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Kym Rodgers, owner of Brooklyn Sweet Spot / Photography by Aundre Larrow

What’s the Way to a Community’s Heart?

COVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | In Fort Greene, a self-taught baker feeds the hearts (and bellies) of the neighborhood. Published: December 14, 2021

Programming note: This article is part of a weekly column on small businesses in New York during COVID-19. To get #SmallBizSpotlight articles straight to your inbox, sign up here. You'll receive one email every Tuesday. Thanks for reading!


Today's featured business is real-life proof that when the going gets tough, the tough get cake. And cookies. And pie.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, Fort Greene residents have been showing up in droves at Brooklyn Sweet Spot, the neighborhood dessert shop run by Kym Rodgers, a former elementary school teacher and self-taught baker. Amid supply shortages, staff changes, and ever-shifting safety regulations — not to mention the generalized panic we all felt (and maybe still feel) — Kym found a way to keep up with nonstop demand while bolstering the emotional wellbeing of her neighbors. Keep reading for our conversation.


The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.


How did you start baking?
I was teaching second and third grade, and I had to make some extra money, so I started catering. Someone asked me to make a cake — that may have been the first cake that I baked that wasn't out of a box — and they loved it. I was shocked because I didn't do anything special. They ordered another cake and I started making cakes for them. I was like, This is way better and easier than cleaning chicken and cooking meat and stuff like that. I started practicing and experimenting with recipes. I wanted my cakes to taste like my grandmother's cakes — that’s what I was working towards. I remembered a recipe that she had given me that had an ingredient that I thought was really odd. And while the cakes I had been experimenting with were really good, they weren’t as good as hers. I thought, Let me try this thing that she told me about 30 years ago. I did it, and that was the thing. It smelled different in the oven. When I took it out of the oven, it looked different. When I pulled it apart, the texture was exactly the way I wanted it to be. Since I'm biased, I called my friend in Queens, and I was like, "I need you to come over and taste this cake. I think I’ve got something special." He came over and he was like, "This is it." I put that secret ingredient in all of the cakes that I make.

Will you tell me what it is?
It's a secret.

I had to ask.
You might have some in your fridge, but it is a secret.

I guess I’ll never know. So what led you to open Brooklyn Sweet Spot?
My cousin asked me to make cupcakes for his baby shower, and when I got to the shower, I couldn't open the gate [because] I was carrying boxes of cupcakes ... A guy next door was coming downstairs, and he opened the gate for me. When he did, I realized it was a friend of mine from high school [who is a realtor now]. He said, "I see on Facebook that you're baking cakes. You should open a bakery." I was like, "No, I'm teaching." He goes, "Let's just go on Monday and look at some locations." And that's how it happened. We went out that Monday and I found the spot and the wheels started turning. We opened a year and a half later, on December 20, 2010.

What about that location resonated with you?
At the time, the neighborhood was starting to turn over. They used to call it Murder Avenue because there was so much crime in the area [editorial note: the bakery is on Myrtle Avenue]. That had stopped, and they were trying to rebuild it by encouraging new businesses to come in. The neighborhood has three schools, and lots of families were moving in.

What have become your fan-favorite items?
A lot of things ... The carrot cake is extremely popular. The banana pudding is extremely popular. The cupcakes are all really good. We try to come out with a new flavor of cake every month. We infuse some cakes with rum and vodka and cognac. We have the cake part down pat; it's the new flavors that are challenging and a lot of fun for us to do.

What did the shutdown in March 2020 mean for the bakery?
The governor was threatening a shelter in place, and for me, like for so many other people, we didn't know what shelter in place actually meant. Did that mean we shelter in our homes and don't come out? Did it mean that we don't work? We were really concerned because I have employees, and I depend on my business to pay the bills; if we were going to shut down, that was going to affect me and so many other people. Finally, we got a little bit more clarity on what sheltering in place meant, which businesses could stay open, and which needed to close. We were relieved when we found out that food service establishments could stay open. The day before that happened, we sold out at three o'clock in the afternoon. I sent customers to the wine shop [Gnarly Vines] down the block ... people were buying stacks of wine and getting boxes of dessert for the weekend. That craziness continued throughout the pandemic. I guess people were buying desserts because it was comfort food and lots of wine because, well, it's wine.

Did all your staff keep working?
No, two people left because they were afraid to work at that time. I hired two other people who were looking for places that were still hiring.

How did your operations need to change?
I had to [trim] the number of days that I was open, from six to five, because of sourcing difficulties. We weren't able to source ingredients from the same place, so we needed two days to shop. We were at Trader Joe's, Restaurant Depot, Key Food … everywhere.
We had to streamline the transaction process. We were allowing customers in the store two at a time, masked. Every hour, we would close for five minutes to wipe down the handles, countertops, and glass and sanitize everything. It got a little crazy; even though you say, “Two people at a time,” people don't always listen. You have to remind them to wear a mask. We put up with that for a few months, but it got to be too much, so I had a contractor come in and create a service window in the front. We instituted a couple of other things, like a QR code where you can scan the menu. We encouraged people to place their orders online and then come and pick them up to make the transaction process quicker.
We also did free lunch Fridays ... We provided bag lunches for people so that they could swing by, pick up lunch, and take their kids to the park for a picnic. It was for essential workers and anyone else.

Tell me about your virtual classes.
We did baking classes during the pandemic for kids who were at home and driving their parents crazy. I figured if we could bake together for two hours once a week, it would give the kids something to look forward to and their parents something to look forward to because they at least had their children occupied with something that wasn't schoolwork. We created pre-measured ingredient boxes, which the kids would pick up on Wednesday mornings, then log on IG live at four o'clock to bake together in real time. Everything that I bake in the store, we baked at home, and then some. It was a lot of fun.

Are you letting people back inside to order?
Not yet.

Are you planning to do that any time soon?
As we get more comfortable, maybe, but honestly, the smooth transaction process at the window has really benefited us. Online ordering has allowed us to see other ways in which we can grow, like shipping care packages. I'm really excited about getting desserts in the hands of people not only in Brooklyn but nationwide. We're trying to build a space inside the store where we can do classes for kids. We wanted to do it for the fall, but with the backlog in the supply chain, that has been delayed.

Were you able to avail yourself of any emergency grants or loans?
We did not, because we didn't need it. More people found out about us during the pandemic, so we got a slew of new customers and it's been busier as a result of that. I was still able to pay my staff, thank God. There were businesses that really, really, really needed the money. And I'm afraid of debt. No matter how attractive it was, I opted not to do that.


“Any time we say that we're doing something for the community, the community shows up to help.”


It’s lovely how you’ve used your relatively fortunate position to give back to the community.
We try to do that, because Fort Greene has been really good to us. [Neighbors] will say, "Ms. Kym, I'm going to Costco. Do you need anything?" Or, "Ms. Kym, my daughter is available if you need anyone to help you out with X, Y, Z.” They bring us lunch. They offer us their vacation time rentals. When we were doing the free lunches, one of our customers donated boxes and boxes of masks that we were able to give out with the lunches. People offered hand sanitizer that we could give out. Any time we say that we're doing something for the community, the community shows up to help. They go out of their way to support, so we like to give it back to them.

What are your relationships with neighboring small businesses like?
We have a particularly great relationship with the Thai restaurant [Thai Holic] two doors down. When he’s at Restaurant Depot or Costco, he’ll pick up things that he knows we need and vice versa when we're there, because you can't be in two places at one time. I'm in the Poconos right now, and he called me and said, "I know you're still up there. Do you need me to do any shopping for you?"

Have you noticed any differences in how people are eating and sharing sweets?
There's more indulgence, and I think that's because of what people learned from the pandemic: you only live once, so eat the cake and enjoy it. People are celebrating more now, and there's a lot of cake involved in celebrations. And I’m seeing people being mindfully kinder to each other at the window. Just a couple of weeks ago, there were two people in line, and one person was talking about the banana pudding cupcake to the person behind her, and she offered to buy one for him so he could taste it. Someone will be in line and they'll buy the last of the chocolate chip cookies, and the guy behind her will say, "I was just going to buy the chocolate chip cookies," so she'll give him three of hers. You see a lot of sharing.


How to help:

  • Visit the shop at 366 Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn (open Wednesday - Saturday from 12 p.m. - 6 p.m. and Sunday from 9 a.m. - 6 p.m.)
  • Follow on IG


Until next time,
Frances

Curated By

Frances Thomas

Quiddity Content Editor
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