Sometimes it can be so simple. Or at least Kat Gordon makes it seem that way. When talking with the owner of Muddy’s Bake Shop about her Memphis, Tennessee-based bakery, one gets the feeling that she could turn this operation into a multi-unit franchise if she wanted to. That wouldn’t fit Gordon’s style, however, as the hardworking Southerner is focused on fine-tuning the best homestyle bakery her customers can find.
“’Enough’ is one of my personal core values. I think we get into trouble when we forget what enough looks like for each of us,” she says. “I really like running a small business.”
Normally when you think of Memphis, you think BBQ. The city has earned a reputation for its slow-cooked meats, but locals know that there is much more to the culinary scene. Sweets are a specialty in the South. “The ways Grandma used to make ‘em” is a phrase you might hear quite a bit from bakeries in the region when referring to their products.
That is certainly the case at Muddy’s, but Gordon and her staff take it to the next level with attention to detail in the creation of the bakery’s comforting menu. Born and raised in Memphis, Gordon is inspired by the city and the region. Homestyle, American sweets baked in the South are prevalent throughout the bakery’s cases.
“Most of what we bake is what we grew up with,” Gordon says. “Oftentimes that’s where we start in our brainstorming, is thinking about what our parents and grandparents made.”
Those collaborative ideas result in some of the best baked goods you’ll find anywhere in the South. Made-from-scratch items such as cookies, cupcakes, and pies capture that feeling of love and happiness that comes from desserts made in a home kitchen during our childhoods.
These tasty treats feature quirky names such as the Prozac Cupcakes, a best-selling signature devils’ food chocolate cake with luscious chocolate buttercream made from melted dark chocolate and real butter, a splash of organic milk, and a hint of organic vanilla. There’s also the Shady Wake Pie, a pecan pie made with pecans chopped and toasted in-house, as well as an all-butter crust that is so good it has earned the pie major coverage in the New York Times and Travel + Leisure.
Other top sellers at the bakery include its many varieties of cookies and bars. Cookies have been a rising trend in the industry for years as the convenience factor takes hold. Customers want a treat that they can take with them on the go, and cookies satisfy that demand. But they also have a nostalgic feel to them, as most people can relate to a home-baked cookie they loved in their youth.
Gordon has seen that same growth in the cookie segment. “Our cookies have done really well. We have steadily seen over the last three years an increase in the cookie sales. It’s been really fun, because it’s personally one of my favorites. I’m a cookie and pie girl, and there’s just something homey and comforting about both of those.”
Muddy’s Bake Shop has so perfected these regional favorites that in 2017, the New York Post named it one of the top 16 bakeries in America. While Gordon is honored by these distinctions, she doesn’t let it go to her head.
“In Memphis, we’re hometown loyal. In general, we’re proud of each other for something like that, but we’re a local business,” she says. “It’s been mostly word-of-mouth. There’s nothing better than your friends and neighbors coming into the business and taking as much pride in it as I do.”
Community is very important at Muddy’s. The support the bakery received early on was integral to making it through the first year and beyond.
Despite not having a grand opening for its launch in 2008, customers streamed through the doors anyway. According to the bakery, there were far more people than food or staff available. In true Memphis fashion, friends, family, and total strangers pitched in by folding bakery boxes, clearing tables, and even icing cupcakes.
To show its true community spirit, Muddy’s tries to pay it forward by putting its resources towards helping local causes and fellow local makers thrive.
To develop its products, Kat Gordon and her team workshop in what they refer to as Mud Lab. This employee-wide company club routinely gets together to share ideas, test proto-treats, and consider the elements of a truly delicious bite.
Bakers, retail employees, and even customers can join in on these meetings. They typically test out at least three new or updated recipes at a time, and prioritize ideas based on the season that they’ll be featured. At any one time, the team will be working at least one or two seasons ahead of time.
“Each Mud Lab is a little different, but it’s always really fun. It’s great to get everybody’s perspective,” Gordon says. “You have the bakers talking about how it’s going to be made, if it’s ingredients we already have or do we need to source something different. Then the retail folks say, ‘We think they (customers) will really be drawn to this look’ or ‘Here’s some of the questions we get’, that kind of thing.”
Gordon describes the environment in these sessions as “the fun parts of middle school.” It’s a great way for employees to participate in and feel like an active part of the bakery’s product creation process.
She gives a recent example of Muddy’s retiring its old banana bread and working to develop a new recipe. Mud Lab participants brought their own banana breads, they did a blind tasting, they shared what they hoped to get out of a banana bread (flavor notes, texture, etc.), and had a great deal of playfulness in making the bakery’s new banana bread one-of-a-kind.
Creating a comforting atmosphere
Kat Gordon opened Muddy’s Bake Shop (named for her grandmother, “a Southern bossy boss lady who worked hard, played hard, and lived life with equal parts grit and glamour”) on Feb. 29, 2008. Born on a Leap Day, a quirky day in and of itself, the bakery has always been a bit of an extension of that quirkiness.
To maintain that aesthetic, the bakery’s two locations each feature bright colors and fun decorations. Muddy’s also merchandises a variety of unique items, such as mixes, mugs, party supplies, books, shirts, and aprons.
Creativity is bursting through the walls, and that extends to the bakery’s website and social media. The website is fun and whimsical, with pictures of illustrated gnomes scattered throughout. It also includes a blog where visitors can get a close look at the bakery, its processes, and updates on the business. Muddy’s social media activity is strong as well. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram posts feel vibrant and exciting.
Gordon believes the bakery’s digital presence is a big factor in its success. “It’s all communication,” she says. “It’s an extension of our customer service. Whatever information our customers want, what do they want to see that’s coming up, how do we make it easy for them to place an order. The website has been so helpful for our customers who are really busy.”
“To have the website be easy to use, to have social media be value added, I think that’s been really helpful. We’re really always thinking about how our customers are trying to use these tools and that’s what we want to be sure we’re providing for them.”
Customers can pre-order items on Muddy’s website, and they can also get several of the bakery’s top menu items for delivery through Goldbelly, including the Prozac Cupcakes and the Shady Wake Pie.
For those new to Muddy’s Bake Shop, either purchasing its goods online or visiting instore, Gordon wants them to feel welcome. Twelve years into this venture, she continues to find ways to appeal to customers and get more out of the experience herself. Despite all of the effort it takes to make a successful business, Gordon believes that it’s worth it in the long run.
“It’s been hard, and it’s been fun. Running a small business is such a gift,” she says.