“All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.” – Charles M. Schulz
Sugar is supposed to make us hyper and jittery, so much so that apparently some schools are now closing on the day after Halloween so that the parents can deal with their hyped up little monsters. But working with sugary treats has an opposite effect on this week’s portrait, Kyle Cuffie-Scott. Cuffie-Scott is the founder of Darnel’s Cakes and comes across as an affable, dare I say sweet man with an easy laugh. In fact we both giggled through most of the interview this week. While he is indeed affable and sweet, it’s apparent that there’s a lot of depth behind his light and easy going manners. His shop is a thriving retail business in Old City that raises awareness about the HIV/AIDS epidemic and supports local and national organizations that are at the forefront of fighting the virus, disease, and stigmas.
Where did your buns (and the rest of you) begin?
I’m originally from Springfield, Massachusetts.
What brought you to Philly?
Temple University, actually. When I graduated high school I went to culinary school at Johnson and Wales University for about 2 years, and I got a degree in baking and pastry arts. I transferred to Temple and moved to Philadelphia right after that. I wanted to get more of an academic education. That was in 2004, I graduated Temple in 2007 and I’ve been here ever since.
Describe growing up in Springfield.
We were in a suburban area of Springfield, there’s a little downtown area but, well [laughing], it was pretty boring. Even as a kid I wanted to get out of there! Going to culinary school was amazing, Providence is about a 45 minute bus ride to Boston, so we were up there a lot.
Who was the best cook in your house?
Probably my grandmother. My mom was more the baker growing up and my grandmother was more the savory cook. I learned a lot from her, how to season, how to flavor things. My palate comes a lot from her.
Tell me a little more about the family.
Well, the store is named after Darnel, my late cousin. He’s my mom’s sister’s son, so my first cousin. We were pretty close growing up even though they lived in Athens, Georgia. We saw each other on holidays and other special occasions, birthdays, etc. My mom has 5 brothers and sisters, some of them are not with us anymore. In my immediate family, there’s my mom, my grandmother and me, that’s it in a nutshell.
So you’re an only child? I’m guessing you got plenty of kitchen time and grandma time.
Yes, lots of time on my own too. [Laughing] I did a lot of baking in my free time.
What did your mom do?
She was a correctional officer, and my grandmother was a seamstress but she was retired as far back as I can remember, so we spent a lot of time together.
So your mom was a baker and apparently a tough cookie too.
So other than cooking, what kinds of things were you into as a kid?
Oh gosh, not a lot, though I was on the swim team in high school.
What was your best stroke?
The butterfly, believe it or not. Butterfly or freestyle, and I did some IM, individual medley, where you swim all four styles. Let’s see, I was pretty nerdy, I was really into science and math. I was always studying, I took several honors classes, so I really didn’t have much free time. Oh wait, I was also in the drama club, we did plays and musicals, I forgot about that! Ha! I guess I was pretty involved with things after all. You’re bringing it all back!
That’s what I do! So it sounds like you’re what I call a SPOK.
Well, you have DINKS, double income no kids, so a SPOK is single parent, one kid.
[Laughs] Yes, very true.
When you were transitioning from high school to culinary school, what made you think, okay, this is what I want? Had you worked in restaurants?
It was the home economics program in high school. I did 3 years of it. My freshman year I saw that the senior class did a luncheon for all the teachers and I thought that was so cool. In my second and third years we did all sorts of cooking and baking and just being in that kitchen made me think, maybe I’ll have one of my own someday.
(As we talk, one of the timers goes off in the kitchen, so we pause as he goes to check on it.)
So how exciting, now that you have your own kitchen. How did it come about, and is it the first commercial spot for you?
Yes it is. So my cousin Darnel passed away in January of 2013. That was pretty rough on my family. At the time I was working at a radio station, WURD AM, and I wanted to do something to honor him, so I started a fundraiser on World AIDS day. I created a little Instagram account and sold cupcakes. I sold maybe 100 cupcakes for that first one, and that was in the fall of 2015. One of my old classmates from Temple had seen it. She was managing the Lansdale Farmers Market and asked if I’d be interested in selling there. I said yes and they invited me to an ‘interest meeting’ where they go over everything in your proposal, and then they accepted me. It’s been 7 years and I’m still vending there!
I was also doing a lot of catering, and then I did a pop up event with my coffee roaster. It was pretty cool; it was in the middle of an art installation, and the people who had the space where the art event took place told me about the space where I am now, here at 444 North Third Street. He said, “Hey, we’re renovating this building and we have a space that I think would be perfect for you. Let us know if you’re interested and we’ll show it to you.
This place is so cool, I had no idea it was here!
Everyone says that. It is pretty cool. It’s from Arts & Crafts Holdings and they say the mission is to “support makers of all kinds from all walks of life. Creators, entrepreneurs, artists — dreamers who build, transform, and evolve, bringing ideas to life.” Their tagline is “This ain’t your founding father’s Philadelphia”.
Yes, so I met up with them, saw the place, signed a lease and was scheduled to open in the spring of 2020!
[Sarcastically] So did anything exciting happen back then?
[Laughing] Yeah, just a little thing to shut down the world. But they were able to work on the space and continued the remodeling during the pandemic, so we were actually able to open up at the end of May. We were able to get the health department to give us the all clear and we opened up Memorial Day weekend. We probably had half the menu that we do now, but we were open. And it’s been two years since then.
I took a peek at the menu and see that you sell a lot more than just cupcakes! And your prices are reasonable, $5.50 for a homemade ‘egg and cheese sammy.’ Yes, please!
Yes, we serve breakfast and lunch 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Monday through Friday at 444, and then we do the farmer’s market in Lansdale on the weekends from 9:00 to 12:30, and then we cater events. And I sell wholesale to other coffee shops and other places as well.
Wow, do you get any free time?
[Chuckling] I… I sleep sometimes. No. I have a business partner and we’ve worked the schedule out so that we get breaks. And during the week we’re usually out of here by 4 or 5.
So let’s go back to the inspiration for the shop. Darnel was your cousin, was he older or younger than you?
He was 21 when he passed back in 2013. He was about 8 years younger than me.
Was he also a member of the community?
I don’t know if he really had a chance to come out. I think he did to some of his friends but yeah, he was on the spectrum.
When did you come out?
After I left for college! In my freshman year it was like, okay, this is real, this is true, this is certain. It was a little rough with the family, some folks took it really well, some folks didn’t, but everyone came around eventually.
What was an early sign you were destined to be fabulous? [Laughing] Other than being a boy baker…
I remember being in elementary school and having boy crushes on some of my classmates but not knowing what it was, just having feelings like hmmm.
I think we’ve all been there in different ways. What was the hardest part of opening a business, other than a worldwide pandemic?
Probably the self discipline; getting up early like, okay, let’s do this again.
Time to make the donuts.
Yes, the late hours, the early hours, and the marketing. Trying to get the word out about us. I do most of the baking, so it’s a lot. I really humbled myself during the process. I had to recognize that baking takes time, you can’t rush things, and you’re going to make mistakes.
What was your biggest blunder?
Learning to scale the recipes up for large scale orders. I started making quiche and making those in large quantities was challenging at first. There was a lot of tweaking involved. And sometimes you’d forget to put the baking soda in… there was a little learning curve, but now I know all the recipes by heart.
I see your tee shirt has your logo and the catchphrase “For a sweet time…”
Oh no! I didn’t come up with that! My buddy who does the marketing for us came up with it. But it’s great, it makes people laugh and breaks the ice.
[Laughing] So I have to ask, is it true?
Yes, of course!
You’re single, so let’s get you a sweetie, what do you look for in a fella?
Oh wow, I like a natural confidence, a sense of humor, thick skin, someone with ambition, or at least making steps towards a path. Hmmm, I think that’s all I’ve got.
What have you had to have a thick skin about?
Learning to be comfortable with yourself, being able to walk into a room without being scared that you’ll be unwelcome. Owning your presence in all settings.
As a Black man and business owner do you run into those annoying micro aggressions?
Oh yes, I get those all the time. People who assume I’m the delivery guy and not the owner and baker. But also because I’m not Darnel, people think that he’s my boss! I usually correct them because it’s a good opportunity to share why we do this. I will say, once they get the story, they’re excited about it. But then a lot of them forget and start calling me Darnel again, it’s funny.
So let’s share the story.
Well, the food aspect started when I first did the fundraiser. But it really started with my cousin Darnel who was in the hospital for a while. The doctors first thought it was mono, then a few other things, and then he started developing some of the opportunistic diseases and they finally tested him for HIV and it came back positive. But at that point it was full blown AIDS and they did their best, but he succumbed to the disease and died at age 21.
It seems like I rarely hear of anyone so young dying of AIDS anymore.
Yes, I think he was infected for some time and never got tested. Had he been tested and caught it early, he might still be here. So the awareness piece is part of why we do this. To remind people that you can get the test for free and you need to test regularly.
Bravo to you. Okay, some off-the-cuff questions, how would your mom have described you as a kid?
Talkative, can’t sit still, always investigating something, digging holes in the backyard. I was always outside. I had tons of energy, still do.
Something on your bucket list?
I want to travel as much as I can and as far as I can. I’d especially like to go to Africa and explore several of the countries there. And I’d like to go skydiving, that’s on my bucket list.
What movie could you watch over and over?
It’s a 3 way tossup between “Coming to America,” “To Wong Foo,” and “Trading Places.”
When do you lose your temper?
Hmmm, I don’t. I’m usually pretty level headed at times of stress. I rarely lose my temper, it’s been a while.
Do you remember the last time you did?
[Laughing] It was with an ex. That was the last time I lost it, but we’re still friends. We still talk.
I’m friends with all my exes as well. I think it’s a Taurus trait. What’s your sign?
I just did a quick search and it says, “A Sagittarius values independence and the ability to do what they want, when they want, above all else. They are adventurers, risk-takers, and have a sharp business and sports mentality. Sagittarius natives are known for their emotional intelligence, which helps them to connect with others. Sounds like they got it right. So, who would you want to share a cupcake with?
I know that this is probably crazy to say, but Wendy Williams! Especially now, after what she’s been through. She probably has stories for days!
I love Wendy, the poor thing. And sorry, Sherri Shepherd just isn’t cutting it. Foods you wished were banished from the earth?
Let’s see, butter boards… and candy corn.
Gasp! Candy corn? This interview is over.
Halloween is over!
What’s a present that you alway wanted and received?
I was really into K’nex and Legos as a kid. I did a lot of building and I got the K’nex big ball factory and the ferris wheel and loved playing with them.
In another life I probably was…
Some type of scientist, probably a biochemist. That’s what I wanted to do before I went the culinary route.
I had a bird growing up. It was a cockatiel named Tequila, which is oddly enough my drink of choice.
Final question, I think it’s imperative that I sample some of your wares in order to do a thorough interview, what would you suggest?
I would suggest you come to the counter and take your pick.
I like your way of thinking.
For more information, visit www.darnelscakes.com/.