A Little Mermaid cake Courtney Shonk Johnson, ’03, baked for her daughter’s fourth birthday launched a business that not only has been a source of income for the stay-at-home mother of three, but also is spreading cheer during the coronavirus pandemic.
The home baker, who lives just outside of Charlotte, N.C., said her interest in cakes began early on, but it wasn’t until she made a birthday cake for her daughter, Brianna, that people started taking notice of her confectionary skills. She laughs when she thinks of the cake that started it all.
“People wanted me to do a cake on that one?” she says. “But I’m so glad they did, because that’s where I’m at now.”
The business, Sweet Anna’s Bakery, is named after Brianna. It specializes in custom cakes, cupcakes, cookies, and all things sweet. Johnson’s first “professional” order was for a birthday cake featuring a peace sign for a 13-year-old girl. Johnson said she just finished that girl’s college graduation cake.
“It’s so cool to see the progression of cakes, where I’ve done her 13th birthday cake and other birthday cakes, and now her college graduation,” she said. “So for me, it would be such a moment to one day do her wedding cake.”
Johnson, who now works full time in the business, says cupcakes are the most popular of her offerings, because they have become a trend for weddings and offer a variety of flavors. White chocolate is the current favorite, she said.
When the coronavirus pandemic sent people to their homes and forced communities to shut down, Johnson began to see cancellations, postponements, and downsizing of her orders. But she didn’t want to stop working, and soon came up with the Adopt a Frontliner idea.
It began with her desire to thank her local Walmart grocery store manager, who was making sure he continually stocked the baking supplies she needed so that she would not have to purchase more expensive items or travel to several stores to get what she needed. When she brought the manager and his staff cupcakes in appreciation and saw their happy reactions, she realized that other people might be interested in sending cupcakes to people for whom they are grateful.
‘When I came up with the idea to Adopt a Frontliner, it gave me a way to feel that I was bringing joy to people and meaning to my life by helping other people,” she said.
Johnson posted three cupcake flavors of the week, chosen from the Foodimentary calendar, on Mondays or Tuesdays. She took orders for four-packs, six-packs, and dozens, which she delivered throughout the county to those on the front line in the medical field, childcare, or food service on Thursday mornings. On Thursday afternoons, she would offer curbside pickup.
The venture was so successful—Johnson baked hundreds of cupcakes each week—that she offered a similar option to thank teachers in the local school district during Teacher Appreciation Week in April. In addition to cupcakes, Johnson delivered chocolate-covered strawberries, roasted coffee, gift certificates in $10 increments from local restaurants, and cookies to more than 100 teachers and school staff from four schools. She also offered pickup options for parents who heard about the idea but whose students attended other schools.
“Although things got canceled, I found ways to work and bring joy through my cakes to others,” Johnson said. “It's been wonderful connecting with and meeting new customers that haven't had a need for a custom cake, but wanted to try us.”
Johnson’s daily schedule also includes delivering lunches to neighborhood children, a service effort she initiated when she discovered that some grab-and-go lunches being provided by the schools were discarded at the end of the day.
“I just wanted to do it because I couldn’t stand that they were throwing lunches away,” she said.
So each day between 11:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m., Johnson goes to the school to pick up the lunches, which she then brings to families in need.
“I just started going door to door and knocking on people’s doors that I knew had kids,” she said. Now, she has 20 families that she delivers to each day. At one house, a six-year-old boy greets her at the door. “It makes my day as much as bringing food to these kids brightens their day.”
Johnson plans to continue assisting these families even when the pandemic is over, and also to renew the Adopt a Frontliner program, which she has put on hold for a couple of weeks while tending to other baking commitments.
“I didn’t see things getting like this,” she admits, “but I’m so happy I can help during this time because if I had to sit at home and not help, I think I would go crazy! It’s definitely helped keep my spirits up, even just by delivering lunch or delivering cupcakes to somebody. I’m thankful for it.”