Brown Sugar Bakery buying 84-year-old Cupid Candies on Chicago’s Southwest Side
Chicago's most famous caramel cake will meet ice cream and chocolate from a longtime maker with the sweet convergence of two iconic Chicago brands.
Brown Sugar Bakery founder Stephanie Hart is buying the Cupid Candies factory on the Southwest Side. Hart plans to move her bakery kitchen to the candy factory in the Gresham neighborhood while keeping her original shop in Chatham open. The bakery has become one of the most significant destinations for black food culture in the city.
Cupid Candies owner John Stefanos will keep his last two candy stores in the southwest suburbs of Oak Lawn and Orland Park, both with ice cream parlors. The candy company is one of the last of the Greek family-owned candymakers in town, drawing hundreds who line up on Valentine's Day.
Stefanos plans to work with Hart for about three years to make the transition smoother. "I've got to keep working if I want to keep my marriage going," he said jokingly in his deadpan Henny Youngman one-liner style.
The reality, though, is sobering. A previous proposal to split the business with a cousin in Las Vegas fell through, he said by phone. "I have MS and it's getting to the point where it's really difficult," he added. Stefanos said he can't put in 80-hour work weeks anymore.© Louisa Chu / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS Chocolate dipped apples at Cupid Candies kitchen and store in the Gresham neighborhood of Chicago on Feb. 5, 2020
Hart empathizes with his bittersweet commitment. "His entire life is that business," she said. "So selling is a weird word."
In fact, they've already been collaborating for over a year, as kindred sweets spirits.
The purchase was made possible in part by $11 million in grants to 32 minority-owned small businesses and business incubators across the state announced by Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the Illinois Department of Commerce & Economic Opportunity last week. The department's Office of Minority Economic Empowerment awards the so-called OMEE grants.
As a black business owner, Hart received $500,000, the maximum grant awarded. Brown Sugar will use the grant to buy the factory, as well as the Cupid Candies name. The company was founded in 1936 by Stefanos' late father, Polyhronis Stefanos, a Greek immigrant.
In 2004, Hart opened the bakery, which she describes as a Southern dessert company. The business has grown to three locations. The original shop and kitchen on 75th Street has reopened, after closing during the shelter-in-place order. The retail outlets at Navy Pier and on the West Side in the Austin area both remain closed temporarily.© Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS Jennifer Rudzinski puts away freshly made cakes in the cooler at Brown Sugar Bakery June 10, 2020, in Chicago. Owner Stephanie Hart says the bakey business has outgrown its space, which is why she is moving it to the factory she is buying.
The bakery has become best known for her caramel cake with a delicate, golden crumb layered by thick, creamy icing and sliced into vast slabs. "The caramel that I make is so special that I literally had to go and watch an old lady in Arkansas make it, because I just couldn't do it right," said Hart. "Our caramel is buttery and full, but extremely smooth."© Terrence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS Brown Sugar Bakery chef/owner Stephanie Hart is seen in her 75th Street shop in Chicago with vanilla, cream cheese and caramel cake, foreground, and a spring themed cake April 29, 2020. Hart will move her cake-baking operations to Cupid Candies, which she is buying, while keeping the retail bakery open on 75th Street.
"I've outgrown 75th Street for making cakes," she said by phone. "I've tried to figure out every way I can, but there's no more space."
Hart hopes to keep all two dozen or so candy factory employees. They will continue to make all the Cupid ice cream bars and chocolate, including the signature Turks, the nut and caramel clusters commonly known as Turtles that's a name trademarked by DeMet's Candy Co. Stefanos will eventually buy product from the factory for his two remaining stores.
"The first thing I'm not going to do is rock a boat that's floating. I mean that's dumb," said Hart laughing. "There's a core team there that's awesome, that have been with John for 30 years, so that's exciting."
"I'm going to ride with them for a little while," she said. "Everybody that I've met there, there's a love thing going on. My staff is very similar to that."
The baker and the candy maker first met in April 2019 because the factory building was listed for sale. "That summer, we made stuff together," said Hart.
"She's come up with ideas like a brownie ice cream bar," said Stefanos. "She'll make the brownies and we'll put ice cream on it and dip it." Cupid shares a family history with Dove ice cream bars.
Since then, they've met regularly. "We are collaborating on new products almost every time we see each other," said Hart. "I've brought cake scraps and he's mixed and enrobed them in chocolate and it tastes like it's something else," she added, laughing. "We've got to name it."
"We're creative whenever we're together, so this energy kind of built up," said Hart. "We've been getting to know each other. I'm learning about chocolate. We talk a lot."
Meanwhile, she's still working out of her flagship shop, open only for takeout and delivery. "I was just speaking with the Greater Chatham Initiative and they're working with the city really diligently to try to get us ready to have tables out on Friday, which is Juneteenth," said Hart. "It's really significant and we hope we can make it."
Hart was referring to Mayor Lori Lightfoot's pilot program to close residential streets and commercial corridors in six Chicago neighborhoods to make more room for outdoor dining, including 75th Street in Chatham. The businesses on 75th Street, however, have decided to have seating on sidewalks and not close the street, she said. "I'm great with that," she added. "It's effective. It works. I think that's enough for us."
But it's not quite enough since the entrepreneur has also been developing a cake mix for home bakers, which she expects to have in her shops by September. "I've had the opportunity to develop this product with a major company in the industry," said Hart. "I wasn't a professionally trained baker so I want people like me to have success."
"You'll be able to do whatever out of it," she said. "Caramel cake, yellow cake, chocolate cake, lemon cake, whatever. There's 100 cakes you can make with that right now. You can make cupcakes and pancakes too."
What about the caramel icing? "I'll give you tips," said Hart. "But y'all know I can't give out that caramel recipe!"
Speaking of caramel, look for Cupid Candies caramel- and chocolate-dipped apples and ice cream bars at the Navy Pier Brown Sugar location when the food courts reopen, said Stefanos.
Navy Pier reopened outdoor dining last week. The biggest tourist attraction in the Midwest alerted indoor food court owners on Tuesday morning that they could reopen Wednesday. Hart said she hasn't been in her Brown Sugar space there for months so she's not ready, but may reopen Monday. "I can't even think of adding that to my plate right now," she said.
Hart said she's also shopping for a food truck to go around the city to sell both candy and ice cream bars along with her cakes. Until then, Brown Sugar Bakery goods should be available at Cupid Candies stores by July 1, and vice versa.
"I'm too old to come up with new ideas," said Stefanos. The 84-year-old candy company launched its first website last week. "But working together, I think we can come up with some wonderful ones."
Brown Sugar Bakery, 328 E. 75th St., 773-224-6262, brownsugarbakerychicago.com. Cupid Candies; 7637 S. Western Ave., 773-925-8191; 4709 95th St., Oak Lawn, 708-423-2729; 9420 W. 143rd St., Orland Park, 708-403-3636; cupidcandies.com
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