Austin residents who attended two recent business openings along Chicago Avenue would be forgiven for feeling a certain sense of déjà vu.
For the second time in the past two months, Westside Health Authority invited West Side politicians and local residents to celebrate an opening of a bakery operated by a couple with West Side connections. Both businesses even operate out of spaces inside two different WHA-owned buildings.
But there are several important differences between Schweet Foods, 5051 W Chicago Ave., which opened in May 12, and Brown Sugar Bakery, 4800 W. Chicago Ave., which had a soft opening in June 19.
While Schweet Foods is relative newcomer that only recently got any kind of physical space to call its own, Brown Sugar has been a South Side institution for the past 14 years. The Austin store is its third location (there is also one at Navy Pier).
While Schweet Foods specializes in cheesecakes and does much of its business online (the brick-and-mortar store is only on Fridays and Saturdays), Brown Sugar offers a wide variety of cake flavors and intends to be operational throughout the week once it officially opens sometime in July.
Both bakeries benefitted from Special Service Area 72, a special taxing area operated by WHA. Launched in 2017, the area includes a portion of Chicago Avenue between Central and Kilpatrick Avenues, and a section of Cicero Avenue between Rice and Ohio Streets. As with other SSAs, all property owners pay extra on their property taxes to help fund improvements.
Founder and co-owner Stephanie Hart opened Brown Sugar Bakery in the South Side Grand Crossing neighborhood in 2004. It wasn’t long before the word about her cakes spread across the city. She even earned accolades from the Steve Harvey Show in 2013.
Hart said that WHA first approached her about opening an Austin location three years ago, but it wasn’t until last year that she and her husband, Gregory Sherman, decided to actually do it. SSA 72, she said, was a major reason why.
‘What happened a year ago is the SSA started,” Hart said. “Some additional funding [became available] to encourage businesses, so the time was right.”
Hart said another reason she located to the West Side was because her husband grew up here. The fact that the area exudes such a strong sense of history — it’s near a portion of Cicero Avenue named after Nelson Mandela and where a statue of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. greets commuters at a busy intersection — was even more incentive.
Sherman said that the June 19 soft opening was meant to give residents a first look at the shop and a chance to ask questions. Sherman said that they plan to fully open the shop sometime in July. They said it will be open every day, between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.
Ald. Emma Mitts (37th), whose ward includes Brown Sugar Bakery’s newest location, said that she first got a chance to try the bakery’s cakes last year, and she’s been eager to see them open in Austin ever since. The alderman said that the cakes reminded her of the food she grew up with in Arkansas.
“We have to spread the word, so we can make [Hart] successful,” she said. “We don’t need to have empty storefronts — we’re more intelligent than that. I appreciate having Brown Sugar here, but we got to spread the word.”
WHA founder Jacqueline Reed said that it was auspicious that the opening fell on June 19, or Juneteenth, the day in 1865 when the abolition of slavery was announced in Texas and that marked the emancipation of slaves across the Confederacy.
“We celebrate those businesses since they work so hard to create something,” she said. “We’re going to support them. We got enough earnings ourselves to make this neighborhood what it is.”
Illinois state representative La Shawn K. Ford (8th) said that he appreciates that Brown Sugar Bakery decided to give Austin a chance.
“Not many people like to come to Austin, so it says a lot about who you are, that you support the community,” he said. “We accept you as a business in our community and as a partner for all of us to make Austin better.”
Malcolm Crawford, the head of the African American Business Networking Association, said that having not one, but two bakeries in different parts of Chicago Avenue was great for that street and for Austin as a whole. But that’s just the beginning, he added.
“We got seven businesses coming to Chicago Avenue — that’s powerful,” Crawford said.