Keeping Smith Island Alive Takes The Cake

Investor Hopes Selling Dessert Will Provide Jobs

December 01, 2009|By Christy Goodman | Christy Goodman,The Washington Post

In one corner of the bare-bones bakery, Louise Clayton, 62, hushed a visitor as she carefully counted out scoops of cocoa for the fudge icing she was making. Missy Tyler, 49, measured out batter and poured it into a cake tin. She did it nine more times before popping the 10 tins into the oven. Donna Smith, 45, placed one cooled thin layer before her and covered it with Clayton's icing. She added layers and icing nine more times until an authentic Smith Island cake sat in front of her.

The barely five-month-old Smith Island Baking Co. has 10 employees making Maryland's official state dessert and shipping it across the country. They have delivered to 19 states and are praying that the bakery becomes a success.

"I really believe this is answering our prayers," said baker Marjorie Laird, 60, of Tylerton. "People have been praying, especially on Smith Island, that something would open up. We want to stay here, and you can only stay if you are making a lot of money."

Smith Island, Maryland's only inhabited island in the Chesapeake Bay, off the Lower Eastern Shore, is home to three towns: Ewell, Tylerton and Rhodes Point. The island's primary employer was the bay, with the men crabbing and the women picking the meat.

There are a few restaurants and shops that are open in the summer when the tourists come, but there aren't many other options.

"This is the first time in my adult life I've had a winter job, and I'm enjoying it," said Smith, who picks crabs and tends to soft-shell crabs in the summer.

As the health of the bay declined, and with the state regulating what watermen can catch, many families were having a hard time finding work. That's when Brian Murphy, a former commodities trader for Constellation Energy, proposed a bakery that specializes in the state's cake and ships it around the country.

The origins of the cake are not clear, but most of the native islanders can remember their mothers and grandmothers baking them. "If you live on Smith Island, you pretty much know how to make them," said Smith as she steadily iced layer after layer of the nine-inch cake in front her.

Murphy, 32, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, recently loaded a ferry in Crisfield with almost 1,200 pounds of sugar, flour, cocoa and other ingredients. He is the president of the baking company and lives in Chevy Chase. The company is the first project of his new investment firm, Plimhimmon Group.

"I really think on a revenue basis we can be a $1 million business in a year," Murphy said as the ferry made its way across the bay. "Right now, they are exporting cakes and importing dollars."

After the 45-minute ferry ride, the bakery manager, Kristen Manzo, 28, greets Murphy with a golf cart at the end of the bakery's dock. They load the ingredients and zip up to the aluminum-sided building.

A couch and a few tables and chairs in the front create a small coffee shop. There are tables for icing and cooling, a cooling rack and an oven. There are small electric coils to get the fudge icing to the perfect temperature, and a mixer and sink in the back. Cake boxes and packing tools line the walls. Cards explaining the cake's story sit in a stack under a table. As the cakes are packed for shipping, the bakers sign the cards, adding a personal touch.

Manzo coordinates the bakers' schedules and runs the day-to-day operation. She gets the orders ready and then works with the women to give them hours in between shifts at the cooperative in Tylerton picking crabs, caring for family on the mainland, taking extra shifts at the restaurant or filling in as mail carrier for a day.

Karla Graham, the company's sales and marketing director, has been working with the office of Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, to get the cake into the White House. She has signed up for tourism expos and sales conventions. She recently won a contract to supply the cakes to a restaurant at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

"A lot of people can make this cake, but it is not authentic unless it comes from the island," said Graham, who read about Murphy's venture in a business newspaper and called him to see how she could fit into the company.

The more cakes they sell and the more corporate accounts they can secure, the more bakers can be hired at $15 an hour.

"I think [the bakery] will help the economy on the island and each individual woman, but for me, it means I can start my married life on the island," said Manzo, whose fiance works on a tugboat.

Tom Horton, a former Baltimore Sun reporter and author of "Island Out of Time," about Smith Island, said, "It is down to body and soul out there, but maybe with the cakes there is a little more hope than a year ago."

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