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Allison Joyner

SCAD students work together to help revitalize Sweet Auburn District bakery

Store front of Sweet Auburn Bread Company. Credit: Allison Joyner

By Allison Joyner

The Savannah College of Art Design (SCAD) worked with Sweet Auburn Work’s SPARK Innovation Lab to help a small business get a much-needed refresh.

SCAD’s nonprofit, SCAD SERVE, launched its Design for Good course to use students’ creative abilities to generate elevated communication-centered solutions to make a difference in local communities in Atlanta and Savannah.

Exterior of the Atlanta campus of the Savannah College of Art Design.
Credit: SCAD Atlanta

“We are always conducting research, analyzing data, and bringing insights to help solve challenges in these courses exemplify the design expertise and academic prowess that our students have in what they are learning in our classes and applying it to real-world design challenges that make an impact immediately,” said Dean Ballas, Executive Director of SCAD’s Design for Good.

Last fall, Ballas was approached by Sweet Auburn Historic District preservation firm, Sweet Auburn Works (SAW), to collaborate on a design project that they began working on. 

“Bank of America (BOA) understood our vision and saw the value of investing in retaining Black-owned businesses in historic neighborhoods and provided the capital to help launch this initiative,” said LeJuano Varnell, Executive Director of Sweet Auburn Works. 

In response to BOA’s $1.25 billion five-year commitment to advance racial equality and economic opportunity to minority entrepreneurs, SAW’s Accelerator Fund provides $25,000 grants to local businesses through their SPARK Innovation Lab. The two entities created a program that will use the funding to implement design solutions developed by SCAD students. 

“The Lab is designed to be a bespoke program to meet the needs of all of our entrepreneurs to help them become their best,” said Varnell.

Now that the funding and Design for Good were on board, SAW had the honor of choosing a business to pilot the program. 

“Chef Sonya is an iconic entrepreneur in the Sweet Auburn community,” Varnell said, “and the perfect opportunity to pilot the program.”

The chef, the bakery and the President-approved cheesecake

“I want what the President had,” Sweet Auburn Bread Company owner “Chef” Sonya Jones told SaportaReport. “Right after he left [my rental space], they bombarded my bakery for the sweet potato cheesecake because I’m thinking people [are] going to come for it.”

For almost 25 years, the Sweet Auburn Bread Company has served desserts in what Chef Sonya would call her “small batch from scratch bakery.” The fresh-baked muffins, pies and cakes make you think you’re stepping into your grandmother’s kitchen.

Storefront of Sweet Auburn Bread Company.
Credit: Allison Joyner

Born and raised in Southwest Atlanta, Jones would spend the summers on her grandmother’s Florida farm where she watched her butcher chickens and slop hogs. The time she spent baking with her for large family gatherings ignited her passion for the after-dinner treats. 

After trying out a few jobs in different careers, Jones moved her and her four-year-old son, Windsor, and attended the Culinary School of America. Moving back to her hometown with a culinary degree a few years later, she took a job as an assistant pastry chef at Midtown’s Veni Vedi Vici Restaurant, where she described herself in her cookbook “Sweet Auburn Desserts: Atlanta’s ‘Little Bakery That Could” as a “Black Southern woman hired to make Italian desserts.”

When she became a chef instructor at Atlanta Technical College in 1993, she enjoyed cooking different foods and meals, but she could not get baking out of her system.

“I had the freedom of creativity at the college,” Jones writes in her book, “and that became the spark that led me to understand that I wanted to specialize in desserts.”

Chacterature of President Bill Clinton eating a slice of Chef Sonya’s sweet potato cheesecake.
Credit: Allison Joyner

In the mid-1990s, the Southern food renaissance progressed through the country, and Jones was excited that the type of cooking that is near and dear to her heart was getting its respect. 

“I didn’t understand why Italians could take such great pride in a simple polenta,” wrote Jones, “and yet our grits were looked down upon outside of the South.” 

During this time, Jones decided to rent a space inside the Sweet Auburn Curb Market and sell her delicious desserts. 

When President Bill Clinton paid a visit to the market to promote the progress of his Empowerment Zone government revitalization program, Clinton walked up to her space where she had a slice of a new recipe she had recently created waiting for him. 

“All I could think of that morning was “oh Lord, what am I going to serve him if he comes to my counter,” wrote Jones. 

Jones knew she wanted to serve him something unique but traditional Southern dessert. So the idea came to bake a dessert with the creaminess of a cheesecake and the richness of a Southern pound cake. Adding local sweet potatoes to her cheesecake filling and substituting the usual graham cracker crust with a prebaked pound cake, Jones birthed her signature sweet potato cheesecake. 

“It was a marketing move to serve him something Southern,” said Jones. 

Before allowing the Secret Service to inspect the slice before digging in, Clinton took a bite and immediately gave a thumbs up. He referred to Jones as “the sweet potato cheesecake lady who made me break my diet.”

“He took a couple back on Air Force One with him too,” Jones said.

Her Presidential endorsement gave her instant fame. She made appearances on Food Network and received rave reviews from Oprah and Tyler Perry.

Chef Sonya Jones inside of her Sweet Auburn Bread Company.
Credit: Allison Joyner

Having outgrown the market, she relocated her bakery to a 400-plus square foot unit right in the middle of Auburn Avenue in 2005. However, like many businesses in downtown Atlanta, the shelter-in-place orders that happened at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Jones suffered significant losses in sales and revenue. 

In April of that year, the city opened up farmers’ markets on the weekends, giving her a lifeline for staying in business. 

“My son and I worked the farmer’s markets and it pretty much kept our head above water,” Jones said.

 

Let the creating begin

 

When Ballas began his search for the students participating in this project, he had to take a multidisciplinary approach and recruit them from different concentrations like interior design or advertising and branding.

“This is a great opportunity for SCAD and we’d love to have you on board because we need different kinds of creatives on our team,” photography student Disha Gupta recalled when emailed to join the team. “I was curious so I spoke to my photography chair and I understood what this was all about and I signed up for it.”

“The students worked to develop their brand, their identity, their business plan and the process of [becoming] an entrepreneur helped them to go into Sweet Auburn and make their creative mark,” said Ballas.

Render of proposed interior design for Sweet Auburn Bread Company.
Credit: SCAD

As the photographer of the project, Gupta played a pivotal role on the team. 

“Photography, as part of the rebranding project, was linked in every single aspect of the team,” said Gupta.

“Disha was great,” said Jones as she worked hands-on with her and the other team members. “She took beautiful photos and they spent a lot of time with me.” 

“No wonder her bakery is so famous all over Atlanta,” said Gupta. “The first time we met her, I felt like I’d known her forever. She gave us free cookies and food every time we went down there. That was wonderful.” 

After evaluating Jones’ business, the students came up with a proposal that included their recommendations, including new logos, an interior redesign, a branded delivery van with a tent for posting while participating in weekend farmer’s markets and a social media and website presence. 

Image of Sweet Auburn Bread Company’s Chef Sonya Jones photographed by SCAD student Disha Gupta.
Credit: SCAD

“The crescendo of ten weeks worth of  a lot of sweat, tears, creativity, laughter, cries that’s part of the creative process,” Ballas said, “but through all of this is the ability for our students to know when to lead and also to know when to listen.”

“SCAD has allowed me to work with young professionals who take their consultative engagements with our entrepreneurs with the seriousness and efficacy of any design or consulting business in Atlanta,” Varnell said. 

“I think we learned how to work as a team and how to work in a real-world perspective,” Gupta said, “because we worked with actual clients and actual deadlines.”

“The students surpassed my imagination,” Jones said, “They brought in so much enthusiasm and were immersed in seeing how the business can move forward and they had the best ideas.”

Varnell said the renovations for Sweet Auburn Bread Company would begin before the end of the year to help celebrate their 25th anniversary. Jones’ cookbook can be found at her bakery at 234 Auburn Avenue Northeast or Amazon

 

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