CEDAR RAPIDS — More than 20 years ago, LeShawn Smith’s sister and cousin gave her the nickname “Shawnniecakes.” So it is appropriate the owner of NewBo City Market’s newest vendor, Shawnniecakes Specialty Treats, found her passion in baking.
“We have a lot of bakers in the family, a lot of really good cooks,” she said.
Both her grandmother, Sue Breckenridge, who lived to age 105, and her husband’s grandmother, who they called Grandma B, used to sell pastries.
“My grandma made this peach cobbler that was to die for,” Smith said. “And Grandma B made these pound cakes.”
When Smith asked for the recipe, “She gave me three or four ingredients, but said you have to come over and learn the rest.”
In 2005, Smith was experimenting with the recipe and made her own version, a sweet potato pound cake, using a favorite ingredient from her other grandmother, Lydia, who taught her how to make sweet potato pies.
“She always attempted to do everything a little differently. I think that’s where I get it ... I like to take what other people do and make it a little different,” she said. “I always make up my own recipes or tweak recipes.”
She wasn’t always a baker — the first thing she remembers baking were cookies that came in a tube and had to be simply sliced and laid on a baking sheet. Her love of baking grew from there. Around 2008, she and her mother, Pearl Gill, took a cake decorating class together and started making treats for friends and family. Requests started pouring in. That led to the idea of starting a business with her mother, who is retired from a career running a medical transcription business.
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The business started in 2010 as Shawnniecakes and Mama Pearl’s Specialty Treats, with a license to bake from Smith’s home kitchen. She would take specialty orders and sell her treats at pop-up shops at NewBo. But she was ready for the next step. When the bakery Rustic Hearth moved out of NewBo City Market to open its own brick and mortar location on Mount Vernon Road, Smith saw her chance at a market stall that already had room to bake.
“It’s hard when your whole kitchen is full of baking supplies, when you have fondant everywhere,” she said with a laugh.
The timing also was right for her personal life. She was working at Transamerica, and her contract was coming to an end. She also recently turned 40 and thought a new decade was a good time to examine her priorities.
“I decided the time was right to do this full time,” she said. “I was like, ‘There are some things I haven’t done but want to do.’”
At the NewBo stand, she said she’s doing less elaborate decorated cakes and more single serving slices of cakes, cobblers and cookies. Her menu includes lemon and caramel pound cakes, toffee butter cookies, chess pie, sweet potato pie and more.
“We’re Southern style ... A lot of this is really rich, but it’s so good,” she said. “I like to say we use top of the line ingredients — love and soul.”
Two of her signature items are Pearlies, her take on Twinkies, named for her mother, and Jordies, chocolate tortes with buttercream. She’s also proud of her mesh cookies, a mashup of walnuts, chocolate chips, white chocolate chips and toffee.
For now, the store is open the same hours as the market, though Smith has considered adding morning hours and adding things like quiche to her menu. The NewBo shop opened the weekend of Fourth of July.
She has a few gluten-free options on her lineup and is trying to perfect some vegan recipes.
“I don’t want taste to be compromised if I serve it,” she said.
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Smith understand people looking for things like gluten-free options; she has her own health challenges with Crohn’s disease, which can leave her fatigued. Support from friends and family has been key to making the business work. Her husband, sister, mother, and even friends, or her kids can often be found behind the counter, ringing customers up or mixing batter.
Whenever she’s tired, she calls on the feeling she gets when she sees someone taste her food.
“It’s almost therapeutic. When someone bites into my food and calls on the name of the Lord, I think, ‘OK, that must be pretty good,’” she said. “I get excited. If you come in here, you might see me over there behind the counter dancing.”
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If you go
• What: Shawnniecakes Specialty Treats
• Where: NewBo City Market, 1100 Third St. SE, Cedar Rapids
• Hours: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday
• Details: (319) 412-5000, shawnniecakes.com