Cake as Community"She did taste my sweet potato pie and she said, 'Baby, you made this?' And she started to cry. My grandma was proud."
As one of Atlanta's most beloved bakers, Ardra Tippett admits she has a problem with cupcakes.
Not all cupcakes, mind you, but the cupcakes coming out of trendy shops that seem to pop up overnight like weeds after a rain. Too often, the proprietors just mix up a watery batter, toss it in an oven, slather on a frosting that's thick and bright, give it a silly name, then push their overpriced creations on the public. "No one takes the time anymore," Tippett says. "This is not cake. It's like Easy-Bake baking."
The other way — the slow, careful, loving way — was drilled into her when she was young. Tippett started as a baker's assistant involuntarily — by helping her grandmother bake pies and cakes. And this wasn't always wonderful. "I felt like I was being punished," she admits. "You know how many peaches I had to peel, and sweet potatoes I had to strain? I used to cry about helping her bake."
But those lessons took hold. Among the more popular creations at her bakery today is her caramel cake, with a homemade topping cooked on the stove just like her grandmother made it. "You've got to stir it until it's about to erupt like a volcano," she says. "It's a tedious process, and everyone who's made it has a burn scar."
Tippett worked as a professional baker for eight years with a business partner, but a couple of years ago decided to go out on her own. ("My partner was sort of my mentor," she says. "He taught me everything not to do.")
Tippett's approach can be summed up in three words: Cake is community. She opened her bakery and coffee shop, Cake Cafe, in a converted two-bedroom house across from a psychic advisor and next to a day care center. Her shop has a homey feel, but with modern touches — like flat-screen televisions and free Wi-Fi. But it's not technology that lures a steady stream of customers. It's Tippett's measured approach to both baking and life. "People come in and say, 'I didn't think people did it this way anymore,'" she says. "Everything is so fast in our community. But we do it slow."
"Desserts," she adds, "is 'stressed' spelled backwards."
That sort of low-tech, high-touch approach has turned Cake Cafe into a de facto community center — a place where neighbors catch up on local talk, and entrepreneurs network. Not only do book clubs meet here, but Tippett also built a low stage in the yard for spoken word performances, later adding a projector and screen for informal movie presentations. ("It's mostly chick flicks," she says. "It's almost like being at home, having people over.")
To give back to the community, Tippett launched the Taste Love Foundation (its official nonprofit status is pending), which donates cakes to children whose parents are incarcerated or living in a shelter. "We've given cakes to kids who've never had a birthday cake," she says. When a mother in prison sends a cake to a child on a birthday, Tippett says, it's delivering a simple message: "I love you."
Tippett's taskmaster grandmother passed away last April, but not before sampling what her granddaughter had done.
"She did taste my sweet potato pie," Tippett says. "And she said, 'Baby, you made this?' And she started to cry. My grandma was proud."
Check out Ardra's Atlanta.