Sweet Spots | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

Sweet Spots 

Sisters Doing It for Themselves: Mary and Brenda Maher built their business one frosted layer at a time.

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If you're looking for a muffin or a doughnut and a quick cup of coffee, Brenda Maher says, don't stop in at Cakegirls. But if it's an edible bust of Jeff Daniels you seek, the year-old Roscoe Village boutique she runs with her sister, Mary Maher, is the place for you.

"The type of work we do with cakes," Brenda explains, "is so labor-intensive that we don't have time to make cookies or anything like that. Some of our cakes may take a whole week."

Each Cakegirl creation is custom designed; prices range from about $45 for a basic eight-inch round number to upwards of $3,000 for a multitiered specialty wedding cake.

"We can do, basically, everything," says Brenda.

Like defy gravity, for example, in a nearly life-size rendition of one client's pair of bulldogs: rather than distort their subjects' proportions the Mahers used wood and Styrofoam framing to support the giant frosting heads. When they constructed a box of tissues and a germ mask for a germaphobe's birthday, even the tissue paper was edible. They've also sculpted alarmingly realistic lizards, huge Tiffany boxes that open to reveal edible diamond rings, a replica of Wrigley Field complete with bleachers and cheering fans, and that Jeff Daniels bust (for a 101 Dalmatians premiere in 1996).

When the women began designing cakes at Home Bakery in their hometown of Rochester, Michigan, they didn't see it as a vocation. Mary, who at 34 is two years older than her sister, took the job to make extra money while majoring in French at Oakland University in Rochester. She started behind the counter helping customers but developed an interest in decorating and gradually learned the tricks of the trade. The bakery was known for its innovative cake designs. "They would make 3-D cars and 3-D people," Mary says. "There was never anything they couldn't do. It was always a matter of 'Can you afford it? We'll work it out.'"

In 1990 Mary's studies took her to Orleans, France, for the year, and Brenda, a high school senior at the time, stepped in to take her place at Home Bakery. Two years later Brenda, a Spanish major at Oakland, headed to Mexico City for a couple years, and Mary reclaimed her job at the bakery. "It was something we kept going back to, between everything else," Mary says. She started hoarding professional baking equipment, sending some of it to her parents' house for storage, though she wasn't sure exactly what she was going to do with it.

In 1999 Brenda moved to Chicago and began working as an administrative assistant at Magellan Health Services. Two years later Mary joined her, dragging along items she'd acquired at a caterer's liquidation, including two large metal tables, an open rack, and a KitchenAid mixer. "Growing up," Brenda says, "I was always kind of her sidekick. Chicago was different. I moved here and she followed."

Mary took a part-time job as a bookseller at Barnes & Noble. Brenda began drumming up cake business among her coworkers. Early orders included an eight-foot-long honorary street sign for 500 people ("People don't realize that in terms of cake, lettering is one of the hardest things to do," says Brenda) and a replica of Horseshoe Casino's parking garage.

As business picked up, cake making began encroaching on their home life. "I don't think people realized we were doing this stuff out of our apartment," says Brenda. "We'd have weekends where in our refrigerator we'd have, on one shelf, a sculpted sheep eating hay in a barnyard, and on the other a Mother's Day sheet cake. Every weekend our fridge was full of cake."

"We had two fridges, too," Mary adds. "Don't tell our landlord."

At this point the Mahers realized they had to start looking beyond a cake's outer beauty. "I already had the artistry down," says Mary. "So I said, 'Now we need to make a great cake.'" She bought a bunch of books on high-volume professional baking, learning by trial and error.

By early 2003 they were making eight to ten cakes a month. That April the sisters were featured in Chicago magazine. The exposure compelled them to finally get a license to sell their cakes to the public. "People from the health department are allowed to have hobbies and read magazines, you know?" says Brenda. "We were like, 'What if they find out?'" The piece also gave the women the incentive to open their own store. "We figured if we got flooded with orders we couldn't turn business down," Brenda says. "We had to get a space." They found a storefront on Belmont with a four-foot-tall electric mixer, a multishelf oven, a walk-in fridge, and two double-door freezers left over from a caterer and opened on May 1, 2003.

The front half of Cakegirls, separated from the bakery by a curtain, functions as the boutique, where prospective clients can flip through photos and discuss their cake fantasies with the Mahers. Two large glass windows contain representative samples. Alongside delicately scrolled marzipan-topped wedding cakes with sugar flowers are Cakegirls' trademark purse-shaped cakes. Originally conceived for a very famous local client they're not allowed to name, the edible handbags have become the shop's most popular design. "For some reason, those have really taken off," says Brenda. "People like them for birthdays, Mother's Day, and bridal parties."

Current flavors on the Cakegirls menu include almond cake with apricot preserves, devil's food cake layered with chocolate ganache, and white cake with fresh raspberries and whipped cream. They'll also accommodate most special-flavor requests.

The Mahers take business by phone and by appointment only. Despite the occasional confused local looking for a slice to go, the women don't have any plans to start a counter service.

"So far," Mary says, "we've found that there is a healthy market for our work."

"But if people decide they don't want funky sculpted cakes anymore," Brenda adds, "then I guess we're doing doughnuts."

Cakegirls is at 2207 W. Belmont, 773-404-3147.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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