Cake Bloom is a Celebration in Charlottesville
Story by Kaitlin Hill, Photos courtesy of Susan Sweeney
No stranger to the power of plants, American botanist Luther Burbank believed, “Flowers always make people better, happier, and more helpful; they are sunshine, food, and medicine to the mind.” In Charlottesville, recently opened Cake Bloom is the embodiment of that sentiment with flower adorned, all-natural, and undeniably cheery cakes made by owner Susan Sweeney. But more than beautiful and tasty, Sweeney’s sweets are the culmination of her unique culinary education, her desire to highlight local growers, and her focus on the importance of family.
A native of Chattanooga, Tennessee, Sweeney credits her childhood introduction to baking to her big sisters. She shares on her website, “They introduced me to the concept of eating, baking, and cooking slowly for pleasure. They taught me how to cook for the process, eat for the flavor, and to choose ingredients for their quality and origin.”
A cornerstone of her future business, the importance of ingredients was further cemented by an undergraduate study abroad program in Avignon, and later, her culinary education in California. She remembers, “I studied abroad in France when I was in college, and just discovered farmers markets and seasonal eating. It was life changing.” She continues, “I think that is a big part of why I moved from Chattanooga to San Francisco. In addition to having a big sister living out there, I just liked the lifestyle and was really drawn to the food culture.”
While studying at the California Culinary Academy, Sweeney also worked at the Ferry Building, a gourmet food hotspot. She shares, “I was working at the Ferry Building where there is a huge farmers market every Saturday and a couple during the week. I think that was a bigger part of my culinary education, even more so than school.”
During her eight years in San Francisco, Sweeney started making cakes as a side hustle. She laughs, “I originally started doing wedding cakes in my tiny little apartment in San Francisco, totally moonlighting while working a full-time job.”
Sweeney, her cake business, and her love of farm-fresh ingredients would move north to the Sonoma region where she would continue her informal culinary coursework. “When I moved up to Sonoma, it became more of a full-time thing, primarily making wedding cakes. And, I worked for an organic olive oil farm, so I really got to know the local farms and local produce. California is a wonderland of ingredients and florals, so I got to use the bounty of Northern California for everything I was making. Living in California, working with farmers, and discovering horticulture really shaped me as a baker and impacted the botanical direction that I’ve found myself in.”
In 2019, Sweeney and her husband moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, based on a desire to raise their daughter surrounded by family. She says, “I have three older sisters that live in Virginia, two that went to UVA, and have lived here pretty much their whole adult lives.” She adds, “We have a three-year-old and we reached a point where we were ready to be closer to family.”
Charlottesville also offered the opportunity to continue with Cake Bloom which she relaunched from her home in April 2020 and like in California, to work with local growers when buying florals and developing flavors for her all-natural offerings. Sweeney explains, “I am a nature girl and I draw from my surroundings for both baking and styling. I don’t do any artificial food coloring or gum paste. I try to keep it as clean and flavor-driven as possible.” She adds, “Right now, to keep things simple, I have three signature flavors that I offer year-round, classic chocolate, rainbow carrot, and a seasonal citrus featuring citrus curds and fresh fruits. But I am looking forward to expanding my menu soon.”
Instead of fondant and edible glitter, Sweeney sources decorative flowers and local ingredients from her friendly farm connections. She says, “One of my sisters is a landscape architect, so she has a network of growers that I have been getting [ingredients] from. I’m getting eggs from one of her clients in Stanardsville and they are growing beets and carrots for me. And when they happen to have edible flowers and herbs, I’ve been using those too.” She expands, “One of my customers mentioned she had a flower farm and reached out. She will probably be one of my primary growers. There is another [customer] that is retired and has a farm, and we trade cake, and he grows stuff for me too.” Her Floral Funfetti features organically grown hibiscus petals, blue cornflower, calendula, and thyme to achieve pops of color throughout the batter, while her Rainbow Carrot cake uses organic tri-color carrots to give it a unique sweetness.
Sweeney counts The Bluebird Barn, Blue Heron Farm, Leap Frog Flower Farm, and Monte Vista Farm, among her “local friends” that she works with when making her cakes.
She also collaborated with Three Notch’d Brewery and Vitae Spirits when developing her Wahoo Stout cake made with Three Notch’d Brewery Jack’s Java Espresso Stout and Vitae Spirits coffee liqueur.
For Sweeney, the community connection goes both ways. Her delicious cakes, desire to highlight local businesses, and helpful sisters have earned Cake Bloom the support of Charlottesville. She shares, “My sisters have huge networks here. So, I armed them with 20 baby cakes, and they dropped them off all around town and with all their friends. And that was the start. I was the new person in town, but news travelled really fast by word of mouth.” She concludes, “Charlottesville has been very supportive, and I’ve learned quickly that it is a small town and that there are a lot of ways to connect and everyone wants to help you out.”
Already well-loved for her cake delivery, Sweeney is in the process of putting together a storefront with a soft opening planned for May. The West Main Street brick and mortar is “100% sister-owned” between Sweeney and her four older sisters and, in addition to cakes, will offer all the celebratory accoutrements. Sweeney says, “It will be owned and primarily operated by women, which I think is really important. And it will be a hybrid of everything I love.” She plans to combine a cake and coffee counter with a retail space that offers “fresh, locally-grown, organic flowers, gifts, cake stands, birthday candles, sparkling wine, along with a cozy sparkling wine bar.” She adds, “The retail space is for exploring all the ways you can celebrate from Mother’s Day, birthdays, or just being with friends.” Sweeney notes that they will open slowly in accordance with COVID-19 restrictions and continue with delivery and curbside pickup until it is safe to have guests inside.
As Sweeney settles into her new Charlottesville storefront, intent on giving her customers what she considers the “essentials of celebration,” her story serves as a reminder that there are still things to celebrate. From the support of the community, a partnership with her sisters, beautiful flowers, and thoughtfully made cakes, Sweeney has plenty to be happy about. And the best part? She is determined to share.