Step into Kim Brown’s baking studio in a beachy neighborhood in Stamford, CT, and you immediately understand one thing about her business outlook: bigger isn’t better. Like the California-bred Brown herself, the studio is sunny and petite—less than 200 square feet of oversized ovens, mixers and not much else. It’s part of a former guest house adjacent to the 100-year-old home she and her husband, Chobani’s former president and chief operating officer, are renovating. Unlike other families of executives who move to the area and invest in mega-mansions, the Browns chose this modestly-sized home brimming with old world charm, and have carefully hired contractors who specialize in restoring antique churches in order to ensure the original details are kept intact while the home is modernized.
In a similar way, Brown says she’s happy testing recipes in her cozy studio (she uses a commercial space to bake her cakes). Although she’s gaining clients through word of mouth for her by-appointment “cakery” business, she’s focusing generally on one cake a week, usually for a wedding, and has no plans to substantially expand, even as her bespoke cakes become more in demand. “I like the smallness of the business, the ability to know my clients. You get to participate with people in their happiest moments,” says Brown. Previously she ran a popular, yet intimate, surf ‘n’ skate store with friends in this same neighborhood. When her husband’s job took her and her two (now grown) sons to Toronto, Canada, the frigid weather brought out her love of baking, transforming it from simply a hobby into a career.
“That first winter all I did was make macarons. I took a class and really liked it. Then I decided I would enroll full-time in school, and graduated from the Bonnie Gordon College of Confectionary Arts,” she says. Back in Connecticut, she opened Kimmy Cakes and became known not only for her delectable confections, but also for her ability to make gluten-free baked goods taste like they are full of gluten. Brown’s husband has celiac disease, so she has plenty of practice. “I still think with gluten-free…people can’t understand that it can be really delicious. It can depend on the recipe. My chocolate cake, for instance, is a really moist cake and translates better than others,” says Brown. She says baking sans gluten is easier than ever today: “There are gluten-free blends now. When I went to pastry school we made our own, but Thomas Keller came out with Cup4Cup and I use that primarily. You can buy it at Stop & Shop,” says Brown. Her next goal for those skipping gluten is sourdough bread. “We’re building a pizza bread oven in the new house,” she shares.
Whether she’s talking about tinkering with healthy food trends or techniques, or projects for her clients, Brown’s passion for her business is palpable. “I get really excited when they give me creative license. I recently did a cake for a gentleman in Greenwich who was having a 60th birthday party for his wife. The theme was Groovy Sixties and she also loved her Louboutin boots. So I made the cake a Louboutin shoe box and a boot out of Rice Krispie Treats. I made the zipper a peace sign to meld the themes together. That was fun for me,” says Brown, who’s also enjoying tinkering with new seasonal flavor combinations. “I have a book club and they’re my guinea pigs. I‘m loving anything with cardamom. I made them a pumpkin cake with cinnamon cream cheese, but added cardamom. Pies are so popular now—apple, salted caramel. I’m gravitating towards warm, earthy spices. I just did a wedding cake and the groom had gone to college in Vermont and the filling was maple almond.” Like many busy people during the holidays, she’s working on some make-ahead desserts. “Even for me it’s important to plan ahead. I’m so busy doing this for other people, then my family is wondering what I’m making them! It takes the stress off if you’re not having to do it day of,” says Brown.
Her family remains her most enthusiastic taste testers. Her husband gives (and takes) input readily. “I’m more creative and I usually take his advice on the business side of things. Usually I have a feeling of how I think he might answer, but he has a nice way of listening and being able to say, ‘Well, I like what you did here, but you might want to try this,’” says Brown, adding that she and her husband have both urged their sons to find their own passions rather than adopt theirs. “I have one son in art school and another who is an English major. My husband and I have encouraged them to follow what they’re interested in. Work is not always fun, but you should enjoy it. They’ve seen us do what we’re interested in; it’s sometimes best to lead by example.”
Taking her own advice, Brown says she wants to continue working with brides and grooms on weddings and other clients on their special occasions, but also tap into her creativity in a new forum. “I love recipe testing and developing, so I’ve thought about doing either more on Instagram or a blog, where I can have more freedom,” says Brown, adding, “I tell my kids you can have different chapters.”
Photographs by Lindsay Madden