Since Vice President Kamala Harris visited the Brown Sugar Bakery on the South Side last Tuesday to throw a spotlight on small Black female-owned businesses, in-store retail sales jumped 21% overall and online sales increased 88%, according to owner Stephanie Hart.
Harris made a brief stop outside the bakery at 328 E. 75th en route back to Midway Airport after she toured a COVID-19 vaccination center at 2260 S. Grove St., organized by the Chicago Federation of Labor.
She picked up a slice of German chocolate cake – her favorite – and the bakery staff presented her with two trays of caramel, strawberry and lemon cupcakes.
The stop generated enormous publicity for the bakery and gave a boost to all of 75th Street.
The visit was a total surprise to Hart, who didn’t even know Harris was going to be in Chicago last Tuesday. She said security agents came to the store at 3:01 p.m. to do what is called a security “sweep,” and Harris appeared about 10 minutes later. Hart couldn’t get there in time.
Harris was gone by about 3:20 p.m.
Something meaningful happened as a result of those few minutes. It resulted in a real time positive economic impact for a business that had to shut down for a few months last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hart had to close a shop in the Austin neighborhood and she is working on getting an outlet on Navy Pier reopened. With the help of two PPP loans and learning to pivot to things like online ordering, Hart told me she has 40 full- and part-time workers, including those staffing her confectionary line. Brown Sugar is a small scale economic engine.
Last month, President Joe Biden told Harris to take on the immigration crisis on the southern border, with the exact duties of her assignment still evolving. She has not yet visited the border nor talked expansively about what she has in mind.
What, you may ask, does this have to do with a bakery stop on Chicago’s South Side?
Some conservative media outlets and other critics twisted the quick visit — with its clear small minority business development intent — to jab Harris over how she is handling her border assignment.
At the Wednesday White House briefing, New York Post reporter Steven Nelson, noting Harris “took time to visit a bakery in Chicago” asked White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, when it comes to immigration, “I’m wondering, is she still working on this?”
Psaki said, “the vice president was visiting Chicago actually to talk about COVID and the importance of communities getting the vaccine when it’s available and accessible to them. And so, while she was there, like many Americans, she got a snack. I think she’s allowed to do that.”
The same day, Fox News said in a tweet, “VP Harris visits Chicago bakery even as border crisis escalates.”
Stopping at the bakery had a larger purpose than getting a slice of cake and added only a few minutes and a few miles to the Harris afternoon visit.
It’s ridiculous to even suggest it’s an either/or — visit the bakery or the border.
How to revive sections of the South Side that need more economic development involves a lot. Breaking down the mission into bite size chunks can bring results fast.
The day after the Harris visit, Wednesday, Brown Sugar sold 48 slices of German chocolate cake, compared to 8 slices for the previous Wednesday.
Last week, Brown Sugar sold 9 cakes online. In the days following the Harris visit, orders came in for 75 cakes “and a lot of them aren’t from Chicago,” Hart said. On Sunday, Hart was at the bakery getting ready to ship cakes on Monday or Tuesday.
“The absolute best part” of Harris coming to Brown Sugar, said Hart was “the enthusiasm of the neighborhood, how included they felt and how they were amazed that the vice president would come to 75th Street for anything.”
Said Hart, with Harris stopping on 75th, it was a chance for the people who live there to see “what is good about our community and that we are deserving and worthy of a visit like that because one of many things we do well in this community is, we make good cake.”