Cotton Patch Bakery delivers sweet things based on traditional recipes but with considerable creative flair - such as 15-layer cakes in seven different flavors of icing, from chocolate and caramel to Orange Dream Sickle - well beyond its home base in Portal.
In the process, the bakery, confectioner and handcrafted-gift shop generates income and an appreciative audience for owner Stephanie Cartee and a network of relatives and friends.
The adventure began more than five years ago. Cartee, then a bookkeeper for the Portal Middle High School cafeteria, dropped a business proposition on her mother, Caroline Brannen-Brooks, at her family home, a white house on a hill on the edge of Portal.
"She came in one day and said, ‘Mom, let's start a bakery, just a little bakery,'" Brannen-Brooks recalled.
Where it started
Mother and daughter equipped and opened the bakery in a "mother-in-law apartment" behind Brannen-Brooks' home on the farm that came down to her from her grandfather, Joseph A. Brannen, and her father, Rex Brannen. Meanwhile, recipes had been passed down by Brannen-Brooks' grandmother, Ruby Deal, mother Betty Brannen and various aunts.
Helping in the kitchen from childhood, Cartee learned baking and candy making from her mother. In launching the bakery, daughter and mother cooked up a few things and offered tastings in Portal and Statesboro.
"We began to get orders and it just evolved from there, and it kept growing," said Brannen-Brooks. "It was all by word of mouth."
The oldest of Cartee's four children, McKayla, now 16, was several years younger when she told her mom the bakery needed a name.
"I said, ‘Why the Cotton Patch?' and she said, ‘Well, look around us.' At the time the farm was planted in cotton and all you saw was white. ... It kind of stuck," Cartee said.
The bakery, born in autumn 2009, quickly outgrew both the mother-in-law suite and Brannen-Brooks' desire to operate the business while her daughter worked full-time at the school.
So Cartee and her husband, Rickey Cartee, a professional in remodeling and carpentry, bought a small, circa 1940 commercial building on U.S. Highway 80 in Portal. They did all the remodeling themselves, and he added a room on the back after she realized the place was already too small.
Where it is now
Cartee left her school system job to become a full-time baker and businesswoman, reopening the Cotton Patch Bakery at its current location, 27184 U.S. Highway 80 W., on Oct. 1, 2012.
Several other places in the area now carry the bakery's goods. Cartee makes weekly deliveries to The Daily Grind, the one Statesboro shop that currently retails several of her cakes and confections, and twice-weekly deliveries in Portal and Metter.
In Portal, Pepper Jack's Deli & Grill offers several Cotton Patch desserts. In Metter, Jomax BBQ and the Metter Farm Market introduce Interstate 16 travelers to the bakery's goods.
"Well, I have a lot of people that will pick up things in Metter and wonder where our bakery is and will actually come find us, off the interstate," Cartee said.
Lazar Oglesby of Honey Catering in Millen buys some 15-layer cakes for her shop, and Cotton Patch sometimes carries Oglesby's cheesecakes. The bakery takes orders from as far away in Georgia as Augusta and Columbus.
"We can only do this with certain cakes, but we have shipped cakes," said Brannen-Brooks. "We have shipped them as far as Alaska, and have shipped them to Montana."
Chocolate and caramel 15-layer cakes ship well, as do the old-fashioned pumpkin rolls, the peanut brittle and the dessert bars, Cartee said. These include red velvet bars, caramel, lemon and key lime bars, among others.
With those and items such as buckeyes and Martha Washingtons, the bakery creates gift baskets and party trays.
Cotton Patch has been growing its custom-order cake business. The bakery's Facebook page displays colorful and sometimes sculptural work in wedding cakes, grooms' cakes and children's birthday cakes. All the icings and fillings are made at the bakery.
"I don't buy it in a tub," Cartee said.
Besides Cartee, the bakery has one full-time employee, Gisele Bolton, who previously taught Wilton cake-decorating classes at Hobby Lobby.
But Cartee's aunt, Jane Kennedy, bakes and stacks most of the 15-layer cakes, working two days a week regularly but on call beyond that. Brannen-Brooks continues to be on call as well and still uses the bakery's original kitchen, at her home, to prepare the jellies from fruit grown on her farm.
She also makes many of the craft items in the gift shop, such as stockings and snowmen now in a mantle display for Christmas, and quilts and baby blankets. Jemmebeth Winskie, Cartee's cousin, does the custom monogramming. The bakery sells paintings by Eloise Elaine Schneider, who painted the cotton patch mural on the building's exterior.
Just a little bakery?
"I'd love to see it grow," Cartee said, adding with laughter, "I don't know how I would handle it. It's going to be one of those wait-and-see type things, I guess. I'd love to have to build a bigger building."