story & photos by Bakery Boy
The day I visit Atlanta’s queen of sweet potato baked goods, she’s up to her elbows not in sweet potatoes but…peaches. “I’m getting ready to do a baking demonstration focused on peaches at AmericasMart,” says Sonya Jones, owner of Sweet Auburn Bread Company in downtown Atlanta. “They’re in season right now, so I’m trying out all kinds of recipes.”
Peach cobbler, peach muffins, peach bread, peach ice cream, peach jelly-cake (a confection involving peach jam spread between cake layers), and other peachy goods fill the tiny workspace, with crates of fresh peaches still waiting to be converted into showpiece treats.
Luckily for me, Sonya is in tasting mode, so I get to try a little of everything. “Nice peach muffin,” I say between bites, “but really I came to hear more about your sweet potato goodies.”
“No problem,” she replies, breaking out her signature happy grin and leading me to a mixer slowly stirring a bright orange mush. “I have plenty of those in the works too.”
SWEET POTATO FAME
Sonya and her Sweet Auburn Bread Company are famous for variations on the sweet potato theme. “Just about every day I peel a big mess of sweet potatoes, up to about 40 pounds at a time, and boil and mash them into a sort of mushy paste,” she says. “Then I use that as the basis for all kinds of treats.”
The most popular result is her creamy Sweet Potato Cheesecake ($45 for an 8-inch-diameter cake, $5 for a 3-inch version). Instead of the usual graham-cracker crust, she uses pound cake for the bottom layer. She also makes Sweet Potato Pies in 9-inch and 4-inch pans ($15 and $5 respectively), Sweet Potato and Molasses Muffins ($2 each), and the occasional experiment.
“Did you know you can make a cobbler out of sweet potatoes?” she asks. “And ice cream! The possibilities are endless. It’s such a simple, wholesome, basic Southern staple—something my parents and grandparents were always cooking when I was growing up—and yet you can make it into so many different desserts.”
The sweet potato itself is a humble root vegetable, and Sonya comes from humble roots too. Her late mother, Catherine (known to all as “Miss Cat”), ran a neighborhood soul food café called Cat’s Corner on Atlanta’s south side, where Sonya first heard people rave about her mom’s sweet potato pie.
“They were such simple pies, nothing fancy, yet people’s reaction to them was astounding,” she says. “Customers would take one bite and start talking about how it reminded them of their own grandmothers’ home cooking. I grew up around people who were always cooking and baking, so I learned a lot even before I set out to. Eventually I began to realize, what I’m doing is baking memories.”
Such lessons in simplicity stuck with Sonya through her brief stint working with a French pastry chef and her more formal training at the Culinary Institute of America in New York’s Hyde Park in the early 1990s. “My final project in school there was to help develop plans for the Greystone Restaurant that the CIA had just purchased at the time,” she says, referring to one of New York City’s premiere upscale eateries. “That was a terrific experience.”
Armed with tricks and tips from both ends of the food-world spectrum—uptown up North and down-home down South—Sonya launched Sweet Auburn Bread Company in 1997. At first she peddled her homemade cakes, muffins, cobblers, cookies, and other desserts over a counter crammed in the bustling Historic Sweet Auburn Curb Market in downtown Atlanta.
FINDING A HOME
Later she moved to her current tiny storefront location on Auburn Avenue, not far from the city’s noteworthy Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historic Site. The historic neighborhood gives Sonya a sense of place and a unique perspective.
“The place is a monument to the Civil Rights Movement now,” she says. “When I was growing up it, this whole area along Auburn Avenue was known as Sweet Auburn (it still is) and was sort of the unofficial center of the African American community. I was very little then, but I knew it was a really hopping place. You can still feel the spirit that was here during the 1960s. I believe that spirit—the sense that you can accomplish great things—is coming back again. It’s part of the reason I wanted my bakery to be located in Sweet Auburn.”
“There’s no right or wrong to baking,” she philosophizes. “It’s all about you and your creativity. It helps to have some training in the basics, like what I got from family and from the Culinary Institute, but it all comes down to what you do with the ingredients in front of you. Just give me some fresh fruit to work with and a bushel of sweet potatoes, and I’m okay,” she concludes. “More than okay. I’m ecstatic.”
Better yet, her customers are excited too. “Have you ever noticed? People are always happy when they come into a bakery,” she says. “Kids, of course, because they know they’re going to get something sweet. Even adults act like little kids in a bakery, expecting something special, saying how good it smells in here. I love watching that reaction. And with a place as small as mine—where I’m never far from the front door—I get to witness it close-up all the time.”
One of the highlights of Sonya’s culinary journey was the time President Bill Clinton dropped by. “I got a call one day asking me how I would feel about having a discussion with the [then-] president about economic development and urban revitalization,” she says, motioning toward a framed newspaper article about the incident displayed in her bakery. “I thought it was a prank at first, but it turned out to be the real deal. The next thing I know Secret Service agents are checking things out and then Bill Clinton himself shows up at my little counter in the Curb Market. I served him a slice of my Sweet Potato Cheesecake, and he said it was ‘really good.’ I was so excited. I boxed up a whole pie to send with him back to the White House.”
What could top that experience? “Well,” she says, “I’d love to have a President Obama story to tell too. Maybe he’ll drop by!”
COOKBOOK COMING SOON
Sonya’s first cookbook will be published this September. Sweet Auburn Desserts: Atlanta’s “Little Bakery That Could” is in the final stages of preparation at Pelican Publishing Company in Gretna, Louisiana.
“It’s been in the works for a looong time,” Sonya says. “I’m busting with ideas and I have such a story to tell. Mostly, I want to share my good fortune and my recipes with people.”
Among the recipes to be included are a Raspberry Cream Pie, Naked Hummingbird Muffins, Peanut Butter Pound Cake, Blackberry Jam Jellyroll Cake, a cover-photo-worthy Strawberry Jam Stack Cake, and of course several involving sweet potatoes, her specialty. For a quick preview from the publisher, click here. Look for a book review (and perhaps a sample recipe or two) to come this fall on the Bakery Boy Blog as well.
A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and Atlanta Technical College, Sonya Jones is a member of the Southern Foodways Alliance, Georgia Organics, and Les Dames d’Escoffier (Atlanta Chapter). She has appeared on television cooking shows with Rachael Ray, Bobby Flay, and others.
234 Auburn Avenue
Atlanta, GA 30303
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