Brown Suga Bakes began modestly — selling cookies out of lunch bags mid-pandemic, said Ebony Paul-Harris, detailing a strategy of starting small to achieve big results. In her case: opening the oven to a brick-and-mortar bakery and storefront in Olathe.
“In the beginning, we used to make really small cookies. We also had a sample jar out,” said Paul, founder of Brown Suga Bakes. “People eat with their eyes first, and people love miniature things. Almost everyone who took a sample, bought a cookie.”
But gone are the days when the pop-up needed samples to sell Brown Suga Bakes, she said. With flavors like cookies and cream and pecan pie, the brand has become known for its innovative take on snacky tastes.
“Everybody loves those because they are unique,” Paul said. “Our thing is turning what would normally not be a cookie into a cookie.”
Click here to check out Brown Suga Bakes’ menu.
The family-run operation is set to offer those flavors and more this spring at 1066 W. Santa Fe, Olathe. Customers will be able to shop merchandise from other local vendors, as well as purchase ice cream and drinks newly added to the Brown Suga Bakes menu.
“One of things that is extremely important to us is making people feel seen,” Paul said. “In the world of social media, it is harder to connect. A lot of the time, people just go into a store, get what they need, and leave. It’s big for us to connect with people and know them by name so they can feel comfortable.”
The move also is expected to allow Paul to hire more help to run the bakery, she said. (Only Paul, her mother and sister know the secrets to Brown Suga Bakes’ recipes, she noted, though her aunts and cousins have joined in supporting the business behind the scenes — and behind the table.)
“We’ve been fortunate to have family members who want to help us out,” Paul said. “[At pop-ups], we take shifts so no one gets burnt out. It’s really nice to have people who want to see you succeed.”
Click here to follow Brown Suga Bakes’ journey on Instagram.
Fashion to flavors
With a background in IT — currently working as a product owner — Paul followed an unconventional recipe to her pop-up, she said, describing how she picked up culinary lessons throughout an evolving, industry-crossing career.
“I had a creative major. I was an apparel marketing (fashion) major, which wasn’t technically baking, but I was a part of the baking club at K-State,” Paul said.
She later enrolled in continuing education classes at Johnson County Community College on Saturdays, indulging in courses like gluten-free baking. She plans to take an ice cream class soon.
“I have always loved the joy that food brings people,” Paul said. “I just really love food, all kinds of food. I love learning, even not just about baking.”
Selling her creations wasn’t always in the plan, however. After she turned to baking during the pandemic, her mother — and eventual pop-up partner — encouraged her to try making money with the goods.
“I really liked baking for people in my free time, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to turn it into a business,” Paul said.
But when her mother passed around samples, the orders began to roll in, she said.
“I took a lot of time to meditate on it. I can’t help but think that was God, and the hand He has had on my life,” Paul said. “My family finds a lot of joy to be in this business.”
First home, second nature
Brown Suga Bakes initially sold its goods through social media apps like Snapchat and Instagram, Paul said. When she started getting swamped by demand, her mother and sister joined the operation.
Interest in selling at pop-ups soon followed with family participation quickly growing. Recent events at Strawberry Swing and the Kansas City Night Market at the Crossroads Hotel proving critical tests for the business.
But perhaps the most impactful pop-up was Paul’ first, she said, detailing a Father’s Day event at Stone Pillar Vineyard in Olathe.
“When I first posted about it, I was a nervous wreck,” she said. “I was questioning if people would even like it. We didn’t know what to expect. “We baked a lot of stuff, and we sold out. It was reassuring.”
That experience — and her born-and-raised Olathe upbringing — made the Kansas City suburb an obvious choice for a physical bakery, Paul said.
“Everyone in my family, including my mother, went to Olathe North,” Paul said. “It’s definitely home for sure.”
Another near-certainty for the new storefront: a focus on supporting one another, through wins big and small.
“My entire family gets together to celebrate anything, literally. I could get a promotion at work and my whole family will come over,” Paul said. “We’ve always been really big on gathering around food. This came second nature to all of us because this is what we do in our real lives, not just for business.”
This story is possible thanks to support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a private, nonpartisan foundation that works together with communities in education and entrepreneurship to create uncommon solutions and empower people to shape their futures and be successful.