“Two ladies walk into a bakery may sound like the opening line of a joke, but that's just how Milk + Sugar got its start.” That’s how the owners of South Philadelphia’s Milk + Sugar begin “Our Story” on their website about how they started their sweet truck and eventual brick and mortar bakery in a city known for cheesesteaks and scrapple. The mother and daughter duo, Marcie and Brittany Maldonado, say their love of desserts is how they started baking together.
“My other daughter, Shannon, was going to school in New York, and we started visiting bakeries as something to do to kill time while we were visiting her,” explains Marcie. “And we started to recreate some of the items we liked.” She continues, “When we started out baking in 2007, we had family members and friends taste it. And we started selling from home. Our most popular items at that time were the sweet potato pound cake, banana cake, peach cobbler and sweet potato cupcakes. There was a lot of trial and error before we perfected everything.”
Just Add Milk + Sugar
But perfect them they did. The Maldonados pride themselves on using the freshest ingredients. “For the lemon pound cake, we use fresh lemon zest, fresh lime zest, fresh lemon juice and sugar, butter, flour, buttermilk—no artificial ingredients,” Brittany notes. “And for our sweet potato cake, we use fresh sweet potatoes, butter, sugar, flour, buttermilk.”
Marcie adds, “The biggest thing is that our pastries are moist—we use oil, buttermilk, and sour cream to keep them moist. So they melt in your mouth.” And as soon as a customer would open their mouth to taste that moistness, they would open their mouth to spread the word.
Beyond South Philly, customers were coming from Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey and Delaware. Then in 2011, Marcie was laid off from her management job at Bank of America, so she and Brittany, who was working in retail, decided to bake full-time.
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“We were trying to decide if we wanted to do a bake shop or a food truck and food trucks were really popular, so we decided to do a food truck,” says Marcie. “I used $20,000 of my savings to buy and renovate it, and we opened in 2013.” She continues, “We went through several names like Brown Sugar, Brown Honey. And when we got to Milk + Sugar, we felt like the name was clear as to what we offer. Also, with that name, customers don’t automatically know we’re Black until they get there, so we’re able to appeal to a larger audience.”
Pastries and the Pandemic
Eventually, the Maldonados were driving their truck to corporate and community events all over town. The food truck and added catering helped the duo to make it through the pandemic. “We were able to serve people at a time when a lot of businesses couldn’t because we didn’t have to shut down as a food truck,” explains Brittany. She continues, “Our items were individually wrapped and we were able to do social distancing parties and weddings outside, so it wasn’t a bad time for us.”
Marcie adds, “We were doing ‘pandemic drops’ where you order your sweets and prepay and we drop it off at your house. I believe we were able to survive the pandemic by the grace of God and also because our products are good.”
The mother of two says their most popular items now are the bread pudding, banana pudding and most of the southern-style comfort desserts, like the lemon pound cake and sweet potato cupcakes. “My favorite thing to bake is the bread pudding because it takes me back to my childhood,” Marcie declares. “My mom used to make it for my dad, and it was his favorite thing.”
Just Add Brick and Mortar
Business was so good that the Maldonados decided to open a brick and mortar shop. They were able to get a Tory Burch Foundation Capital Program loan of $10,000 via Bank of America, which has a mission to increase the number of women-owned businesses.
“We had people come in and put in all the appliances, but we did all of the design and renovations ourselves,” says Marcie with pride. “That’s why it took us so long,” she laughs. Describing the space, she notes, “We have five sinks in the back, an oven, a huge refrigerator, a bunch of mixers, a service table—it’s a full kitchen. Compared to what we were able to do at home, we can now do five dozen cookies at a time instead of one dozen and we can do multiple cakes at one time, so it takes less time to bake everything.” She adds, “And the door to the kitchen is open so that customers can see us working in the back. And they know that our items are fresh.”
Brittany led the design of the space. “We wanted our space to have an old school bakery feel but still be modern,” she says. “So the name in the black and white tile on the floor was like an old-school Philly, Italian bakery without being too old school.” She continues, “We wanted to be different from other bakeries in Philly that are pretty stark with white walls. We wanted to incorporate a lot of color without being neon. So we have touches of pastel green. And our customers say the colors feel very calming.” And the pastel blue exterior makes Milk + Sugar stand out among the red brick houses surrounding it at the corner of South 5th and Dickinson Streets.
And speaking of houses, Marcie lives on the same block as the bakery, so she can walk to work in less than five minutes. But that wasn’t always considered a plus. “The location where our brick and mortar is, was the location that we didn’t want because we didn’t want to work so close to home,” laments Marcie. “We originally wanted to be in Center City. But it was meant for us to be here in Dickinson Square. It’s perfect for us,” she exclaims.
Cupcakes and Community
And the neighbors love it. “So many of the neighbors are saying, ‘Welcome to the community!’ not realizing I’ve been living here for 50 years,” laughs Marcie. Kirk Brown, who has been in the neighborhood for 33 years, can walk to the bakery in less than a minute for his favorite pastries. “I love the ‘kitchen sink’ cookies and the chocolate and salted caramel cupcakes,” says Brown. He’s a neighbor and friend of the Maldonados and believes their business fills a gap in Dickinson Square. “There’s nothing like it in South Philly and it can become a community anchor,” he says.
And that’s just what the Maldonados want Milk + Sugar to be. “Our goal is to become a community hub for our neighborhood and have various events to bring the neighbors together,” shares Marcie. “And we also want to start incorporating events inside the space like cupcake decorating parties for kids or cake decorating events for adults where we’d have wine,” she adds.
Next year, Milk + Sugar will start offering small grab-and-go lunch options. “We’re working on some unique sandwich combinations,” says Marcie. Brittany adds, “My favorite thing to bake is something new, even if it turns out terribly because I hate getting stuck in a rut of baking the same old thing all the time. So right now we’re trying to [perfect] a black and white cookie.”
“This is my dream job,” she shares with excitement. And since her 8-year-old daughter Harlow is showing interest in baking, it looks like Milk + Sugar will be sweetening South Philly and beyond for generations.