Life Is Sweet For Brown Sugar Bakery As South Side Factory Allows Brand To Grow

ASHBURN — Brown Sugar Bakery empress Stephanie Hart couldn’t stop watching Netflix’s “Self-Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker” in 2020. 

In one scene in the four-part series, Walker —  a Black entrepreneur and activist often recognized as the country’s first self-made female millionaire after selling hair-care products — observes her staff proudly as they box and label bottles of products in her new factory. 

“I was like, ‘One day, that’s going to be me. I’m going to have those windows. I’m going to see this thing happen,’” Hart said. 

Hart’s dreams came to fruition late last month as she celebrated the grand opening and ribbon cutting of Brown Sugar Bakery’s manufacturing factory with local and state leaders. 

Hart will use the 10,000-square-foot facility at 7637 S. Western Ave. to expand her beloved cake-baking business and Brown Sugar Life Is Sweet, Hart’s candy line. 

Fans of Brown Sugar Bakery can still visit the South Side bakery at 328 E. 75th St. to satisfy their sweet tooth, but the Ashburn facility will allow Hart to create her notable treats and more “at a higher pace,” she said. 

Brown Sugar Bakery is southern-style bakeshop located on the city’s South Side. Visitors at the Chicago Food Stop can shop some of the bakery’s products. Credit: Melody Mercado/Block Club Chicago

The Western Avenue facility was once home to Cupid Candies, a fudge and toffee brand founded in 1936 by Paul Stefanos, a Greek immigrant. 

Hart bought the factory in December 2020 using a $500,000 grant from the state’s Minority-Owned Business Capital and Infrastructure Program. 

In 2022, Hart received a $200,000 We Rise Together grant from the Chicago Community Trust and a $10,000 grant from the state’s Back to Business program. 

Hart also received a $250,000 grant from the city’s Small Business Improvement Fund but only used about $200,000 “because some of the things we were doing didn’t qualify for reimbursement,” Hart said. 

Hart used the combination of city and state funding to “put our whole back into it” and get the Ashburn factory open, she said. 

It cost about $700,000 to renovate the space, including adding plumbing, electrical work and heating and cooling services, which took a “majority of my money,” Hart said. 

Hart invested about $400,000 in equipment, like fire mixers, to make the creamy caramel Brown Sugar Bakery is known for, Hart said. 

By Thanksgiving, employees won’t have to stir caramel by hand anymore, “which is an amazing feat for us,” Hart said. 

Hart’s factory boosts production and makes some jobs easier while they create “the same great taste,” Hart said. 

A caramel cake is set up on display at Brown Sugar Bakery. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Hart’s two-decade journey has had its peaks and pitfalls, she said. 

In April 2021, Vice President Kamala Harris stopped by Brown Sugar Bakery for a tray of cupcakes. 

In March 2022, a hit-and-run driver plowed into the 75th Street business, causing nearly $20,000 in damages.

Hart initially told Block Club she hoped to raise about $1.5 million to complete the factory’s renovations. That didn’t happen, Hart said. 

Instead, Hart “had to make a $1 out of 55 cents, which is what typically happens to minority companies,” she said. 

But Hart didn’t let the shortfall deter her from her dreams, she said. There’s still more work to be done at the factory, and she knows she’ll get there, Hart said.

“Right now, what we’re going to do is get used to these shoes we’re wearing and get really good at not being over our skis,” Hart said. “Then we’ll be looking to the next level.”

Owner Stephanie Hart gestures to the perfect imperfection of a “Rainbow Sherbet” cake at Brown Sugar Bakery. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Owning the Brown Sugar factory allows Hart to stretch her reach even further in the dessert world, she said. 

Brown Sugar Bakery recently inked a partnership with Angelica’s Bakery to produce and sell cakes under the business’s name, Hart said. 

As soon as this holiday season, neighbors can begin buying the same caramel, yellow chocolate, coconut and red velvet cakes Angelica’s used to sell, made by the team at Brown Sugar Bakery, Hart said. 

Hart is also hiring employees from the now-defunct company at her factory, she said. She hopes to create even more jobs for South Side neighbors, Hart said.

“I’m excited about working with the Angelica’s brand that was out there for 30 years and keeping that going in our community,” Hart said. “ It’s at its infancy, but I think it’s only going to get stronger and stronger.”

Hart is also partnering with Hyde Park’s B’Gabs Goodies to create a vegan pound cake that “we will start selling very soon,” Hart said. 

“This work gives me the opportunity to do things for brands that they might not have been able to do because they don’t have the same capability as a factory,” Hart said. 

Credit: Brown Sugar Bakery/Facebook

After watching “Self-Made” nearly a dozen times, Hart noted that Walker’s work and her own were nearly identical, she said.

“The process of creating curl mixes and lotions and potions is very similar to baking,” Hart said. “They’re both formula-based, and they utilize similar equipment. They just don’t put the batter in the oven. They put it directly into a container.”

Much like Walker, Hart hopes to serve as a guiding light for entrepreneurs, she said.

“What I’m hoping to leave as a legacy is that a company can start as a retail, small, single, one-person shop and grow into a manufacturing company,” Hart said. 

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