With various television programs highlighting the culinary arts, it has created a food phenomenon that has turned chefs into instant “rock stars.” However, those of us who have had the secret pleasure of watching our mom, grandmother, aunties or other gifted family members bake have known our families’ “chefs” to be true stars for a long time.
As we eagerly await to finish off the remaining cake batter or cookie dough that lingers in the bowl as a “badge of honor,” we take in the aromas from home-baked pastries. The smell would often resonate throughout the house carrying our childhood memories into our adulthood.
Many of those memories have led Marcus Freeman, a rising young pastry chef, to open his own bake shop, Signature Sweets Factory. After the last three years of making and delivering his special baked goods and desserts to private clients and catering jobs—the 22-year-old opened his South Holland shop at 514 E. 162nd in early May.
From the cookie crust based cupcakes to the tasty banana pudding in his signature jars, customers are greeted with a variety of on premise desserts and/or a “made-to-order” menu. Known as Chef Marcus J., he has designed some of the most beautifully sculptured wedding cakes along with personalized pastry bars for both celebrity and corporate clients.
The Chicago Defender sat down with the talented Marcus J. surrounded by delicious cupcakes and gold-plated apples from his new bake shop.
How did you start in the baking business?
Well, I’ve always liked to cook ever since I was three years old, but baking is something totally different. I really started baking around the time I started working my retail job at 16. At the time, I couldn’t really take food up to my co-workers but I would take them cupcakes, muffins, things like that. So, I started training myself by doing something nice for my co-workers.
How did you begin to learn your way around the kitchen at an early age?
My aunts taught me a lot. They took me under their wings and it was pretty basic things—like baking from a box mix and things like that, but then I eventually moved on and wanted to do things from scratch.
Did you eventually go to school for culinary arts?
No, I didn’t, I learned because I liked to eat. (he laughs) If something didn’t come out right, I would just try it again and try it again until I got the perfection that I wanted.
What was the process that it took for you to find your location?
Like many people who just start out with baking, culinary, anything—we were renting a kitchen for a long time. We stumbled upon the place we were at by accident—it was not too far from my house, a perfect size. It was really bigger than what I even imagined my first place would be so I was very excited about that.
You’ve built your brand by taking orders from people along the way, appearing at different events and building up that grassroots support. Why is it so important for entrepreneurs to really do this before they delve into a brick and mortar business?
I always like to remind people there’s a lot of people out here doing a lot of things. There are so many bakeries so you have to build awareness before you just get that brick and mortar business and present yourself to people. It’s always good to go in with some type of support system and fan base that knows your product, likes your product and is willing to tell people.
I saw people coming into your shop who pre-ordered desserts. One of the items that really stood out for me was that banana pudding.
Just like every single thing that I sell, I wanted to have the best banana pudding. I started thinking about how I could do that; the first thing that came to mind was instead of pre-bought wafers that have all of these artificial ingredients—I can make my own. Also, instead of using cool whip, I can make my own whip cream so I did that and included vanilla beans because I’m addicted to vanilla beans—I use them in about everything.
I also make the custard from scratch, along with using fresh bananas. We focus on high quality flavors as much as possible.
I notice that your cupcakes have a unique presentation. It’s not just your typical icing, sprinkles and cake texture.
I always tell people when I first started cooking, my coworkers would say ‘It tastes great, but it doesn’t look all that great.’ So, I started focusing on how my product could taste even better if it looked the part. I make sure that my presentation is great. Each of my cupcakes has a butter cookie crust for a textural element and they’re also filled with white chocolate mousse. I combine soft cake, crunchy cookie, different textural elements as well as flavor.
Moving forward, what would be some of the advice that you can share for entrepreneurs who are looking at opening up their business?
People already have their neighborhood bakeries that give plain old chocolate chip cookies and cakes. So, I try to make every single item I offer different. Whether you’re an entrepreneur in the same field that I am or a restaurant [owner], I think it’s really important to distance yourself from the pack and tell people what you’re offering is something totally different and unique.
Why is it so important to have key people who are in support of what you do and who are supporting your dream?
If you want to do something great, you can’t do it alone, especially in the field I’m in. My mother helps me the most, she calls herself the ‘momanager.’ She does everything from tying boxes, to helping me design sweets tables to running the store. My father also helps run the store, he does much of the deliveries and the maintenance. I also have plenty of cousins and aunties who help me bake. Having family who can help you with the business is a great start.
For more information on The Signature Sweets Factory, visit: http://www.signaturesweetsfactory.com or follow them on facebook, twitter and instagram.