Food for Thought: New generation revives Ithaca family bakery

K.C. Sawyer (left) and Jennifer Phelps bake cakes at the Rashida Sawyer Bakery in Ithaca.
K.C. Sawyer (left) and Jennifer Phelps bake cakes at the Rashida Sawyer Bakery in Ithaca.
Photo provided by Rashida Sawyer Bakery
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In the late ’80s and ’90s, Loraine Rashida Sawyer sold her homemade cakes to local restaurants, the Ben & Jerry’s storefront on Cayuga Street in Ithaca, and at the Ithaca Farmers Market under the name Rashida’s Deluxe Baked Goods.

Her cakes were well-received, and she enjoyed tinkering with the recipes to get everything just right.

But after years baking for an enthusiastic community, she decided to step away from the business and focus on raising her family. Now, nearly two decades later, the family has come together to revive Loraine’s legacy with the launch of Rashida Sawyer Bakery.

“She’s our primary baker, obviously, and we all take our cue from her,” said K.C. Sawyer, owner of Rashida Sawyer Bakery and Loraine’s son.

Everyone spends time in the kitchen, but they have divvied up the rest of the responsibilities to reflect individual talents. His cousin, Jennifer Phelps, has a knack for cake design and presentation. K.C.’s wife, Shaina Sawyer, handles marketing and social media.

“I have an IT background, so I’ll do the website and design,” K.C. said. “Jon [Phelps] works with Jennifer and consults with her. And, of course, my dad [Csiko Sawyer] is the consultant-at-large.”

K.C. said he enjoys being a part of the bakery with his family.

“We all have careers that we have to do, but there’s just something about this that’s just fun,” K.C. said. “When we had our first cooking session, everyone was having a good time. My wife enjoyed it. My cousin, who does her cake design, was just having fun, showing us how to do her flowers.”

The bakery’s guiding principle is a simple question: does it taste good?

“You get the smile on people’s faces, and it’s not fake,” K.C. said. “The proof is when you put the cake out there and it doesn’t last.”

They avoid elaborate designs, tiered cakes, and fondant, instead focusing their energy on what is inside. The flavors are all familiar and classic - cheesecake, carrot cake, chocolate cake, and pound cake - but years of methodical revisions and taste-testing have made them stand alone.

“Our recipes are extremely unique,” K.C. said.

He has traveled extensively in his career as an IT professional, so he said he is confident in this assertion.

“I’ve been to 45 of the 50 states and the recipes that she has – you can’t find them anywhere,” he said. “The reason for this is that she takes recipes and then perfects them.”

Loraine said she likes crafting recipes from food she has loved in her experience.

“Most of the recipes are a collection from when I tasted people’s food,” Loraine said. “I don’t like carrot cake, but when I tasted rosemary carrot cake, I was sold. So, my recipes are the best of the best.”

However, it does not end there.

“She’s a tinkerer,” K.C. said. “I’ll ask ‘hey, what’s the recipe for this?’ She’ll say, ‘Here it is.’ She gave me the whole [recipe]. It was all printed out. And the first thing she tells me is, ‘now don’t look at anything on there. Here’s how I do it.’”
When asked to elaborate on what makes her carrot cake so unique, she said, “I can say what’s not in it. The pineapples and coconut and whatever else they put in there – that’s not in it. It’s just simple.”

With that said, simple can be delicious.

“We just want it to taste good,” K.C. said. “We’re a bit pricey because we always use premium ingredients.”

This means fresh carrots for the carrot cake, for example. It also means choosing ingredients for quality over convenience or price.

“One of the brands we had been using for graham cracker crust changed, and it was very noticeable,” K.C. said. “It didn’t meet the standard of the cake, so she meticulously sought out a replacement that now works for our recipe.”

For now, they are baking out of the Varna Community Association’s

Commercial Kitchen. K.C. said the space is well-equipped and was an affordable option for a business just starting out.

“Our goal is to eventually be able to open a storefront, to be able to hire people and bring people in who need jobs,” he said.

K.C. particularly hopes to offer employment to formerly incarcerated individuals, especially minorities who struggle to find employment when returning to the workforce. He said he was inspired by one of his cousins, who owns Styled by Shanique in Syracuse and is following her dream.

“We want to be an inspiration for minority entrepreneurs,” K.C. said. “I think that minorities - and anyone, for that matter - sometimes don’t realize that their simple gifts and talents can turn into big and rewarding careers. So, I hope that, one day, someone can look at us, regardless of background, and feel inspired to start a business.”

Rashida Sawyer offers cakes for delivery and pickup. Orders for full cakes can be placed through its website, rashidasawyer.com, and must be made a week in advance. Partnerships with Ithaca To Go and Doordash allow customers to order slices for immediate delivery on Thursdays through Saturdays.
Rashida Sawyer will be participating in Bite of Ithaca on Thursday June 20 through Saturday June 22 with $5 Bites available at the Hilton Garden Inn between 6 - 10 p.m.

Food for Thought

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