BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) – “What A Sweet Year!” the message on the chalkboard says. “Thank You For Being An Essential Part of Our Success.”
“Eventful,” though, might be a better way to describe this past year for John and Renea Spear.
The Shelby County couple opened their mom-andpop bakery, Brown Sugar Desserts by Renea, in Helena in August 2019, and about eight months later, the COVID-19 outbreak caused them to close their business for six weeks.
Around that same time, the transmission went out on John’s 2007 Chevy Silverado, which they use to haul their Brown Sugar Desserts food trailer around to neighborhood events – effectively shutting down that part of their business, too.
Then, in late April, Renea gave birth to a baby girl, Zaniyah.
“She actually came a couple of weeks after we closed,” Renea says. “It was crazy. Perfect timing.” So, in late September, when the Spears learned their little bakery would receive a $25,000 grant from the Discover credit card company as part of its “Eat It Forward” social media campaign to support Blackowned businesses, the good news couldn’t have come at a better time.
“Their goal is to help some small Black businesses that are going through the issues that every small business is going through with COVID,” Renea says.
“This is our ﬁrst full year (in business), so we don’t know if this is normal or if this is COVID,” she adds. “It’s hard to tell.”
The $25,000 has not only helped the Spears make it through some lean times but also allowed them to do some things they had to put off because they didn’t have the money.
They bought a new display case. They purchased a Square point-of-sale register. And they got the transmission ﬁxed on John’s truck.
“Bills are being paid, but I can’t say there aren’t some struggles ﬁnancially,” Renea says. “So, we were able to do a couple of things that we wanted to do but couldn’t do until we started catching our footing.”
Renea Thompson grew up in Montgomery, and after her mother was killed in a car wreck when Renea was 4 years old, she was raised by her grandparents, Johnny and Arwilder Thompson.
She learned to bake from her grandmother, who worked as a cook at the City of St. Jude hospital. “She was always in the kitchen, so I always followed her lead in the kitchen,” Renea remembers. “She was the biggest influence.”
Renea started baking chocolate-chip cookies and brownies for her grandfather when she was about 7, and she later moved up to red velvet cake, a family favorite that she learned from her Aunt Michelle.
“That was her recipe, and I have changed it and played with it and perfected it for me since then,” Renea says. “Red velvet cake was my signature from a very young age.”
Several years later, after she moved to Hoover and began working for BlueCross BlueShield of Alabama, Renea started selling slices of her cakes to her coworkers and at the twice-a-year company crafts bazaars.
She and John were classmates at Jefferson Davis High School in Montgomery but never dated. Then, after they both had moved to the Birmingham area, they reconnected through Facebook about 10 years ago and got married in 2013.
“I had two children when we reconnected,” Renea recalls. “That was so huge for me. My children liked him; they took to him.”
In addition to her two children – Caleb, 15, and Christion, 12 – the Spears have two children together: John, who is 5, and Zaniyah, their ﬁve-month-old daughter.
In 2017, Renea left BlueCross BlueShield after nine years to pursue her passion fulltime.
“I’ve been baking since I was a little girl,” she says. “I never really thought that it would become the way that I would make money.”
LABOR OF LOVE
A couple of months after Renea left her job with BlueCross BlueShield, John was laid off from his job at AT&T when the company closed his department.
“At that point, it was like let’s just both do what we need to do to get this business off the ground,” Renea says. “We’re kind of just still making it work. We get along pretty well, so it’s easy to do.”
One of Renea’s aunts has always called her “Brown Sugar,” so when they started the business, they named it Brown Sugar Desserts by Renea.
Renea started selling her cakes at Pepper Place Saturday Market, and then she and John operated out of the kitchen at the Helena Coosa Mart convenience store before they bought a food trailer in 2018.
“The food trailer was phenomenal,” Renea says. “Things really started picking up, and we were getting more clientele and people inviting us to different neighborhoods.”
They looked around for a permanent home for their bakery, and after missing out on another location in Pelham, they found just what they needed on their way to church one Sunday morning.
“It’s always a God thing,” Renea says. “He is always showing you what you need to see at the time you need to see it. We travel this road all the time. I don’t even know how long it may have been vacant.
“It’s like your eyes are opened, like, `Wait, has this been here all this time?’ We called the landlord the next day, came in and looked at it, and it just felt right.” To read more good news about Alabama, sign up for our This is Alabama Newsletter.
The space, in a small retail center on Shelby County Highway 52, had previously been home to a clothing boutique, so John and Renea spent most of 2019 transforming it into a bakery and cafe.
“It was just crazy how much it was going to cost to make it what we wanted it to be, and it wasn’t even like extravagant or anything,” Renea says.
They did almost all the demolition and build-out themselves — including putting up walls, laying down floors, building tables and painting the entire space. “My dad helped run the electricity, and my brother helped us put up framing,” John says.
“The only thing we contracted out was plumbing,” Renea adds. “From March of 2019 until we opened the doors in August (2019), we were in here doing everything. This was truly our labor of love.”
John and Renea have experienced the usual ﬁrst-year ups and downs in opening a new business – the downs exacerbated by the coronavirus outbreak but the ups buoyed by the support of a loyal following of customers who have developed a sweet tooth for Renea’s cinnamon rolls and red velvet cakes.
Those customers are why Brown Sugar Desserts by Renea won the $25,000 “Eat It Forward” grant from Discover.
“Basically, your customers nominate you on Discover’s social media pages, so they can nominate you on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook,” Renea says. “When I ﬁrst saw the contest, it was because one of my customers tagged the business and she nominated us. “So I made a post on our business page and I basically said, `If we’ve ever satisﬁed your sweet tooth or you’ve ever had something that you truly enjoyed from us, Discover is giving out this grant, so nominate us.’ “And my customers went crazy,” Renea adds. “They were tagging the business and nominating and all of that. And the next week, we got a notiﬁcation from Discover that we were one of the names that were drawn.”
So, yes, like the message on the blackboard says, it has been a sweet year for John and Renea.
And their customers have played an essential role in their success story.
“We have very loyal customers that we know by name – some of them – and most of them by face,” Renea says. “We’ve been getting new customers come in, as well, but we appreciate them all because each and every one of them matters to our success.”