Norrinda Brown Hayat
“The hardest part of starting our business was convincing my mom it was a good idea,” says Norrinda. Linda couldn’t imagine that people would pay for the cakes, pies, and cookies she had always simply given away. Norrinda prevailed, and in the winter of 2004 she and her mother—armed with Linda’s recipe collection—opened the doors of their 500-square-foot retail space. Two interns from a nearby culinary school helped out, but, says Norrinda, “My mom and I took care of everything else from taking out the trash to frosting orders for the next day.”
Business was slow at first: the neighborhood had not yet become the vibrant social scene it is today. Then, in December 2005, Philadelphia magazine included Brown Betty Dessert Boutique in a list of the city’s best bakeries, and soon afterward the bakery was featured in O, The Oprah Magazine; in Every Day with Rachael Ray; and on the Food Network. In a stroke of good timing, Brown Betty had added cupcakes to the menu just as the cupcake craze was taking off; at the height of the trend, the bakery was selling as many as 2,000 cupcakes a day, and its red velvet version remains a best seller.
Other hits include the whimsically named “Company’s Comin’,” a coconut cake with cream cheese frosting; “Only for Eliza,” a sweet potato cake with spiced vanilla buttercream; and a chocolate ganache layer cake, “Hattie Don’t Play,” named after a stern relative. If you aren’t in Philadelphia, don’t despair: You can make these cakes yourself, along with many of Brown Betty’s popular pies, cobblers, puddings, and cookies, thanks to the 2012 publication of The Brown Betty Cookbook. The cookbook is a treasure trove of “modern vintage desserts and stories from Philadelphia's best bakery,” as the subtitle puts it.
Nine years after opening their original bakery, Linda and Norrinda have expanded to a 1,000- square-foot store (still in Northern Liberties) and have added a “petite” outpost in Center City. They continue to stay true to their original bake-to-order model, and still use “real ingredients" like the ones Grandmother Betty used. “We always use real butter,” says Norrinda, “and we only use Domino 10-X Confectioner’s Sugar [the equivalent of sister company C&H Sugar’s Pure Cane Powdered Sugar] for our frostings. We like the smooth, silken texture it produces.” Linda—who recently retired after 35 years of teaching in the Philadelphia public schools—still does the baking and oversees the operation, which now includes as many as 24 employees.
Norrinda, who works as an attorney in Washington, D.C., is the mother of a young son with another baby on the way. How does she manage it all? “It’s a creative outlet,” she says, “and I couldn’t ask for a better partner.”
As for Betty, she no longer bakes as much as she used to. But, as Linda and Norrinda say on the bakery’s website, “she’s still our most trusted and toughest critic.”
For a taste of the Brown Betty legacy, try the bakery’s famous Company’s Comin’ Coconut Cake and Brown Betty Pound Cake.