East Oakland pastry chef David Benton didn’t grow up baking. In fact, he never even considered a career in pastry until he took a single basics-of-baking class while attending California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. Initially, he was attracted by the color and design aspects of baking, but by the time Benton took his required advanced baking class towards the end of his culinary school career, he realized his true passion was in the confections world.
“I knew I had wasted my time trying to be a chef and I knew I really wanted to be a baker,” said Benton, owner of Sugarsweet Cookie + Cake Studio, a new bakery in Oakland. Struck by the realization that he had chosen the wrong path for his career compounded by his lack of funds to enroll in the baking program, Benton was still determined to pursue his newfound interest.
But what is an aspiring baker to do without a traditional course setting to learn in? Consult YouTube, of course. Benton dove headfirst into learning every possible thing there was to know about baking, voraciously watching every clip, reading every baking book, and even taking cake classes from his local Michaels craft supply store. The baker absorbed as much information as he could, honing his craft little by little as a dedicated hobby, all while maintaining an office job in San Francisco.
The turning point in his career, however, came after Benton was laid off in 2009 during the recession. Rather than languish in his jobless existence, Benton saw his chance.
But what is an aspiring baker to do without a traditional course setting to learn in? Consult YouTube, of course.
“After I was laid off, that’s when I started to take the baking thing seriously,” he said. “I got two years of unemployment, so for two years I just baked and baked and baked.” Benton tried different recipes he had seen online or on TV, until he realized that he was getting really good at this whole “baking thing” and began posting and selling his creations on his social media accounts and website.
Benton’s friends, family and neighbors took notice and started requesting special cake orders. Seizing the opportunity, the pastry chef turned his hobby into a side hustle, transforming his little East Oakland duplex into an at-home bakery with a cottage-food license. News of the baker’s set-up and well-crafted baked goods started to spread by word of mouth and over social media and, soon, Benton found himself fulfilling orders from all over the Bay Area and acing cake tastings for weddings. This was getting serious.
“I was doing everything out of my duplex in East Oakland. I had all of those tools shoved into my house,” he said. I had to get a smaller bed, I had to downsize my whole life to do this. I didn’t have much of a social life because I dedicated all my time to baking because it was getting serious, but it was fun. I didn’t always want to go out [with friends], I just wanted to do cakes.”
But after nine years of hustle, Benton was tired and overwhelmed with juggling his passion with his day job. Something had to give.
“I was getting a lot of orders from 2013 to 2017 and I was exhausted. So I had to decide, do I stop or do I go big?” Well, Benton decided bigger was better. He started casually looking for a small space he could move his operation into, where he could share his creations with his community.
Serendipitously, he stumbled across a little spot previously occupied by a bakery off Seminary Avenue, across the street from Mills College. It had everything he was looking for. The kitchen set-up, a display case and counter, and just enough space for people to stop and stay a while. All Benton needed to do was put his own signature on the place with a touch of modern glam and a nod to the timeless style of the ‘50s and ‘60s (the baker’s favorite era), a combination that’s reflected in his gorgeous creations.
And, though it took him two years to finally open his storefront due to a labyrinth of paperwork and permitting — a process Benton found wholly unhelpful and confusing as a small-business owner, and hopes to one day rectify for future entrepreneurs — the pastry chef has finally achieved his goal. He soft-opened Sugarsweet Cookie + Cake Studio in November.
Backed by a supportive community that cheered him on every step of the way, Benton is whipping out classic baked goods “like grandma used to make,” with a twist that’s entirely his own. Tapping into his artistic side, Benton loves to use stamps and stencils adding a touch of edge to his cakes, like the provocative set of lips gingerly placed on top of each red velvet cupcake. And while he’s mastered tried-and-true flavors such as chocolate, vanilla, lemon and peanut butter, Benton is always experimenting with seasonal ingredients, releasing a new cake-by-the-slice every week. Orange almond spice cake anyone?
Inspired by a seemingly endless creative vision (just wait for his popcorn cake, “it’s gonna blow people’s minds”) and committed to serving only the very best, Benton is determined to surpass the competition.
“I, of course, want everything that we sell to be delicious and beautiful, but this is the Bay Area,” he said. “You can’t just be good, you have to be great. And I want to be the hottest bakery in Oakland.”
Sugarsweet Cookie + Cake Studio is open 11 a.m.-6 p.m., Thursday and Friday; 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Saturday; 11 am.-3 p.m., Sunday. Closed Monday through Wednesday. It will celebrate its grand opening Jan. 25. Stay tuned for details on the bakery’s website, Facebook and Instagram pages.