CHICAGO — Stephanie Hart, owner of Brown Sugar Bakery on Chicago’s South Side, never expected to have “James Beard Award nominated” precede her name. In fact, she didn’t even know who James Beard was until the small bakery business she had been building for 20 years received the shortlist distinction.
One of the most coveted culinary distinctions in American food culture, the James Beard Foundation Awards have been bestowed on the food industry’s elite since 1991. Some of the most notable winners have included Rick Bayless, Emeril Lagasse and La Brea Bakery founder Nancy Silverton.
Being associated with names like these was never on Hart’s radar. That’s not just because, as a Black woman, she didn’t look like them. Her style of baking — and her kind of bakery — are atypical of the culinary style often associated with the name.
“I’m a new kind of baker for James Beard,” Hart said. “I don’t see myself as a traditional baker.”
Hart opened Brown Sugar Bakery in 2002 after a career in technology, when she chose to pursue baking over the corporate lifestyle. Her signature product is a southern-style, four-layer cake. Most flavor varieties include caramel — her favorite flavor — and are often inspired by beloved treats from her childhood.
Hart’s known for making products she loves and doing so in a way that works best for her, regardless of what tradition may dictate.
“I rejected the word ‘chef’ until the James Beard nomination,” she said.
But then James Beard Award winner Erick Williams, chef and owner of Virtue restaurant in Chicago, sat down with Hart and explained why she deserved the distinction, even without formal training.
“He told me I’ve been in this industry, being successful, getting to the point where I can employ people and make products of quality,” Hart recalled. “I make products that people love. I’ve done the work, and that’s what makes the show.”
In fact, the James Beard nomination isn’t the only recognition Hart’s received. She was also named the Karen Barker Baker of the Year by the Southern Food Alliance last year and competed on Food Network’s Holiday Baking Championship in 2014.
Adding to these distinctions, making the James Beard Awards shortlist alongside some of the country’s most notable chefs, bakers and pastry chefs is a big draw for the business.
“People will say, ‘You’re a James Beard nominee? I’m coming to your bakery,’” Hart said, attributing her product landing the cover of Chicago Magazine’s Chicago’s Iconic Eats special edition to her James Beard nomination.
While the 75th Street neighborhood of Chicago is predominantly African American, Hart’s notoriety has drawn more diverse foot traffic to Brown Sugar from a variety of races, cultures and geographic locations.
She’s generating buzz from some well-known patrons, as well, including Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker and US Vice President Kamala Harris, along with a host of other celebrities who have visited the bakery.
The timing of her 2019 nomination was a blessing for the business in terms of the media attention and having the Brown Sugar Bakery name out there prior to the pandemic. In fact, Hart’s recognition caught the attention of local consumer media, positioning her as a leading voice to gauge the pandemic’s impact on local businesses.
Brown Sugar is thriving, with a second location at Navy Pier, as well as shipping product nationwide through Goldbelly. Later this year, the bakery will break into manufacturing when it moves into its first production facility, which will focus on cake and candy production.
It’s the culmination of Hart’s entrepreneurial spirit that has defined her since childhood, even through her experience as a businesswoman in the conservative ’80s tech boom. For Hart, her success is a testament to the strength and untapped potential of the human spirit.
As Brown Sugar’s business grows, Hart is developing new products and working with Dawn Foods to develop mixes that other bakers can use when they don’t have the resources to make their own scratch formulas. The mixes provide flexibility to create new varieties without risk, which Hart has found to be highly beneficial in terms of her own new product development.
“You can’t think old school,” she said. “You have to think new school and develop new partnerships. Dawn has been so supportive of me and let me into areas that I couldn’t get into before.”
That will make a big difference when the bakery scales up in the new facility and begins to grow, perhaps with more storefront locations in addition to 75th Street and Navy Pier.
“I just want people to think about things that don’t look like they look now,” Hart said. “That’s why I’m always fighting.”
Follow Brown Sugar Bakery on Instagram for inspiration.