The smell of butter and sugar was in the air as I pulled into a small parking lot off of Lead Mill Road in Raleigh. So much so that even though I didn’t see the sign for Southern Sugar Bakery right away, I already knew I was in the right place. I followed my nose to the entrance hidden behind a chiropractor’s office and walked into a waiting area that is probably the best smelling place I have ever encountered in my life.
I was there to meet Angie Tucker and Christin Kubasko, the owners of Southern Sugar Bakery whose success as the Triangle’s premier decorated sugar cookie bakery has been something out of a dream. I was curious to learn the secrets – the proverbial magic sauce – that transferred this side hustle in 2012 from Angie’s home kitchen to this wonderful enterprise that has quite literally gained a following as far as Australia.
We walked down a small hallway passing employees engrossed with giant cookie trays and commercial sized stand-mixers (imagine your home Kitchen-Aid magnified 10 times). We eventually ended up in a tiny room which probably is not small in reality but only felt so because it was lined floor to ceiling with cardboard boxes, each destined to carry a perfectly decorated batch of cookies to their rightful owners.
Sitting in this room, in this commercial kitchen, I asked Angie and Christin to share with me their humble beginnings, and the moment when they knew it was time to upgrade their hobby into a full-time gig. That moment according to Christin came three years into their home-based collaboration when both Angie and Christin still worked as full-time school counselors.
“We just saw it explode over the three years,” explained Christin. “When we first started – we laugh about it now – but our limit was 10-dozen cookies a week. That’s all we could handle…
“…And then, 6-months later we said our limit was 15-dozen cookies a week. Then a year later it was 20-dozen a week. By the end of it, we were doing 40-dozen cookies a week. Just the two of us by ourselves. So we were pretty much working two full-time jobs, burning the candle at both ends.”
The collective leap of faith came during the summer of 2015 when overworked and exhausted, they decided to quit their full-time careers and focus on the cookie business whole-heartedly. They moved out of Angie’s licensed home kitchen and into this big commercial kitchen where we sit today. Here, they could finally keep up with their increasing demand with a dream team of 16 or so employees who have helped carry their business to a whole other level, including a spotlight on NBC’s Today show in 2016, and an invitation to be the featured vendor for the Country Music Awards in 2017.
At this point, if you are a home baker wondering what’s so special about these cookies to garner this much attention. Let me just stop talking (umm..typing?) for a second and ask you to check out Southern Sugar Bakery’s Instagram account @SouthernSugarBakery. One look at their posts and it’s easy to see that a cookie is not just a cookie when it comes to Angie and Christin. What you are actually looking at is a piece of art that includes intricate patterns, colors, and designs, all done by hand in icing sugar. And of course, that delicious cookie under it acting as the blank canvas.
There is a balance that goes into creating a perfect cookie like theirs that can handle the sweet icing and still taste so good. This successful marriage of flavor and design can be credited to Christin who perfected the recipe in her own kitchen years ago purely out of her love for baking and decorating. As we talked more about all the cookie types offered by the bakery, I couldn’t help but ask if any food industry trends like using seasonal ingredients, or farm-to-table eats, or sourcing as locally as possible, have caught on in their bakery business. The short answer – Yes.
“We seasonally have different drop cookies,” Angie continued diving a little deeper into my question, “and one of the drop cookies in spring and summer is lemon. We found that when lemons are out of stock, it is very difficult to use any other thing besides real lemon juice to create the cookie. Once we extended the lemon drop cookie to the fall because they were such a big seller, but we just had to take it off the website until we could get enough fresh seasonal lemons.”
I also learned that their efforts have gone beyond just lemons and into that one quintessential ingredient without which there would be no cookies – butter. “We have reached out to local farms, particularly dairy farms, to try and get our butter.” Angie added. “Right now, we haven’t found a farm that can keep up with our demand. We reached out as far as Ashe county and nobody can produce what we need. So should one day we have our own farm, our own cows and chickens, and our own eggs? … Call it the Southern Sugar Farm?”
Collective laughter followed at this crazy idea but sitting across from them, I could feel their hearts and minds excited with the possibility. After all, it was not long ago when they thought baking 10-dozen cookies per week was a crazy idea too. And this is exactly what’s so amazing about Angie and Christin, we have barely just met and yet I can feel their energy and their determination to go big and do bold things (including maybe a future farm).
So what does all of this success feel like for the ladies? “It is overwhelming what we do on a day to day basis,” Angie said, after a second of thought. “… there are so many more hands involved, there are so many more technicalities involved; these are not just cookies anymore … this [business] is our baby and now we are in the middle-school stage.
The awkward stage, the boxes-to-the-ceiling stage, the things-being-a-little-all-over-the-place stage, but when I walk in here it feels like I am walking into a second family. The mutual respect and love that happens inside these walls make me happy.”
I was curious if they missed their former jobs as school counselors. Christin was quick to respond by saying that what she missed the most were the relationships with students and their families, and being an advocate for their success. There was a rhythm to that work she added, which doesn’t really translate into a business that has yet to show signs of slowing down or having an offseason (like summer vacation). But if I were to add my two cents, I think that in many ways they are still counselors who provide a listening ear to their customers’ stories (happy or sad) and who translate these stories into edible designs that provide motivation and memories outlasting the cookie itself.
Clearly, there is a lot of hard work that has gone into building Southern Sugar Bakery, but as I ended my interview with Angie and Christin, I also realized that it’s the kind of success that can’t be replicated by hard work alone. In fact, the magic sauce as I was hoping to discover, isn’t in the recipe at all. The magic is Angie and Christin themselves, whose faith in God, and friendship with each other, have somehow made ordinary cookies into a beautiful celebration of life.
Southern Sugar Bakery is not a retail bakery, so you must custom order your cookies. If you are local to the Raleigh-area, you may order and pick up cookies at Southern Sugar Bakery located at 4517 Lead Mine Road, Suite B, Raleigh NC 27612, or they can ship them to you via UPS anywhere in the USA. Learn more.
Follow Chika’s adventures with her family as she travels around the globe on The Antibland.