Building a Shore tradition

Bakery: Ten thin cake layers add up to success for a home-grown business in Crisfield.

December 20, 2003|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

CRISFIELD -- So here's the secret ingredient for Delmarvalous Cakes' famous 10-layer cakes - there aren't any secret ingredients.

If there's any magic about this burgeoning little bakery where they've taken a traditional Eastern Shore dessert to great heights, it's probably the "secret spoon" - the stainless steel tool that dispenses each unmeasured pancake-sized dollop of batter into the pans that build the stacked cakes.

Here's the scoop: a spoon and a half for an 8-inch layer pan, two spoonfuls for a 9-inch pan and three spoonfuls for the 10-inch pan.

You can't convince anyone in the growing ranks of loyal customers that there isn't some kind of divine mojo employed at the bakery in this waterfront town of 2,800.

"I'm telling you, it's just like your wife made these cakes - no, wait, better. It's like your grandma baked these cakes," said Nicholas Paul, a Washington wholesale florist who will soon be making the three-hour drive to pick up an order of 60 cakes he intends to give as Christmas gifts to his best customers.

"There's something you don't find in the world too much anymore. It's a tradition they have with these cakes."

When they're covered with icing, the cakes look like any conventional two-layer homemade dessert. But cut, the rich slices reveal 10 thin layers, each slathered with one of 18 icing flavors, fruit or candy.

Like just about everybody in town, the women who started the bakery had grown up eating and baking traditional multi-layer cakes like those made famous for generations on Smith Island, the watermen's community about 12 miles out in the Chesapeake Bay from Crisfield's harbor.

But the women at Delmavalous Cakes decided to leave the old-school, lesser-layer cakes behind, like the traditional seven-layer variety with chocolate frosting, and only offer a 10-layer cake.

"We really had very little idea what we were doing," said co-owner Toni Tawes. "It all just took off by word of mouth. When we first started, we'd even deliver them. But we just don't have time for that."

Orders are now strictly carryout; the pricing is pretty simple - $20, $25 and $30.

It has been about five years since Tawes, her mother Theresa Evans, and her sister-in-law Carolyn Evans outfitted Tawes' kitchen with a triple sink and a small commercial oven, in compliance with health department's rules.

After three years of running the bakery out of her kitchen, Tawes, 56, and Carolyn Evans, 55, took the business to a new site on Main Street in Crisfield. The building, which in previous incarnations held offices, a convenience store and, for a while, a funeral home, already seems crowded.

Tawes and Evans have been close friends for more than 40 years, longer than Evans has been married to Tawes' brother, Robert "Muggsy" Evans, a National Guardsman who is serving in Iraq. They sometimes confuse visitors, calling each other "Sissy," a variation on "Sis."

Their landlord, insurance claims adjuster Richard Bentz - whose office across the hall, is always permeated with sweet baking aromas - has taken a keen interest in the business.

He volunteered to pick up 25-pound sacks of sugar, cases of cake mix and other supplies since his job takes him near the regional shopping centers in Salisbury, about 30 miles from Crisfield.

The women joke that he's been named an "honorary Sissy" for his efforts on their behalf.

This spring, Bentz is planning to add a small coffee and dessert bar in the front of the building where the specialty, of course, will be layer cakes.

Theresa Evans has been slowed by poor health, but a friend, Susie Sterling, and Carolyn's daughter, Anita Evans, round out the bakery staff.

The small convection oven that used to dominate Tawes' kitchen is still used in emergencies, but a newer, larger model can handle up to 30 shallow layer pans of batter at a time -enough to build three cakes - all baked for eight minutes at 325 degrees.

There is no "typical" workload, but the bakery is busy every day except Sunday and Monday. Recently, the women filled orders for nearly 70 cakes. There are nearly 100 pans that are in constant use for the batter.

The women work quickly, gently taking each layer from its pan, stacking them on thick paper cake plates, then spreading each layer with frosting. The outside icing is often applied by Tawes, a self-described perfectionist.

"We've actually had people who thought we made regular cake layers, then somehow sliced them into thin layers with dental floss or something," Evans said.

The bakery is supplying a growing number of restaurants in the area. James Dodson, who owns the Captain's Galley Restaurant at Crisfield's city dock, says he buys 500 cakes a year.

"It's really all part of the whole culture here - crab cakes and all kinds of seafood, topped off by a big slice of 10-layer cake," Dodson said.

The bakery has never needed to advertise, although Tawes and Evans have set up a booth at a couple of trade shows in Salisbury.

As for modernizing, payroll and some other paperwork is done on a computer, but cake orders are still logged in a spiral notebook and marked off as each is baked. Any plan for selling through the Internet seems distant, the women said.

"We can barely keep up with what we have right now," Tawes said. "We started out wanting to do something we liked that would let us be around home. We don't want to get too far away from that."

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