Pastry chef Kimberly Davis Cuthbert knew her life was about to be upended, but not this soon.
The Berwyn Fire Company, owner of the small purple and green building that was home to Cuthbert’s Sweet Jazmines Bakery, was terminating the lease – not in 2024, but in six months.
So the countdown began for the small business Cuthbert had nurtured for 23 years, building a reputation for addictive, baked-from-scratch confections, some even served to Pope Francis during his 2015 visit to Philadelphia.
The December 2022 deadline forced Cuthbert, of Wayne, to seriously consider the future of what was once a dream inspiring her to abandon a career in accounting. She could find a new place for Sweet Jazmines – or not.
“I looked at properties, but then I started getting heart palpitations,” Cuthbert said. When I started out, I had no idea if any of this would work, but I had no reservations. But the way I was feeling [this time] I just didn’t want the grind anymore.”
So Cuthbert is now taking advantage of what she calls “the blessing” of time. She has forsaken 12-hour work days for date nights with husband Chris, lunch with friends, meditative walks, running errands for her parents and helping out small-business-owner friends when they are short staffed.
“I love what I do, but I started calculating things,” Cuthbert said. “My son is in college. My parents are [older], and my husband has sacrificed a lot of time. I want to be able to be more present with my family…”
Cuthbert has been baking since she was 8. The lemonade stand she opened with her brother didn’t just offer a refreshing summer beverage. The siblings sold lemonade, homemade milkshakes and caramel corn with homemade caramel. In college at James Madison University, Cuthbert cooked and hosted brunch for college friends.
“Early on, I learned this connection between family and food and memories,” Cuthbert said. There is something about giving someone food” and watching them enjoy it and appreciate it. “I love that connection.”
Cuthbert enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America in New York and later worked for renowned pastry chefs including Gunther Heiland.
Opening Sweet Jazmines in 1999, proved a rewarding, if daunting, challenge. Baking everything from scratch translated into longer hours and increasing popularity, especially for the comforting goodness of Cuthbert’s sweet potato muffins. By 6 a.m., Cuthbert and her small staff were creating desserts during a workday lasting 12, sometimes 16 hours, and longer during holidays.
When Cuthbert was pregnant with her son Jordan, she gave birth on Friday, and was back in the bakery a week later – and brought her baby with her.
“I was concerned that it would look unprofessional and my husband said ‘Kim, people are coming for what you’ve baked,’” Cuthbert said. “I strapped on a baby [carrier] and would decorate cakes while he was asleep.”
A turning point came one Christmas baking season when her son was 10. Cuthbert, came home late, feeling defeated and “looking like Don King.
“I start crying and saying, ‘I didn’t get any Christmas presents,’” Cuthbert said. Jordan reassured her, saying ‘Mom, it’s okay. Dad and I are fine. Go upstairs get a shower and we’ll eat.’”
Cuthbert never let herself become overcommitted on the holidays again. Strict and early holiday deadlines were enacted. The bakery’s success continued. Sweet Jazmines won numerous best-ofs and Cuthbert and her staff baked treats for not only the Pope, but also Prince Charles when he visited Philadelphia. Sweet Jazmines survived the pandemic with Cuthbert working alone in the bakery, and making orders available online.
The news that her lease would not be renewed sooner, rather than later, evoked a surprising sense of calm about the future, but concern about the end of Sweet Jazmines
“I thought how are we going to tell people?” Cuthbert said. When she did, there were tears.
The last few weeks at the bakery, lines regularly formed hours before its opening. It was a chaotic time of baking, emotional goodbyes, and customers sharing memories – mostly about the muffins.
With Sweet Jazmines’ doors closed, Cuthbert is considering next steps: probably a cookbook with stories collected over decades, maybe a podcast featuring small business owners, some dance–fit exercises sessions or even a pop-up at a local farmer’s market.
Most of all, she wants to find a way to expand the sale of her famous sweet potato muffin – or the batter – and make it available nationally. With the proceeds, she’d like to use the funds to start programs that help students in the Philadelphia School District, the place where Cuthbert’s mother Anna worked as a teacher.
In the meantime, Cuthbert and her family are enjoying this transition period.
“She is home,” Chris Cuthbert said. “Right after holidays, I came downstairs and for the first time ever, I saw her sit down with a cup of coffee in the morning. I would never see her do that, because she was never here.”
“It’s nice,” she replied.
Kristin Holmes is a freelance reporter, longtime journalist and creative storyteller. She is a former faith and spirituality reporter. Kristin loves theatre, museums and supporting the arts.