Cheryl Day is making baked goods political
March 11, 2021
Read Time 3 mins
Photo: Amy Dickerson
The James Beard Foundation is committed to supporting women in the food and beverage industry, from chefs and restaurateurs to entrepreneurs dreaming up new ways to make our food system more diverse, delicious, and sustainable. Our Women’s Leadership Programs (WLP), presented by Audi, provide training at multiple stages of an individual’s career. As part of the Foundation’s commitment to advancing women in the industry and the Audi #DriveProgress initiative, we’re sharing stories of trailblazers who have stepped up to help their communities in light of COVID-19, as well as individuals who are putting inclusion and equity at the forefront of building back better. Through #DriveProgress, Audi is committed to cultivating and promoting a culture that enables women to achieve their highest potential by removing barriers to equity, inclusivity, growth, and development.
Below, Rachel Tepper Paley spoke with Cheryl Day of Back in the Day Bakery on how pastry can start a political movement.
Nothing softens a person’s heart quite like a chocolate chip cookie. That’s the thinking of pastry chef Cheryl Day, co-owner of Back In the Day Bakery in Savannah, Georgia, and co-founder of the advocacy coalition Southern Restaurants for Racial Justice (SRRJ). Since its founding last June, SRRJ has coordinated more than a half-dozen bake sales around the South.
“I always say, bakers are the sweetest folks on Earth, because we realize that you can make a difference with a bake sale,” said Day. “It’s a great connector and it gets people talking in a comfortable way, over a brownie or a cupcake or cookie.”
Looking back, Day recognizes that she was always a bit of an activist. Her mother, a social worker for the county of Los Angeles, brought Day to protests and political rallies. “I was that child with the sign,” Day reflected. “I was learning about activism from a young age, and I’ve always been a person to stand up for what I believe in.”
When Day and her husband Griffith opened Back in the Day Bakery two decades ago—in, she notes, “as they say, a ‘transitional’ part of Savannah, basically it was a Black neighborhood”—they didn’t set out to mix politics with business. But as time went on, Day found that caring about her community—helping to raise awareness of Black businesses and helping to financially uplift her neighbors—increasingly felt political, at least by some people’s definitions. “I really don’t think of it as political,” Day said. “I guess technically it is, but I just really feel like it’s being a part of a community and being human.”
Her bakery became a hub for community leaders, Day recalled, their meetings usually fortified by sweets like the shop’s famous pastel-frosted buttercream cupcakes. When the pandemic hit, it forced the shop to close its doors and go on hiatus. But when acts of racial violence rippled through the country last summer and triggered a wave of protests, Day felt drawn to service. So did Day’s friends Lisa Marie Donovan in Nashville and Sarah O’Brien in Atlanta, both fellow Southern pastry chefs. Together, the trio founded Southern Restaurants for Racial Justice.
“I’m the only Black person among the three friends, and they weren’t lost on the fact that it did affect me in a different way,” Day said of the emotional impact of last summer’s events. At first, “I was kind of overwhelmed,” she reflected. “But I just feel it’s so important that if you’re in a position [where] you can make a change, that you do.”
The trio resolved to hold a bake sale. “A lot of folks were reaching out to me saying, ‘What can we do?’ It kind of snowballed,’” Day recalled.
Among them was Anne Quatrano, the James Beard Award-winning chef and restaurateur based in Atlanta, who offered to spearhead a bake sale. Local restaurants and chefs donated items—bagels, cupcakes, cookies, cakes, tarts, rolls, biscuits, and more—which SRRJ boxed up and sold for $5 a pop at Ponce City Market’s Central Food Hall. “Five dollars became $100,000 which blows my mind,” Day said. The money went to racial justice advocacy group Color of Change, which advocates and fights for people in marginalized communities.
Going forward, Day, Donovan, and O’Brien plan to put money raised through SRRJ bake sales toward grants for Black-owned businesses, many of which are struggling as the pandemic rages on. She sees it as her way to pay it forward after receiving a Food and Beverage Industry Emergency Relief Fund grant from the James Beard Foundation; she also now sits on the leadership committee for the JBF Food and Beverage Investment Fund for Black and Indigenous Americans.
“I know firsthand how difficult it is to get the same finances that white businesses are able to get,” Day said. “If [Black] businesses aren’t here, you’re not going to have jobs [in the community], and that affects people of all walks of life.”
“It’s not just ‘raising the bar for Black businesses,’” she continued. “It’s being more equitable and including us in the conversation that we have been almost erased from.”
Rachel Tepper Paley is a writer and editor based in New York City. Her work has appeared in food and travel publications including Bon Appétit, Bloomberg Pursuits, Eater, Travel + Leisure, Conde Nast Traveler, and more. Follow her on Instagram at @thepumpernickel.
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