Some businesses say they’re all about family. But at Brown Sugar Bakeshop, those words are being put into action. All this week, Rock City Eats is celebrating black-owned businesses in Little Rock’s food scene that provide diversity, passion and excellence on an everyday basis. This is the fourth in a five-part series.
Brown Sugar Bakeshop is a company in transition. Sisters April and Kristi Williams started the bakery company and for eight years delighted customers with their cakes, cupcakes and baked goods. But as it goes with so many family-owned businesses, they felt it was time to pass the company down to the younger generation. And so they did, putting Kristi’s 19-year-old son Kindell Williams in charge of the new BSBS, LLC. It’s a bold move that Kristi Williams says nonetheless comes at the right time.
“We wanted something to pass down to family,” says Kristi Williams. “That’s the biggest thing. You have to pass it down and trust the younger generation to take care of it. Sometimes we still have to provide guidance, but we’re getting older. You have to bring in young blood.”
It’s a remarkable journey that began April and Kristi Williams opened up Brown Sugar Bakeshop in Ottenheimer Hall in the River Market in 2009. Like so many successful food business owners, April and Kristi began by cooking the desserts they knew from their childhood and took it from there.
“It was just an idea that we had to bring some vintage-inspired desserts to the city of Little Rock,” says Kristi Williams. “We wanted to have some modernness to it with some gourmet ingredients. But it came from the stuff we grew up eating and enjoying with family and friends. We wanted to put our own spin on it.”
Brown Sugar soon outgrew the small confines of its River Market stall and moved up the road to 3rd Street, where its customer base rapidly grew. The Williams sisters added a food truck and began selling their desserts in other restaurants around the city. While they started out with cakes as the focus of their business, the cupcake craze of the late 2000s came to Little Rock, and Brown Sugar got swept up in it.
“We thought cupcakes, it was just some batter left over from the cakes,” says Kristi Williams. “They’re cool, they’re cute, but we didn’t ever think it would be this popular. We were pushing slices of the cakes, but people just really wanted the cupcakes.”
Over the past few years, Brown Sugar has transformed from a dine-in café to a private bakery that sells business-to-business and fulfills private client orders. But in that time, Kristi and April saw Kindell, who had been around the company from the beginning, begin to come up with new ideas, for sales, such as partnering with Kent Walker Artisan Cheese to sell their desserts. And so they decided to step back from running the business and let Kindell take his shot.
“When my mom and my auntie started the business, their clientele was basically them and their friends,” says Kindell Williams. “And their friends were the parents of my friends. And now that they’re passing it down to me, my friends are the same way. And one day when I get older, I’ll pass it down to the next generation, too. But you have to keep it fresh with new ideas.”
Kindell says growing Brown Sugar’s exposure is his first priority, partnering with businesses around Little Rock both within and outside of the food industry. He sees partnering with clothing companies, artists and performers to put Brown Sugar’s name and products more in the mainstream. Both resolute and proud in his mission, Kindell understands he’s going against the grain here.
“Nowadays you feel like, a lot of people try to make everything new, they don’t think about trying to make it better,” says Kindell Williams. “So when you try to piggyback and make something better, people tell you that you can’t do it. But you have to be confident in what you’re doing.”
When it comes to their perspective on the challenges a black-owned business faces, the Williams family is both optimistic and realistic. While Kristi acknowledges there are extra obstacles, she believes they can be overcome.
“I think it’s that we’re not expected to be able to measure up, almost like you’re hidden,” says Kristi Williams. “That’s something you face within the black community as well, people don’t expect you to be good enough at times. But once you can get people in, and people see your stuff is great, it doesn’t matter what race or culture you are. If you like food, you like it.
“We felt the need that we had to go above and beyond because of that, versus going above and beyond just because you’re in business. We thought we still had to go a little bit higher just to prove ourselves. I think, though, it’s getting better, much better, a lot has happened in eight years.”
It’s that combination of strong family ties and forward thinking that have Brown Sugar positioned for the future. For some, 19 might be too young to take charge of a business with a track record of success. But for the Williams, the path they’ve started couldn’t have a more fitting next step.
“It’s a legacy,” says Kristi Williams. “A lot of times, when you find those places that have been open for 50 or 60 years, it’s because families have kept their children involved when they were still young. That’s what we did, that’s what it’s all about.”