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An Interview With Sugar Hill Bakery's Kameelah Mu'Min
By Clayton Ruley

Late in November of 2004, GeoClan.com stepped into the bakery called Sugar Hill amid the wonderful smells of chocolate chip cookies and cranberry scones. The owner and head baker, Kameelah Mu'Min was gracious enough to talk to us despite the fact she had orders to make.   She gave us the inside dish (pun intended) on his love for baking, her business and what it takes to do both. Oh, the sweets I have sampled is absolutely banging!

 

GeoClan: How long has the Sugar Hill Bakery been established?

 

Sugar Hill: I started baking out the house in 2001-2002 and I have been baking since I was twelve and I always had the mind to have my own bakery but I thought it was something I would do when I retired. What I realized that even though I graduated from Penn and I got my bachelors and masters I wanted to know what would keep me motivated for a long time. So I did psychology, women's studies, black studies and those are academic things that I love but I realize that I wasn't a good employee because I always had my own ideas and wanted to be independent and do something where if the clock alarm goes off in the morning I wouldn't be like oh, man I have to get up.

 

It also came out of tragedy because of I had a miscarriage and that made me think of everything more and reevaluate what I wanted to do.   And just going through that grief process I just wanted to bake something so it got to the point where I was bring stuff to work and my husband was bringing stuff to work and people were like why don't you sell you cakes and that idea started to be a possibility and we had two cake parties with a sampling of 20 different cakes and we invited about 50 people and the people loved it. So if there is a demand for it and the kind of dessert I do then why not pursue it. I mean what's the most I can lose. If I never tried or said now isn't the time it would never happen. People always say there is never a right time. The time is when you decide you want to do something and I had to decide whether this was something I was dedicated and passionate about because a lot of people have passions but not enough to commit time, energy and capital into something that will be viable.

 

I wanted to sit down and analyze what I wanted to do and where and also talk to my husband and make sure he was supportive of the endeavor because this was a dream of mine. It just so happened that the second cake party we through at the house I was pregnant and we didn't know it so I felt since I had made a decision and said this is something I want to do now and not wait for retirement I think that created a catalyst for a lot of things. We thought about doing a business plan, we thought about doing wholesaling to coffee shops and that's how we got started. Our first client in this area was Green Line CafZ and the second was Pizaro's gourmet coffee in center city and that was on some just going there and asking them if they would like to try some desserts.

 

GC: So business has been going on for?

 

SH: We have been open here in March of 2004 and the location is 4908 Baltimore Ave. so all time before I had basically converted our home in West Philly into a kitchen and we got to a certain point where were like we are going to take this seriously we are going to have to make another step. We also have the website www.sweetsugarhill.com .

 

GC: So where did the name Sugar Hill come from?

 

SH: The name actually came from the first cake party we threw and it was called Sugar Hill: Have you cake and eat it too! Someone later came up to me and said why don't you think of that as the name of your shop.   I got the name sugar hill from a Langston Hughes poem talking about Harlem called "Harlem Sweeties". And in the poem Langston is saying: " have you dug the spill, of Sugar Hill" and really the poem is about him and celebrating black women and the different shades, colors, bodies and personalities of these women and in one of the final lines he says: "stroll down fine delicious Sugar Hill" and I thought it was perfect for the kind of atmosphere I wanted to create so the name stuck.   We did an informal poll and everyone loved it. The name has connection to New York where I'm from and it's a favorite poem of mind so it was perfect.

 

GC: You said you are from New York what part are you from? And you said you went to Penn how did you get down here and how long have you been here?

 

SH: I'm actually from Brownsville, Brooklyn. I moved to Philly in 1996 to attend the University Of Pennsylvania and after a undergrad degree in psychology I did my masters in psychology and education and from there it wasn't a decision but I felt Philly had potential to be a long term stop.   At first I didn't like it but I felt it was a place for me to grow. Even thinking about raising a family I didn't think New York was someplace I wanted to do that in and I also thought in New York could I realistically own my own home and business at 25? People are surprised that I'm educated and have what I have but hindsight is 20/20 so every step I took was to get here led me here I feel.   I mean going to Penn getting in outrageous student loan debt It still lead me to where I'm supposed to be. So worse comes to worse yeah I can get a job but this is what I love to do and I feel it would be a disservice to myself to let it go.

 

GC: So it is always good to have a backup plan?

 

SH: Yep!

 

GC: So right now it's just you or you and your husband?

 

SH: Right now it's me, my husband and my youngest brother, who came down from New York about a year and a half ago. At first my brother saw me staying up at night and he was saying how you doing all this, you are mixing, baking washing the dishes, everything.   You do what you have to do it's about the bigger picture I'm not the only person.   I don't have the luxury of slacking off because this is me and us.   You realize how much sacrifice it takes.   It's a misconception that you set your own hours because I still have to get up and bake when I'm tired but it's a different kind of pressure because I'm doing something I created for myself. Our customers are our bosses we still have people we have to answer to and it's hard to regulate your own time.  

 

GC: You have been baking since you were twelve. Where did that love of baking come from?

 

SH: I tell people it's a God given talent because my mother didn't do it although she did encourage it.   My mother's a seamstress and she taught us how to sew and crochet and my grandmother was artist also I think was an extension of creative talent.

 

GC: What kind of ingredients do you use?

 

SH: We use all sweet butter, no artificial ingredients, and flour, sugar, eggs so you know how labor intensive it is.

 

GC: So tell us about the location?

 

SH: It's an old barbershop and when we first came to see it was a mess. There was clothes, food, and trash in the building and on the floors so that when we really needed vision. We gutted the entire place and essentially worked from a shell. I was able to design the type of kitchen I wanted and with the help of an architect from the University City District I had a little rough sketch of what I wanted the layout to be. They helped me fine tune what I wanted.

 

GC: So In the storefront you have a sitting area and an antique picture collection.

 

SH: My pride and joy is my cakewalk collection. Cakewalking is a dance that originated in the south as a way of slaves mocking their masters' mannerisms with the style of dress and looking dignified and some of the pictures are offensive but they are over 100 years old and fit the times.   It involves the subversive mockery of slave masters and turned into something they used to see the slaves doing and on a Sunday a master would say the best couple to perform would win a cake so it became a cakewalk.

 

Around the 1890's it crossed over so it became a two-step march and the music changed because it was geared to the white audience. It has an interesting history and that's where you get the term "that takes the cake" so I thought it was an interesting piece to have in the store. And we have gotten different reactions from people. Some are fascinated others may be slightly offended but this is history. It's African American history, dance history, social history so you can't hide the treatment of black people even if it's embarrassing to some who'd rather forget.   If you hide or destroy our artifacts and memorabilia you are destroying our history.

 

GC: Give a summary of what you have in your kitchen.

 

SH: We have a three door freezer and refrigerator, three bin sink, six burner range oven, double deck convection oven, baker's rack, stainless steel table, shelving.   We had to pass health regulations for having a prep sink, a hand wash sink a three sink and in the back having a mop sink, more storage, a 20 and 30-quart mixer.

 

GC: You had to get licensed?

SH: Yeah we had to get a business license, a health license, and even a license to sell coffee in the district.   

 

GC: Did you self finance?

 

SH: We used our home and everything we owned as collateral. And that goes to how much you want to risk and the rewards.   We got a small business loan approved and the government subsidizes it.   We had to put up everything plus $10,000 to do this so you got to be serious.   This is no spur of moment thing.   There are a lot of things that will test your commitment to your project and make you think.

 

GC: So the University City District has been helpful?

 

SH: Yeah I think there is a mixed perception but again seeing the overall picture if      

  The goal is to make this Baltimore Avenue a commercial corridor to have people shopping in their neighborhood and to really improve the level of service I think my plan fits within their goals and the technical assistance and help they provided was invaluable.   Again it's about having the information and knowing the right questions to ask.  

 

GC: So your had high expec5tations about moving to Baltimore Ave.

 

SH: Yeah, we don't regret it but we realize that it's going to take longer for the revitalization to occur. And the kind of product we have isn't easy to make nor cheap on time so there is no 15 cookies for a dollar. You have to educate the consumer by telling them "I'm cracking eggs, using great products it going to be worth more than the corner store items. I'm not getting our products out of the box and we are particular in what we do and how we do it including the store.

 

We don't have a counter with a big glass shield in front of the customer because it creates this aura of "I'm on this side, you're on that side and we don't want that in our store.   This is our family business and we are inviting you as a customer to be a part of our family. We going to keep our home clean we are going to smile, we are going to do everything we would if you were our friend and I think it creates atmosphere.

 

People ask me questions like why do you set the shop up like this and I say because I think these are the shops we used to see. Maybe it was before desegregation but there used to be black businesses that were vital to the community. Not that I think desegregation is a bad thing but I think many black people have come to expect that we are going to get a half assed product just because we are trying to support other blacks doing business when we can deserve the best product, reasonable prices, clean place and be inviting.

 

 

GC: You live in the neighborhood and work there too. Tell us why.

SH: Me and my husband love the neighborhood from our days at Penn and we think it had the diversity to make this work.   We decided that the location here would fulfill the need here for more positive businesses especially for black and minorities.

 

GC: Do you have bigger dreams for this?

 

SH: I really think skies the limit.   I think this as an old fashion shop like a candy and ice

cream store and a maybe a cafZ with more prefaces on the coffee. I think the brand is really marketable and I love the product we are creating.

 

GC: So we will hopefully see a Sugar Hill Bakery in North Philly then?

 

SH: No doubt! It encourages people to be more diverse. We have too demand that we have a diversity of products and services especially when considering the fact that we are the largest consumer in the country! We don't need to be overcharged or treated like crap.   We need to respect ourselves more and we love the fact that we do get to know our customers better because we see them on the streets.

 

 

GC: What are some of your favorites and how about the customer's favorites?

 

SH: I guess one of my favorite cakes is the Red Velvet and also the Pineapple Coconut cake. That's the cake I enjoy making because the theme of the bakery is old fashion southern desserts that are nostalgic and I had a customer who said she had to come back because that cake reminded her of her grandmother and for me that's the highest complement. The desserts we make should make you remember times when your grandmother or mom made cookies, pies or cakes after school or for Sunday dinner. As for the customer's favorites: Red Velvet is one and Sweet Potato Cheesecake is another.   We like to do things with a twist!

 

GC: So right now you guys are doing wholesale to coffee shops and stores?

 

SH: Yes we have a few stores like Green Line which is local, Latte Lounge 816 north 4 th street in Northern Liberties, 22 Gallery CafZ on 236 south 22 nd street. Copper Crossing on 45th and chestnut and slowly we are getting restaurant Cresheim Cottage CafZ on 7402 Germantown Ave. Abracicco on 1816 south 47 th Street, Day by Day catering on 21st and Samson, RX on 45th and Spruce, the Pisaros location downtown in Suburban Station and we are slowly expanding.   We also do retail Friday and Saturday but we take orders all week so I have someone picking up a cake and we aren't open technically.   We want to drum up business especially during the holidays and we haven't been open a year so we are still seeing which times are better than others and how we can be more time and cost efficient.

 

GC: Where do you get the recipes?

SH: All the recipes are mine and I'm still a brainiac so if I want to make something I will research and experiment looking for what tastes good and what flavor and look I want. It's really about experimentation.  

 

GC:   So what products do you sell?

 

SH: We do pound cakes, scones, quick bread, cookies, coffee cakes, brownies pretty much what I feel like making. I have that luxury as long as people enjoy it. I don't do breads like yeast, whole wheat, and white. I'm not saying we won't do it. Who knows maybe my daughter will decide to do a Sugar Hill Bread Bakery in the future.

 

GC: Your husband is very supportive how did you meet.

 

SH: We met at UPENN my freshman year. My roommate was his best friends girlfriend and we went from there we got married the summer after my sophomore year so we have been married for 6 years.

 

GC: And you're only 26!

 

SH: Yeah I definitely can say I'm grown.

 

GC: and you're expecting your second child?

 

SH: Yes! We have a 21 month old who is a fixture here at the bakery because when we were planning and opening the store she was here so customers ask for her and that's nice.

 

GC: How long does it take to complete an order?

 

SH: Because I make things from scratch and I don't hold things in the refrigerator, we ask for 48 hours notice but from start to finish if it was a cake it would probably take an hour. We are very conscious about the product we have and I wouldn't want someone to comment about not liking the cake or something was dry so we take our time.

 

GC: Give us the best and worst part of owning your own business.

 

SH: The best part is this place was a dream in my mind, something I made a reality.   It's very difficult I wouldn't want to fool anyone but it's rewarding because I'm doing something I love and how many people can say that.   I'm grateful and blessed.   The worst part is always keeping in mind the vision and goals of the business. Day to day it can get very frustrating, very boring and tiring but when you are your own boss you cannot do the same things you did. Sick day's are at a true premium because if I don't move for me who else would?

 

GC: It's hard to be a leader.  

SH: Yeah, you have to keep yourself motivated and keep people around you who will do the same! We must continue to think of the bigger picture and that is having a business for my daughter to run and that even if she doesn't want to bake. This is something her parents did from scratch and I enjoy.   Especially coming from the experience of being African Americans this is something we need to appreciate and see more often.

 

GC: What do you think about uploading and making change?

 

SH: I think it has to start with something very specific to the person so it grows on a personal level. For me it has to be real. It's not just about baking it's about the big picture which is the business and it can do for families (including mine) and for the communities they are a part of.   To me it's about being and thinking bigger than you.

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