old, Betty still creates new cakes. Linda has yet to retire from teaching. And Norrinda never gave up her law practice.

And they’ve never stopped making time to bake together.

Top photo: Three generations of bakers, Norrinda Brown Hayat, Betty Hinton and Linda Hinton Brown


Corie Brown, the co-founder and general manager of Zester Daily, is an award-winning food and wine writer.

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