The delicious collision of Heaven and the potato chip cookieJun 01, 2016 09:14AM ● By Richard Gaw
The shop's location on Main Street is a cozy spot to unwind, and have a treat.
By Richard L. Gaw
Before this profile tumbles into the
wonderful story of how Casey Warrington and Lisa Lonabaugh turned a
few conversations into one of the biggest business success stories in
North East in recent years, there is the small matter of the Sweet
Spice Bake Shop's potato chip cookie – indeed, the title that
begins this profile and one of the business' signature items – to
The cookie is pure genius.
If customers are not applauding Warrington for how she brought together the unlikely chemistry of potato chips with chocolate chips, they should be. She has formed a nearly intoxicating blend of sweet and salty and, owing to its two key ingredients, a texture that is both crunchy and chewy. Witness its history: Soon after the business opened on Main Street last December, a customer motioned to the peculiar name given to the cookies that Warrington had just started baking. He was skeptical. She gave him one free to try. By the time he had left the store and reached the flower-laden front gate near Main Street, he turned around, came back inside and ordered a half dozen more.
Perhaps the most accurate portrayal of the great distances Warrington and Lonabaugh have traveled since the store opened last December is not to start at the beginning but to take you, the reader, to the morning of Christmas Eve 2015. Orders for the holiday – three pages' worth – were stacked up and waiting in boxes. The store was supposed to open at 9 a.m., and by 8:50, lines had begun to form outside, made up of residents who wanted to pick up their cake, their donuts, their Christmas morning muffins and scones. Lonabaugh placed a sign telling customers that they would open at 10 a.m., and when the doors finally opened, the Sweet Spice Bake Shop in North East found itself under attack by a friendly stampede.
Within minutes, Warrington and Lonabaugh called everyone they knew to come in and help. Stephen, the 15-year-old kid they had just hired to wash mixing bowls and utensils, was put to work decorating cupcakes. The store phone rang off the hook. People who did not even have orders came in, hunting around for whatever remained on the shelves.
It was baptism by fire, exacerbated by the long hours Warrington and Lonabaugh were already putting in. It was not unusual to see them begin work at 4:30 nearly every morning, and not leave until 7 p.m. In the evenings. Sometimes, they worked through the night. Once, Lonabaugh looked up from the cupcakes she was making. She saw that Warrington, in the middle of working, had fallen asleep.
It has yet to slow down.
In order to understand the story of how
the Sweet Spice Bake Shop came to have a scenario where people are
lining up outside the door, you must begin 13 years ago, at a small
bakery Warrington owned on Main Street she called Cinnamon Girl. With
a near ten-year resume in the restaurant industry already in place,
Warrington was confident in the kitchen, and as her customer base
grew, so did the bakery. It was an extension of her creativity, but
something, she felt, was missing.
“I was young, and the business side of it wasn't my thing,” she said. “I was faking my way through it, and my kids were very young, so the timing wasn't really great to be a young mother with a business.”
By then, Lonabaugh, a graduate of the Art Institute of York in Pennsylvania, was beginning her carer as an art director for the York-based Think Loud Development, a commercial redeveloper of blighted urban properties in third tier cities. It is owned, in part, by the members of the rock group Live, and between road trips, buses and hotel rooms, the energy that Lonabaugh felt was contagious What she was really looking for was the perfect partner – someone who was able to balance the books while also being an idea maker in the kitchen. Lonabaugh had just graduated from the Art Institute of York with a degree in graphic design and video production, and had just taken a job at Steak & Main across the street. At first, she served as Warrington's unofficial taste tester, trying out her baking ideas. They quickly became friends, and that's about the time when the first seeds of the dream – to own and operate a bakery, together – were first planted. At first, the plans were vocalized back and forth – smatterings of of conversation – but about two years ago, the ideas found their way to paper. They had to know whether or not the dream was feasible, so they developed a business plan, and began looking at potential properties in Elkton, but nothing seemed to fit with their ideas.
“I thought, 'North East is my home,' and I was being busy helping other people build their dream,” she said. “I thought that it would be nice to be home and build a dream that is my own. The guys from Think Loud and the members of Live are putting their blood, sweat and tears and money into developing York, their hometown. At the same time, that's what Casey and I were trying to do. They gave me the tools and the realization that it can be done, so I took that passion and drive and used it to fulfill our own dream.. to have a successful business and have it impact the community.”
Lonabaugh left the tour bus and the hotels last September, and came charging back to North East, fully committed to starting a boutique bakery with her best friend.
One day last fall, Warrington and Lonabaugh saw a 'For Sale' sign outside of 17 South Main Street, shining like a beacon of possibility. Over the course of the following month, they had meetings with the county health department, the fire marshal, various health inspectors. They got verbal agreements, and figured out the build-out costs in order to outfit a kitchen in a 120-year-old home. Suddenly, it was theirs. Suddenly, it was all hands on deck: Warrington's husband scrubbed down and cleaned up; Lonabaugh's boyfriend did all of the woodworking and carpentry.
In the middle of last December, the doors opened for the first time.
Other than the three specialties –
the potato chip cookies, the salted caramel pretzel cupcake and the
signature fig and walnut bread – the Sweet Spice Bake Shop is a
gonzo, spur-of-the-moment, seat-of-the-pants creative studio that
thrives on ideas. Warrington and Lonabaugh are not only best friends
and business partners, they have a natural sense of collaboration
that helps separate their business from many other bakeries.
“I make the bread every morning, and after the walnut fig bread, it's anybody's guess as to what the other three varieties of bread I will make,” Warrington said. “One of us will have an idea, and the other will make it happen. Lisa came to me one day and said, 'We need to make a really manly kind of bread, with bacon and cheddar and roasted garlic.' It sounded great, so I roasted cloves of garlic, cooked up some bacon, added a little maple syrup and roasted garlic olive oil, and it all came together. ”
Dude Bread, now available on Saturdays, was born. They can't keep it on the shelves.
North East is blessed with the small-town reality that seems to suggest that if you run into a stranger along Main Street, there is a great chance that you know someone who knows him or her. Warrington and Lonabaugh estimate that they know about 75 percent of the customers who walk through the front door of Sweet Spice Bake Shop, by name. In the same breath, they know many of their favorite baked goods. They know their childrens' names. They also know many of their dietary restrictions. Recently, a mother requested a birthday cake for her son. Knowing that the young boy admired the work of a cartoonist, Warrington duplicated one of the artist's caricatures on the boy's cake. Another time, a customer came in and told them because of dietary restrictions, she hadn't had the chance to baked treats and a birthday cake in 15 years. No soy. No gluten. No dairy. No fun.
“I told her to write down exactly what restrictions she has, and a list of what she would like to have us make,” Lonabaugh said. “Her husband was about to throw her a surprise birthday party, so I made cupcakes with chocolate frosting with a cashew cream base, for her to taste in preparation for a party she wasn't even aware of. We then delivered the cupcakes to her home, for her surprise party.”
In a Thank-You letter to Warrington and Lonabaugh, the woman wrote, “I now count the two of you among my friends.”
“There is the instant gratification when we make something for someone, and they praise us because it was an integral part of their special day or moment,” Lonabaugh said. “We love the science behind the food, but we love the synergy that brings everyone together. For us, this is our life, and we've put everything we have into it. Failure is not an option for us. We know what we have to do to make it successful and willing to do everything to do that.
“These are the reasons why the two of us do all of this, and work all of these crazy hours,” Warrington said. “Essentially, this is our house, so when you come in, you're not jut a customer. You are a guest in our home.”
The Sweet Spice Bake Shop is located
on 17 S. Main Street, North East, Md. Tel: 410-287-5021. Phone at
least 48 hours ahead for custom orders. Hours: Wed., Thurs. and Fri.,
10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sat. and Sun., 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Closed Mondays and
Tuesdays. To learn more, visit www.sweetspicebakeshop.com,
or visit the store on Facebook.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L.
Gaw, e-mail [email protected].