Mary's Cakes and Pastries benefits while serving community
There’s no better place to experience holiday warmth than at a bakery. Stroll through the entrance, and the oven provides instant heat. Beyond body temperature, Mary’s Cakes and Pastries gives a sensory treat for the eyes and nose too. Gingerbread cookies, Yule log cake, stollen and bread pudding are just some of their holiday specialty items. On Dec. 1, owner Mary Cesar said, the store turned into a “cookie factory.” They are already booked for wedding cakes each weekend in December and even had to turn one offer down.
“I expect it to be very busy,” Cesar said, right up until Christmas Eve.
When a group of three young men strutted through the doors to Mary Cesar’s shop, one commented that it smelled good. Cesar snapped back, “Of course it does. It’s a bakery!”
Cesar took an unusual route in becoming the owner of the bakery at 412B 22nd Avenue in Northport. Before coming to Alabama, she lived in Atlanta and had previously been in places like New York, California, Finland and Paris. After work one night, she happened to see an ad for Culinard in Birmingham on late-night television. Cesar said it was always her dream to go to culinary school. So, she took the plunge, from making a good salary to being in school with student loans.
"It's kind of like jumping off a cliff," she said.
Cesar, 53, has been in business since 2006. She believes having a business background and years of experience have been critical to being a business owner.
"I wouldn't still be in business today," she said.
According to her, people seriously underestimate the costs of starting and maintaining a business. Some key points are making what customers want, selling it at a price that makes money, knowing when to say no and self-reliance.
"I don't need to be rich," she said. "I just need to be in the black.
“[Many businesses are] undercapitalized, and they have this false sense of what it takes. It costs a lot more than people think."
She noted she isn't married and doesn't have kids, an important advantage. To be successful, she said, the business has to be the most important thing.
"You gotta really want to do it,” she said. “I'm here every day. This shop, I want it to be something I like.”
Despite the fact that Mary's Cakes and Pastries is in Northport, she has felt the weight of the EF-4 tornado that hit Tuscaloosa on April 27. She said 30 cakes were cancelled after the storm, a substantial amount of business. Mary has business insurance, but insurance does not account for what happens when you lose serious business weeks and months after a tragedy.
Cesar said people can’t be faulted for not needing celebratory food when many lost their homes, but she said perhaps the biggest hit was the University of Alabama cancelling graduation. Cesar said business was OK in April, slow in May but not terrible, but June was probably the slowest month ever. By August, things began to pick back up, and October through December is one of the busiest periods of the year.
Despite the loss in business, Mary is adamant about supporting her staff.
“You can’t just cut hours,” she says. To employees who’ve worked at corporations that routinely cut employees’ hours to help the company line, Cesar is a breath of fresh air.
“I think the best thing about Mary’s is the people I work with and the interaction with customers,” said Mary’s employee Maury Holliman. “This place is like a small family. We get to interact with great customers. This place is a home away from home.”
In September, Mary’s Cakes and Pastries won the National Get Back to Scratch Contest. The contest included more than 450 baking establishments across the country entering a signature scratch-baked item.
Mary’s entered their decorated shortbread cookies, featuring such decorations as a houndstooth hat, a football, an elephant and others. Officially, the contest spanned six months. According to Cesar, the contest was essentially 93 days, when contestants were accepted and given a chance to win through online voting. People voted for Mary’s every single day.
“They did it for us,” Cesar said.
While the voting numbers weren’t released, it is clear from comments alone that Mary’s was the clear winner. She had 136 comments on getbacktoscratch.com, the official contest website, which was far more than any other bakery.
The grand prize was either an 80-quart or a 60-quart Hobart Legacy mixer. The 60-quart mixer holds 75 pounds of cake batter, which is enough to make 80 quarter-inch cakes. It took eight Hobart representatives two and a half hours just to get the 60-quart mixer in the door. It only took two minutes to get it set up.
“We don’t need the 80,” Cesar said. The 60-quart mixer is still quite a spectacle to see and is worth roughly $20,000.
Cesar said winning is especially cool because she didn’t just buy the mixer. She feels in many ways the mixer belongs just as much to her loyal customers as it does to the business itself.
Cesar also gives back to her community, having donated the old mixer to the East Tuscaloosa Community Soup Bowl, as it was displaced by the tornado. She is also friends with many of her customers.
Glenn House Sr. is one such example, and he visits the bakery regularly, despite living in Gordo. He said it “seems like forever” that he's known her, probably as long as she's been here. When pressed for his favorite item, he said, "It'd be hard to pick one. We try to pick something different every time."
At the moment, he was excited to try the fruit cake.