Three Durham dessert dudes are pushing boundaries and garnering praise with their tasty, innovative takes on everything from pound cake to soft serve
By Matthew Lardie | Photography by John Michael Simpson
icing on the cake
Desserts are more than just tasty treats for Durham native Keijuane Hester – to him, they represent a second chance at life. Keijuane, who graduated from Hillside High School in 1994, once spent four years in prison after a conviction for selling cocaine. Today, he runs a successful bakery. He owes everything to hard work, dedication and carrot cake.
Yes, carrot cake. Keijuane got a job while incarcerated in the prison cafeteria, which is where he learned to bake. “The only recipe I had coming home with me was the carrot cake,” he says. That same recipe is one of Favor Desserts most popular items – it’s listed on the menu as “The Redemption Carrot Cake.”
Keijuane started Favor Desserts out of his home in 2004 and sold his cakes at barbershops and hair salons. He now has his own shop near Research Triangle Park, in addition to big-time contracts to provide cakes to places like Duke University, North Carolina Central University and Winston-Salem State University, and was recently able to purchase his own building at 4520 S. Alston Ave. He hopes to finish renovations and move the business around the end of September or early October.
“It feels great finally owning my own [place],” he says excitedly. “This is my greatest accomplishment so far. I feel like the hard work has paid off.”
Keijuane also invests some of his success back into the community, putting special emphasis on providing employment
for formerly incarcerated individuals.
“We try to give ex-offenders a chance,” he says. “We’re serving the community by offering opportunities for the disenfranchised.”
Favor Desserts’ popular cakes and cupcakes are the backbone of the business, which allows Keijuane to provide those employment opportunities. He and his staff churn out more than 30 flavors, like red velvet, banana, 7UP and his famous five-flavor pound cake.
Keijuane has his eyes on growing the business, with hopes for more contracts with food service companies like Aramark and expanding into airports throughout the country, but the core of his business will always be in Durham. He plans to continue to offer opportunities to those who might feel forgotten by society. “It’s not the tool of baking I want to be known by,” he says on his website. “I want to be known by the transformation that has taken place in my life.”
From humble beginnings and the carrot cake that keeps on giving, Keijuane not only transformed himself but also his community.
“I started with a hand mixer and one recipe,” he says. “From there, the sky’s the limit.”
Matt Bumpas loved being in the kitchen when he was growing up in Colonial Heights, Virginia, about 30 minutes south of Richmond, and had dreams of becoming a chef. But like many childhood ambitions, this one fell by the wayside until, at age 33, he decided to leave law school, find work in restaurants and enroll in culinary school.
“While I’m a savory cook at heart and by training, I grew increasingly more interested in the sweet side of professional kitchens the longer I worked in restaurants,” Matt says.
He was living in Seattle at the time and found a position as a pastry chef at the farm-to-table restaurant Poppy. He also launched Sweet Bumpas Ice Cream, eventually expanding to a brick-and-mortar store in Seattle and a fleet of ice-cream carts. “I set up at farmers markets, festivals, weddings, corporate events and even a labradoodle petting party,” he recalls.
The strain of big city life and a desire to be closer to his aging parents pulled him east, and Matt and his husband, Thang Do, moved to Durham in 2019. One ice-cream cart and his commercial ice-cream maker moved with him – he had every intention of recreating Sweet Bumpas Ice Cream in the Triangle.
“Clearly that didn’t happen, and I’m a bit relieved as I’m now fully immersed in my newfound passion for cakes,” Matt says.
“Before spring 2020, I’d probably made a total of three layer cakes in my entire life, and I honestly didn’t have much of an interest,” he continues. “With a whole lot of time on my hands and a newly renovated home kitchen, I made a banana and black walnut layer cake with chocolate frosting and bam, I was hooked.”
Sweet Bumpas quickly grew into one of the most sought-after custom cake bakeries in Durham. “I’ve heard before that desserts are recession-proof, and they also seem to be pandemic-proof,” Matt says.
“There are two types of Sweet Bumpas customers: those craving familiar classic flavors and those looking for a taste adventure,” he says. Sweet Bumpas has 15 or more different kinds of cake on the menu at any given time in order to accommodate both camps. Matt soon realized he didn’t have the time to devote to one-off specialty cakes and instead concentrated on building a repertoire of cakes for his customers to choose from, like “Blackberry Lime Reunion” (buttermilk vanilla cake, homemade blackberry jam, lime curd and blackberry Swiss meringue buttercream) and “The June Cleaver” (a classic four-layer yellow cake with chocolate buttercream).
In between churning out dozens of edible creations, Matt has started to map out a future for Sweet Bumpas, one that might include a brick-and-mortar location. “I’d love to have a spot where folks can meet friends for a slice of cake, a cup of coffee or glass of wine and possibly a scoop of homemade Sweet Bumpas ice cream,” he says. “In a more permanent location, I can expand our menu to include other baked goods like cookies, pies, bars and more.”
But the backbone of the business will always be his cakes. Matt still remembers some of those epic custom bakes from the early days of Sweet Bumpas. “One of my favorite[s] was a lemon-thyme cake with sage crème légère, port wine cherry compote and chèvre Swiss meringue buttercream,” he recalls. “I totally geeked out on that project and spent way too much time thinking about every minute detail of the cake.
“You know you have a problem when you’re painting sage leaves with egg white and dipping them in sugar,” he adds with a wink.
get the scoop
There’s a good chance you’ve seen one of Nathan Simons’ ice-cream cones on Instagram. A tower of vanilla soft serve covered in a chocolate (or strawberry or Key lime pie or mango or cookie butter …) dip and flecked with toppings, these cones are as picturesque as they are sweet.
With a degree from the Culinary Institute of America and a background in fine dining (Daniel and Union Square Cafe in New York City; [ONE] Restaurant, M Sushi and Herons here in the area), slinging soft serve might seem like an unlikely route to take, but a series of perfect little accidents led Nathan and his wife, Audrey Simons, to where they are today.
Nathan graduated from culinary school in 2010, and he and Audrey sat down to brainstorm ideas for their own business, one of which was an ice-cream shop. In 2017, after a trip to Germany, the couple started Simons Says Spread This, an artisanal nut butter company inspired by some of the spreads they’d fallen in love with in Europe – Nathan spent a few years in Naples with his family starting in 2003; Audrey lived in Berlin for a couple of years beginning in 2000. While experimenting with flavors and combinations they discovered that, when melted and poured over ice cream, the butters set much like Magic Shell, the commercial chocolate topping that and hardens when it hits cold ice cream. Maybe that idea of an ice-cream shop could work!
After a series of stops and starts, they were finally able to open Simons Says Dip This downtown at 117 W. Parrish St. in May. “Though we experienced many speed bumps along the way, everything worked out to allow us to open in [the spring], when all the pandemic restrictions had been lifted and people were more than happy to be out in public again,” Nathan says.
Here’s how it works: Customers can choose from either dairy or nondairy vanilla soft serve, in a cone, cup or ice-cream cookie sandwich. Then the fun begins, with a choice of nearly two dozen different dips and more than 20 toppings. How about raspberry with coconut? Or maybe dark chocolate with Reese’s Pieces? An adventurous eater could create a concoction of, say, creamsicle topping with marshmallows, potato chips, Butterfinger and caramel-cheddar popcorn. Go for an extra decadent cone and ask for a core of peanut butter, fudge, marshmallow or caramel.
It’s the incredible variety of choices and the sheer fun of creation that keeps customers coming back time and again. “It is not uncommon for us to see repeat customers two to three times a week,” Nathan says. “We love it when a guest wants us to come up with a ‘chef’s choice’ cone for them.”
Thanks to the viral popularity of their shop, Nathan and Audrey see an expansion on the horizon. “We would love to open more locations over the next few years,” Nathan says. “We would focus on another spot in the Triangle for the second location, and then possibly Charlotte or Wilmington. Within 10 years, we’d love to see our shops opening in neighboring states.”
But for the time being, they are perfectly content to continue churning out cone after cone right here in Durham. “We are thrilled to be a part of the downtown Durham food scene and share our passion with everyone,” Nathan says.