Soon her eyes fell upon a little glass box lying underneath the table. She opened it and found in it a very small cake, on which the words ‘EAT ME’ were beautifully marked in currants.
– Lewis Carroll (pen name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), English writer, mathematician, logician, photographer, and Anglican deacon, from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
I first met Pamela Braxton at the El Cerrito Community Center when my son Jacob and her son, Zachary, were enrolled in a pre-school T-ball class in 2004 – the same year she and her husband, Ron, launched their baked-goods small business, Braxtons’ Boxes (510.708.7089). Our sons attended the same elementary school and through the years they donated cakes for our school auctions. For my daughter Isabella’s tea parties for her fourth and fifth birthdays in 2006 and 2007, Braxtons’ Boxes whipped up the prettiest and tastiest cupcakes and petit fours, which backed up the “killer Yelp reviews” that the bake-to-order company has racked up, and perfectly captured their tagline, “Better than Divine.” It wasn’t until I sat down with Pamela, now 46, for an interview last fall that I got to know the back story of how Braxtons’ Boxes came to be.
It’s in their DNA
Pamela has always loved to cook and bake, and during her undergraduate years at the University of California,Berkeley, her home was the destination for friends who wanted to indulge in her latest creations. She worked in the art history & classics library at Doe Memorial Library on campus, and served up muffins to the graduate students studying there. Ron also grew up with a love of cooking and baking, under the tutelage of – and sometimes despite – his mother and five aunts, who were constantly competing in the kitchen for the best dishes.
The two met on a blind date in June 1994, after Pamela recovered from a serious illness and relocated from living with her parents in Utah to the Bay Area. She recalled the stories about roasted chicken dinners that Ron had served up at two in the morning for his starving roommates. Her own personal experiences of his post-midnight French onion soup and chocolate chip cookies he whipped up during their courtship are fondly remembered. “Cooking was in [Ron’s] blood,” she said. It’s also his lifeline: A year ago in January, Ron suffered from a serious illness, and cooking and baking – remembering recipes and getting back in the kitchen again – literally helped him to recover, Pamela poignantly shared.
In the beginning: watering mouths leads to word of mouth
In 2004, at the behest of an old college friend, Pamela and Ron baked a chocolate cake with chocolate ganache and raspberry preserves, complete with a gold silhouette of Oscar on top, for an Academy Awards party. The cake was a hit and led to a request by a Bay Area writer and blogger to bake a cake for her daughter, then 5, that featured tie-dyed, psychedelic swirls of bright color and a guitar – think: 60s glam. By the time Pamela and Ron baked a cake for a friend’s christening party, word of mouth about their delectable cakes “rippled out from there,” Pamela recalled, and they were compelled to start Braxtons’ Boxes, which got its name when Pamela was boxing up an order.
Through the first five years of their business, Ron was still working in the mortgage industry, but when the economic recession hit, he turned his full attention to their business in 2011. Pamela credits Ron for being the master, “the closet researcher and PhD,” or, as one of their vegan clients refers him, “the mad scientist” in the kitchen. Ron is a “fanatic,” says Pamela, about researching recipes and then “just knowing how to tweak them to make them better.” That’s how Braxtons’ Boxes develops its core library of recipes.
A Decade of decadence
In the beginning, they also relied on the organization, SCORE, which comprises retired businessmen and women who mentor new entrepreneurs. A retired baker helped them with procuring their licensing and creating a business plan for funding. “It was still very much a hobby for a couple of years,” Pamela said, of their formerly home-based business. Partnerships with caterers allowed them to expand their business. Throughout their career they have worked with Carrie Dove Catering, California Rose Catering, and Grace Lee of Grace Lee Events and owner of The Mixing Bowl in Oakland.
As all entrepreneurs will tell you, many lessons were learned along the way – for example, exercising patience and learning how to say no. It was a revelation for Pamela to turn away a potential client whose order was outside their expertise or expectation. “To be honest, every time we’ve said no, something amazing and often bigger, comes along,” she confided. In tandem with saying no is not apologizing. “Ron has schooled me in not apologizing,” Pamela said. “It’s okay that you can’t accommodate every request, to their exact specifications. You need to know your abilities, and do your job the way you do it. We have very high standards for ourselves.”
That said, Braxtons’ Boxes accommodates clients who have specialty needs or whose food allergies dictate the ingredients in their orders – to a certain point. “It’s a double-edged sword,” Pamela admitted. “It’s bittersweet because we have learned how to create something delicious without using butter and eggs – things you associate with a cake. Sometimes we have to say no because too many basic ingredients are allergens, and we don’t want to put our name on something that isn’t delicious.” Despite the caveat, Braxtons’ Boxes have been lauded for their nut-, gluten- and dairy-free creations.
After ten years in business, Braxtons’ Boxes is contemplating next steps for potential expansion. Pamela and Ron have researched operating a truck to be mobile and able to participate in events such as Off-the-Grid. And they have also considered opening a storefront, which presents both growth opportunities and enormous challenges and responsibilities. For the local community, a physical destination for sweets would be a treat!
The Joy of baking
“I love working for myself,” Pamela enthused. “I love that Ron and I can actually work together and not kill each other,” she added, laughing. Pamela, who had formal training in art since age six and has a degree in art history with a minor in French, also appreciates that she can express her art in this medium.
While bumps in the road are inevitable for any small-business entrepreneur – the learning curve may be creative and fulfilling, but it is steep – Pamela noted that the bottom line is that you enjoy the work. “Enjoy that you decided to do this to yourself,” she said. And especially enjoy the gratitude from the recipients of their baked creations. “That’s the joy – when you deliver those cupcakes with butterflies, or a volcano cake. At the moment of seeing our clients’ faces, that totally makes it for us.”
Editor’s Note: Braxtons’ Boxes will be participating in the Lunafest Film Festival’s dessert circle following the film screening on Saturday, March 8th, 7:30pm, at the El Cerrito High School’s Performing Arts Center, 540 Ashbury Avenue, El Cerrito, CA 94530. Come celebrate women’s artistic vision in film, support the Breast Cancer Fund and other local organizations, and just as important, taste the scrumptious cupcakes and cookies that Braxtons’ Boxes will be serving and meet Pamela in person.