Kathi Cooke swaps corporate suit for apron as Sweetcooke pastry maker
She’s the niece of former Governor General Sir Howard Cooke, a former journalist and, at one time, a manager in charge of corporate affairs, customer service, client and government relations at several locations for power utility Jamaica Public Service Company.
But these days, Kathi Marie Cooke is better known as owner of speciality cake shop Sweetcooke Sweet Creations.
“Sweetcooke is a tiny artisan bakery in the middle of Montego Bay,” says Cooke, describing the venture that has kept her busy since she parted company with the power utility three years ago.
At the outset, she concentrated on setting up the business, which is nestled inside the busy Baywest commercial centre, and attending to the baking, while hiring persons to man day-to-day operations at the storefront. But it soon became evident that the sole proprietorship was not going to be successful without her hands-on management at every level.
Now, the venture benefits not only from her creative imagination and baking know-how, but also the customer service skills honed over 22 years at JPS’s offices in Kingston, Falmouth and Montego Bay before her position was made redundant.
Reflecting on the separation, Cooke says she has taken it in stride.
“My departure from corporate was a little sudden, but I needed to rest,” she said.
The small-business owner explains that the name Sweetcooke embodies her spirit, passion and personality. “Sweetcooke has been my email address for many years. It is the nature of who I am … just something about my persona,” she tells Financial Gleaner during the interview done at tables neatly set up outside the cylinder-shaped structure originally built as one of two elevator shafts for the business centre, but which now serves as Sweetcooke’s kitchen and serving area.
“I have always been cooking, always been baking. I made my first cake when I was eight years old,” notes Kathi Cooke, who traces back to her childhood, a love for a favourite pastime that has now become her principal professional activity. She recalls that for her eighth birthday she did not get the usual gift of books, but rather, her own mixing bowl and wooden spoon. For years, even while working in the fast-paced environments of journalism and corporate affairs, she continued to bake in her spare time. The past student of Montego Bay High School, St Andrew High for Girls and The University of the West Indies is thankful to her parents, Yvonne and Justin Cooke, for having equipped her for life.
Works even harder
“Who would have thought that after corporate and all of that, there was something else?” At JPS, she says, she worked from morning until night, and back to morning again. While at Sweetcooke she works even harder, Cooke says by contrast, “I now bake with joy every day.”
Cooke’s baked treats often utilise in-season Jamaican fruits – jackfruit, Otaheite apple, banana, plantain, mango, pineapple, strawberry, passion fruit. The sumptuous offerings include mango cheesecake, pumpkin cheesecake, rum cream bread pudding, lemon coconut cake, carrot cake and passion fruit tart, among a host of other sweet creations.
The pastry haven also serves soups to its growing clientele of Jamaicans and visitors. Orders for wedding cakes and birthday cakes are a big part of the business.
Cooke says that the bakery has a loyal following who pass through several times a week for their sweet fix. It is also a popular link-up spot for the owner’s large network of friends in Jamaica, as well as those visiting from overseas.
Assisted by one employee at the moment, Cooke has ventured into catering for small events and was among a handful of choice Montego Bay eateries selected by the new S Hotel Montego Bay for their official opening in January. The Sweetcooke tent was a hit with patrons at the hotel opening.
Self-financed through savings and some loan funding, the business has seen continuous reinvestment of earnings for the past three years, and Cooke says it is just about at the point of break-even. “I am looking forward to being able to take a salary,” the businesswoman adds.
While she has been the lone investor to date, Cooke has not closed the options to equity investment, but “by the right partner who shares Sweetcooke’s values and aspirations”.
For expansion, she says, the business would be better off with equity investment, rather than loan financing. Given the right circumstances, Cooke is not ruling out expansion, including retrofitting the existing location to add more seating, adding staff, considering the possibility of other locations, buying equipment to increase baking capacity and output, and moving into a larger production space, having outgrown the kitchen of her home, where the baking now takes place.
For the time being, Cooke is satisfied working to build the business at its current location, where she splits her time between serving customers and providing community service as a justice of the peace to the many Montegonians who seek her out. She jokes that being in the same location as the JPS western regional office, in the early days of the business she was often asked to explain their light bills by persons who thought she was at Sweetcooke on her lunch break.
In addition to her passion for baking, Cooke also pursues other interests. She is a clothing designer and seamstress, and has launched a clothing line, called Kathitude. She is also a certified make-up artist and floral designer.