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Bakery finds Sweet spot in ‘New Southie’

Victoria Leenders-Cheng
Bakery finds Sweet spot in ‘New Southie’
David Venter (left) and Glenn Quirion are partners in every sense of the word. The co-owners of the unique bakery Sweet Tooth Boston are experiencing success in South Boston, which at one time may have been an unthinkable location for a business run by a gay, interracial couple. On the contrary, Quirion says, they’ve been “accepted wholeheartedly by ‘Old Southie’ and ‘New Southie.’” (Photo: Victoria Leenders-Cheng)

Their hair neatly braided in pigtails, Bratz schoolbags strapped to their backs, five-and-a-half-year-old twins Jenna and Colleen Cahill peer at the Barbie cakes in the window of Sweet Tooth bakery as they wait for their school bus in South Boston.

Each of the three confections is adorned with a Barbie doll on top. The cake itself, decorated with swirling flowers and curling ribbons of icing, flows from the dolls’ cascading yellow, purple and pink dresses.

It’s not just the colors of the dresses that are striking, however. It’s also the color of their skin — the Barbie in the pink dress is blonde and white, the one wearing purple is a darker-skinned brunette and the Barbie wearing a lemon-yellow gown is black.

Without realizing it or expressly setting out to do so, the owners of Sweet Tooth Boston have made their iconic cakes a reflection of their own commitment to diversity.

“As far as diversity goes, I think you have to live it instead of talking about it,” said co-owner David Venter.

Venter, who is black, and his partner Glenn Quirion, who is white, gave up their corporate day jobs to open the bakery almost two and a half years ago. Given the nature of their relationship and the perception of the neighborhood where they planned to open Sweet Tooth, Venter said, the decision spurred a number of concerned questions.

“When we were opening up our bakery, we knew we wanted to do it in Southie … but the first questions we got — first of all, black people were like, ‘You’re going to open up in Southie? Busing! You’re a gay couple! How are you going to do that?’” Venter recalled.

The pair shares an apartment in Roxbury, has plans to open a second store in downtown Boston  and hopes to adopt a child together in the next six months. They work in tandem on a number of fronts — Venter, whose family runs Boston Advertising, manages the bakery’s business operations and is in charge of its marketing and design, while Quirion, whose mother ran an at-home business that grew into a bakery, creates the store’s opulent desserts.

They also complete each other’s sentences.

“We didn’t think, ‘Oh my God, we can’t open a bakery with pink walls and we’re gay and interracial, in Southie — it can’t happen,’” Quirion said. “We just opened our bakery and listened to the people … Consequently, we’re accepted wholeheartedly by ‘Old Southie’ and ‘New Southie’ — families that just moved here and families that have been here for generations and generations.”

It probably helps, Venter noted, that the goods Sweet Tooth sells speak the universal language of chocolate and whipped cream.

The glass-fronted display cases at Sweet Tooth hold a cornucopia of elaborate treats, from moist red velvet cupcakes topped with rich butter cream to dense chocolate chip cookies finely flavored with high-quality vanilla. The brownies are loaded with peanut butter, the cheesecake sits on a decadent foundation of gingerbread and the gently frosted cinnamon buns pull apart in buttery pieces.

“There is a common language across us — quality,” Venter said. “You can relate to that whether you’re black, white, Asian, whatever.”

The Barbie dolls atop the cakes that beckon from the store’s front window allow “every little girl in the neighborhood to walk by and identify,” said Quirion. “And when people say, ‘Oh, you’re so diverse,’ I think, ‘We are?’ It’s part of our DNA.”

As entrepreneurs who decided to leave the corporate world and invest their retirement savings in a small business, Venter and Quirion are eager to share the principles behind their success, the most fundamental of which is to focus on doing one thing and doing it well. In their case, they had two — baking and marketing.

They chose Sweet Tooth’s colors based on Venter’s analysis of color theory — pink evokes things that are sweet, while brown says chocolate — and converted the store’s window areas from seating into a display space where their cakes, which are completely custom-made in a multitude of flavors, frostings and fillings, take pride of place.

“There’s nothing in the bakery that hasn’t been previously thought about,” Quirion said. “The placement of everything, of every product, of every display, every decoration — it’s not haphazard.”

Even their choice of location reflects the detail of the partners’ planning — they have a Boston address, which encourages orders from corporate clients in the Financial District because the business seems nearby. They are the only business of their kind in the vicinity.

And, crucially, they are located in a tight-knit community of families with children, a demographic most likely to order that high profit-margin item — cake.

“When [we were talking about opening a bakery], I asked Glen, ‘What is the most revenue-generating product we need to have as a bakery?’” Venter said. “He said, ‘Cake you make.’ So where do you have to be to have cake? Well, you need birthdays, christenings, baptism, Easter. And who buys that cake? Families.”

“Especially in a recession, people are going back to basics,” Quirion added. “They’re entertaining at home because this might be the opportunity to get everyone together and not have it be this exorbitant cost of going out or renting a big venue.

“And they might cut back on themselves, not go out to the expensive dinners, but when it comes to their children and celebrations, they’re not.”

Venter and Quirion are also working hard to capitalize on the vertical scale inherent in their industry. Many of their wedding cake consultations, for which Sweet Tooth expanded into the retail space next door, have grown into opportunities to sell “family cake.”

“A lot of our brides are now having kids,” Venter said. “So then we get the baby shower, then we get the first birthday, then we get the christening.”

“I call it the Triple Crown,” said Quirion, smiling.

While Sweet Tooth has put its signature on cakes for children and families, it has also reached out to a less likely group of potential customers: men.

“We developed a cake without flowers on it for men,” Venter said as Quirion added, “We call it the Man Cake.”

The Man Cake comes covered in chocolate and festooned with blue, green and orange bands of frosting, shaped like iron rings. Local resident Anne Bost said it was a huge hit with her colleagues when she worked as a sales manager at the John Hancock Building.

“I’ve got a desk of nothing but men and I’ve never seen people go through a cake that fast,” she said.

Venter designed the sign promoting the cake, which reads, “The Man Cake: No flowers. No frills. Just a little bling. For him.”

He emphasized that this cake, like the Barbie cakes in the window, reflects an approach to diversity in the store that stems from action rather than lip service.

“Diversity isn’t just about race,” he said. “It’s about everything.”

Sweet Tooth Boston is located at 371 West Broadway, South Boston. For more information, visit http://www.sweettoothboston.com.