W hen Stephanie McManus graduated from culinary school last year, she knew she might have a rough go finding a job as a pastry chef during tough economic times on the Harbor.
So she created her own job — and a few others — when she purchased the former Suzie’s Cakes, which has now been up and running for about eight months under its new name: The Recipe Box.
“I moved home and there’s not a lot of bakeries around here, so I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do, but then Suzie was retiring so the timing worked out perfectly.”
Thanks to its former incarnation, the building was almost in turn-key condition for McManus, who purchased the bakery in January and had it up and running the next month.
“It was rough starting out — a little more so than we were expecting,” McManus said. “But as we are kind of expanding and doing more and the word’s getting out, things are picking up”
Born and raised here, McManus graduated from Hoquiam High School in 2008. Always an artsy sort in school, McManus realized she needed to put that talent to real-world use when looking for an education.
“I grew up baking with my mom and grandma, and so that has always been something I’ve enjoyed, but I really didn’t realize it was something I wanted to do until I graduated from high school,” she said. “Then I decided culinary school would be a good option.”
She looked at schools in the Seattle-Tacoma area, but settled on a relatively new school — the Inland Northwest Culinary Academy at Spokane Community College — a two-year program.
“I did one year of business classes and one year of culinary, specializing in pastries and cake decorating,” McManus said.
“They pushed us, really,” she said of her instructors. “They had high expectations. But it paid off, because we came out with the skills we needed.”
Compared to other for-profit schools, McManus found this one to be a pretty good bargain.
“It was all one lab fee that provided all of our uniforms and utensils and cake decorating supplies and all that,” she said. “Altogether it was about $15,000 and most of it I had in scholarships and financial aid, whereas the other culinary schools are $60,000 to $80,000.”
While the school placed her in a job in a Spokane restaurant after attaining her degree, McManus decided to move back to Hoquiam and back in with the family.
Suzie’s a natural fit
When she heard that Suzie’s Cakes might be for sale, she became singularly focused, despite some early misgivings among family members.
“It kind of all fell into place for her,” said her mother, Jody McManus. “She came back from school and heard Suzie was retiring. Suzie said she has been waiting to retire and waiting for the right person to come along.”
“I did a small bank loan and then had a lot of family invest,” said Stephanie, “We got the building in January and then we opened on Feb. 9. It was pretty fast.”
It helped that almost all the equipment needed was there, in good condition and ready to go. What needed to be repaired was often dealt with by her father, Keith, who she called their “Mister Fix-it.”
“With it having been Suzie’s a lot of it was set up how I needed it to be, McManus said. “Most of the equipment is what was left from Suzie’s.”
Today, the store smells delightful when you walk in the door, that delectable smell of caramelized sugar mixed with baking yeast breads wafts through the building. Its counters are filled daily with freshly made scones, cheesecake muffins, brownies, banana bread, pumpkin bread, pies and cupcakes.
And cupcakes that are to die for, with a moist, rich cake that caramelizes beautifully at the crest with an almost-crunchy texture like a brownie. That’s all topped off by real frosting — not the type that’s scooped out of a five-gallon plastic bucket into a piping bag.
“The most popular thing right now is probably the cupcakes because we do a lot of unique flavors,” McManus said. “I like experimenting with the cupcakes — things like root beer float cupcakes and cinnamon roll cupcakes and French toast cupcakes.
Other popular cupcake flavors include salted caramel, Almond Joy, Snickers, s’mores and white chocolate-huckleberry flavored treats.
“The things we have the most compliments on are the cupcakes, the biscuits and gravy and probably the cheesecake or scones.”
The homemade biscuits and gravy — selling for $4 an order — have become popular with the workers before their morning shifts at businesses along the nearby Port Dock Road, McManus said. There’s also a full coffee bar in the bakery. Her business is located on Simpson Avenue just off the east end of the Simpson Avenue Bridge.
Her secret to such tasty fare?
“We use lot of butter — I’m very Paula Dean on the butter — no margarine or shortening,” she said with a laugh.
But running the fledgling business hasn’t all been sugar and frosting for the 23-year-old.
“Trying to do everything is a challenge,” she said. “All the different areas, trying to manage it. Doing the cakes and the baking and keeping track of the online stuff and the bills and paperwork and customers — everything — it’s stressful. I knew that I was going to have to deal with it, but I wasn’t quite expecting it to be this much of a challenge.”
And the hours are long.
“Starting out I was doing anywhere between 12- and 18-hour days,” McManus said. “Now that I’ve got more of a routine down, at the beginning of the week I’m here for about 10 hours a day and then on the weekends — doing all the wedding cakes and stuff — 12 to 13 hours. I get Sundays off — we’re closed Sunday.”
“Some days I come in at 5 a.m. and some days I don’t have to be here until 6, depending on how much we get prepped the night before,” she added. “Even though I did two years of school and now we’re almost at the one-year mark, it’s still a struggle for me getting up early.”
There was a struggle with a refrigerator a couple of months in — just as the business was getting ready to launch its lunch service.
“It went out about two months after opening.” Stephanie said.
“We had just filled it with lunch stuff — all her lunch stuff,” her mother said. “We came in in the morning and everything was warm. We had to throw it all away.”
“We got it fixed. It was a problem with the fuse,” she said. “Other than that things have gone pretty smoothly for being new.”
Stop by for lunch
Beside the goodies, The Recipe Box is now serving lunches, featuring a soup of the day, salads, calzones, pizza by the sliced, stuffed breads and sandwiches on a variety of freshly baked breads.
McManus is also delving into the realm of gluten-free baked goods, offering a couple of these items each day.
“We have just started out experimenting with gluten-free, so everyday we try to have a couple of gluten-free options,” she said “ People are really excited about the gluten-free, so they’ve been bringing me their recipes and tips … and so we’re hoping to have a whole shelf of gluten-free items in the future” — which brings more challenges.
“The texture and the consistency of it doesn’t always hold together real well and getting it to be moist — and not crumbly — is tricky.
“And the ingredients are much more expensive,” added her mother, who can often be found helping in the bakery.
“For most gluten-free things — to get the right texture — you have to use a mix of all sorts of flour — tapioca flour, potato flour and then like sorghum and xanthan gum to help hold it together.”
It costs $68 just for a 5-pound bag of xanthan gum.
“But that lasts awhile,” she said.
While summer kept her busy with wedding cakes, McManus is taking a bit of a breather before gearing up for the holidays.
“The summer was real crazy with wedding cakes — like four cakes every weekend. Thankfully, the wedding cakes have slowed down so I have more time to spend” on other projects, she said.
“I’m hoping to be able to do rolls and pies for Thanksgiving and a lot of the Christmas cookies and stuff,” she said.
As if she’s not busy enough, the 23-year-old is also in the process of adopting a 5-year-old boy. His name is Skyler.
“My parents have been his guardian for a while,” McManus said. “They took him in as a foster, but I love him to death … so when I’m not here I try to spend as much time with him as I can.”
What does Skyler do when he hangs out around the bakery?
“He’s all about the cookies,” McManus said with a laugh. “He likes the cupcakes, but I have to keep an eye on him or he’s behind the counter trying to get the cookies.”
While she seems to have her flour-covered hands full, McManus is eyeing modest expansion down the road.
“Right now, I’m good with this,” she said.” Down the road, we’ve talked about getting a coffee stand and having both locations — if things go real well.”
And it seems to be going well as she builds a loyal clientele.
“A lot of people are shocked how young I am when they come in and ask for the owner, not expecting it to be me,” she said.
“But I like being my own boss. That part’s nice. I get to make the decisions.”
David Haerle, a Daily World writer, can be reached at 533-3928 or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.