Growing up on Chicago’s North Side, Susan Sarich ’91 spent afternoons with her grandmothers, Mildred and Madeline, who lived across an alley from one another and shared a love of baking. Although they were recent immigrants, they rarely made Polish or Italian sweets, preferring more “American” desserts. “There was always an amazing apple pie or a piece of chocolate cake waiting for me when I got home from school,” Sarich recalls.
Sarich had baking in her blood, but it wasn’t until 2006–after graduating from the Hotel school and working her way up through the ranks at Hyatt, House of Blues, and the Ian Schrager hotel group–that she tapped into her childhood love and opened her first SusieCakes store in Los Angeles’ Tony Brentwood neighborhood. A decade later, she’s the CEO of an expanding empire, selling classics like sour cream cheesecake, banana pudding with vanilla wafers, seasonal fruit pies, and more. Like the menu, the look and feel of the stores scream nostalgia. Each has what Sarich calls a “Susie Blue” wall–a sky-colored hue that recalls her grandmother’s Pyrex mixing bowl–plus a tin ceiling, light fixtures resembling wedding cakes, and cherry red accents intended to evoke a classic Ford Mustang. The kitchen is open, with just a glass partition separating customers from the bakers. SusieCakes now has seventeen such stores in California, with its first out-of-state location (in Dallas) opening this spring and nationwide shipping set to launch later this year. “I’ve created this place for celebration, where everything is made from scratch using only ingredients you’d have in the Fifties and Sixties,” Sarich says. “It’s about going back to basics and returning to a simpler time.”
While Sarich’s grandmothers served as her inspiration for founding the business, she notes that it took a while for all the ingredients to come together. “I moved a lot in my career,” she says, “and every time I unpacked, I’d come across their little tin recipe boxes with their handwritten recipe cards inside.” Then, in the early 2000s, she observed some industry shifts that suggested an opportunity. The first was that more grocery stores had started selling bakery-style desserts, tapping the busy consumer’s desire for convenience. At the same time, new legislation made it mandatory for every ingredient to be listed on the products’ labels. “That meant that people would go to the grocery store, pick up some chocolate chip cookies, and wonder, Why does this have eighty-five ingredients in it?” Sarich says. It was then that she decided to open a bakery based on her grandmothers’ recipes for carrot cake, lemon squares, and six-layer chocolate cake, among other temptations.
I’ve created this place for celebration, where everything is made from scratch using only ingredients you’d have in the Fifties and Sixties.
When Sarich first floated the idea for SusieCakes, some people questioned how well a bakery would do in health- and body-conscious Southern California. But Sarich says she never worried about that. “When people treat themselves, they treat themselves,” she says. Plus, everyone needs to celebrate. “There’s not a birthday, graduation, wedding, or retirement party at which cake is not a centerpiece.” In fact, each location has a “celebration specialist” on hand to help guests create festive treats like custom-designed layer cakes (starting at $36 for six inches). But the most popular item, and Sarich’s personal favorite, is the Vanilla Celebration Cake, which has baked-in confetti-colored sprinkles and “Susie Blue” vanilla frosting. “I think you can judge any bakery by its vanilla-vanilla,” she says. “You can really tell the quality of the butter and the vanilla that they use when there’s nothing to mask those flavors.”
The bakeries’ fans include some Hollywood celebrities. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, star of “Seinfeld” and “Veep,” recently posted a photo of herself on Instagram eating a Susie-made chocolate birthday cake, while actress Tiffani Thiessen, of “White Collar” and “Beverly Hills, 90210,” noted in a recent delish.com article that the only store-bought cake she likes is SusieCakes’ Luscious Lemon. US Weekly has caught John Mayer and Jessica Biel picking up red velvet cupcakes ($3.50 each) and Reese Witherspoon sampling a whoopee pie ($5.25); Sarich adds that Jennifer Lopez and Jennifer Garner are also customers. “You come into SusieCakes and people are smiling,” she says. “It’s just a happy place to be.”