Looking back, Rowie Reyes and Mike Ramos aren’t surprised they were visited by inspectors from the Skokie Health Department on two different occasions. In two years’ time the couple took a 47-year-old cake recipe Reyes’s mother developed in culinary school in the Philippines and built a thriving underground bakery out of their town house. And business was just too good.
“At one point, there are five cars, all lined up the block,” says Ramos. “And we have a two-car driveway. We’ve got people parking in other driveways. The neighbors don’t know what the hell is going on.”
The couple got off with warnings each time, but the incidents were sobering enough to lend momentum to their search for a licensed space, which they opened this week in an old Chinese takeout joint in Budlong Woods, in far west Rogers Park. Rowie’s Bakery will specialize in chiffon cakes with buttercream frosting, cupcakes, and French macarons in flavors like ube, buco pandan, green tea, and mango.
This won’t be the first bakery to marry Filipino flavors with European pastry technique, and it isn’t first to get its start in a home kitchen. Two iconic Filipino bakeries, Goldilocks and Red Ribbon Bakeshop, both started decades ago as home-based businesses that grew into giant corporate chains, with hundreds of outlets in the Philippines, the U.S., and Canada.
Filipino-style bakery cakes have a lighter profile of their own. “Other cakes tend to be a little firmer,” says Ramos. Filipino “buttercream is also not as rich as some of the standard buttercreams that are out there. So together it’s the combination of the light buttercream and the softness and fluffiness of the cake.”
In 1964 Reyes’s mother, Corazon, came up with a recipe for a fluffy orange chiffon cake frosted with pineapple- and cherry-studded icing to complete her pastry degree from Le Cordon Blue Manille. She named the flavor “Rosemary”—not for the herb but for a popular baby name of the day. Lighter and less sweet than a typical European-style cake, it required a sustained amount of gentle manual folding to achieve its particular sponge. After graduating she opened a small neighborhood bakery with help of her brother Armando, adding a mocha variety to her repertoire, a flavor particularly popular in the Philippines.
She closed the bakery years before her daughter was born, but in 1971 Armando emigrated to Chicago, bringing the recipes with him. At first, he brought the cakes to parties and gave them away as as gifts, but word spread. At the age of ten Reyes followed him to the U.S., joining him and her aunt in their Lake Shore Drive high-rise, and helping after school with an increasingly active home business.
“What he started doing was on the side—he had a full-time job—on the weekend,” she says. “He started taking money for it because it became a lot of people just asking for favors. But it was kind of getting out of control, like every weekend there was somebody that would want it for their party. Every weekend we would always be bringing those cakes to somebody’s house. And it was like $15, for a big cake.”
In part due to his thrift—he cut his own cardboard cake boxes and refused to hire help—he was eventually able to quit his job and make cakes full-time in the basement of the home he later moved to. By then he’d built a large customer base in the Filipino health-care community. “A bunch of nurses would want to order at the same time,” Reyes says. “So what they would sometimes do is drive by the house with one car, but all of them are together, so they can all be lined up and pick up their cakes. This one Filipino doctor, every Christmas, he’ll order 30 to 50 cakes.”
Reyes stopped helping her uncle when she moved out of the house, and he carries on today, though he’s nearing retirement. But ten years later, after she’d started her own career as a health-care data analyst, married Ramos, and had a son, she too began making cakes for friends and coworkers. Soon she was fielding too many of her own requests and would try refer them to her uncle.”He wasn’t into that because it was younger people, so he was like ‘No, no, enough about the cakes. I can’t even handle the ones I have now.'”
Three years ago, when Ramos lost his job as a financial analyst, the couple decided to pick up some extra income from the business Uncle Armando was turning away. At first they asked him if he wanted to throw in together but he turned them down too, so they put up a website, rowiesbakery.com, and began slipping business cards into the cake boxes of their initial orders. Business grew hectic quickly. They installed a second oven in their basement, and hired newly minted professional pastry chefs at $9 an hour to help Ramos decorate the cakes that Reyes baked in the evening after work. Meanwhile Ramos taught himself to decorate with fondant and they began making custom Hello Kitty, Betty Boop, and SpongeBob cakes.
“When I was in the office eight hours I was drained,” Reyes says. “But when I got home, I baked. I always told them, ‘Leave me alone in the kitchen,’ because it was like a therapy.” She began developing a line of flavors that included the Barney-colored ube, made from sweetened purple yam, and a bright green variety made with coconut and fragrant pandan leaf extract, straight out of “MacArthur Park.”
“Last year there was a lady that ordered three cakes, and she cut them up, brought them back to Florida for her family party,” says Reyes. “They’ve made it to Canada. They’ve made it to Hawaii.”
“I get weird e-mails asking to buy them from Singapore,” says Ramos.
Soon they had more orders than they could handle. “It was like the money we could be making from all the turned-down orders was actually probably more than what we were making,” says Reyes. At one point the bank froze some $10,000 in savings because Ramos deposited a few checks made out to “Rowie’s Bakery” into their personal account. “I couldn’t pay my bills for a month and half,” he says. They promptly opened a proper business account.
Reyes was at work when the health inspectors came last fall and told Ramos to knock it off—they figure one of the neighbors reported them. For a time they moved their operation to a shared kitchen in Evanston, but the arrangement was neither cost-effective nor time-efficient, so Reyes stopped taking all but a few orders from longtime regulars, even though demand kept building. Eventually the lost income was just too much to bear and “we felt kind of empty refusing all these orders,” says Ramos. Slowly they started growing the business again, and by January they were back up to full speed. It only took a month for the inspectors to return. Scared straight by the second warning, they began actively looking for a legitmate space.
In June they signed a lease on the onetime home of the late How Lee Chop Suey. They passed their health inspection two weeks ago and last Saturday held an open house, giving away hundreds of free cupcakes. This Thursday they opened their doors officially, offering Reyes’s full lineup of 13 cake and nine cupcake flavors, including strawberry milk shake, red velvet, almond-peach, peppermint candy, and good old chocolate. Gradually they plan to add cheesecakes to the mix and Filipino specialties such as the Spanish-influenced meringue and custard confection canonigo. And they’re still innovating: after hundreds of failed batches, Ramos taught himself to make quality pistachio and ube French macarons, and plans to develop more flavors.
They’re relieved to finally go legit, but since neither has had any professional pastry training it’s hard to regret their outlaw past. “You can come up with products in one of two ways,” says Ramos. “You can train for it, which is what a lot of people do, or you can bust your ass and be creative and innovate in your own kitchen. And that’s kind of our situation.”