WBU grads keeping kitchen warm with baking success

June 16, 2011

PLAINVIEW – Years ago when she first enrolled at Wayland Baptist University, Alexis Hall had visions of opera halls and grand stages, not sifters and mixers.

But today, just a few weeks after she earned her Bachelor of Music degree from WBU, Hall finds herself surrounded more by bowls and beaters than by pianos. A talented vocalist, the Lockney native is the daughter of WBU Executive Vice President Dr. Bobby Hall and wife Laurie, a home health nurse. And while she enjoyed her musical training, she learned she really didn’t want to make a career in the cut-throat opera industry.

Luckily for her, a few sweeter options came along. One is the children’s minister at First United Methodist Church in Plainview. Another is as the center director of the Music Together center in Plainview. The other is as one-half of the cupcake divas at the Broadway Brew.

Hall and fellow WBU graduate Jessica Young, who earned a religion degree in December 2008 and then served on the mission field for a year, are the primary creative minds behind the baking side of “the Brew,” as the downtown Plainview coffee shop is known.

Hall has worked for the local hangout since January 2010, and she was approached about doing some baking during her interview. She was excited to add that to her job description shortly after she was hired, and the process started small.

At first we had a few baked items but only the scones were homemade,” Hall recalls. “Sometimes David (Splawn, owner) would come in and say, ‘Let’s make brownies’ and we started realizing that the baked stuff would sell really well.”

In those early days, Hall would turn out muffins, scones and cookies, later adding homemade granola to the mix. Stacey Splawn, David’s wife and the shop’s co-owner, was her kitchen helper at the time.

“We were planning for the future, and we talked about cakes, but I had my doubts,” she said. “I thought with the cupcake craze going on, those might be better.”

She began making simple cupcakes from a white cake recipe found online, tweaking it from time to time to perfect the taste. At first, the varieties were plentiful, but that got to be too much.

“We started doing cupcakes in June (2010) and we made six flavors to begin with and would do all six every day,” she said. “That lasted about three weeks because people would get bored.”

Eventually, Hall decided to narrow the field to a “flavor of the day” and she’d change it up regularly just to keep folks on their toes. Some days the flavor choices were made when the girls arrived at the shop for their early morning shift around 5:45 a.m. Now, though, they make a weekly plan for flavor offerings.

Shortly after the baking began to take off in late summer, the Splawns let Young, who had worked at the shop for a while already, step into the kitchen and work with Hall. The duo began experimenting with flavors and original creations, working through trial and error most of the time. They also tried new combinations and other ideas to build up their baking empire. It worked.

The Brew has a following on Facebook, and Hall and Young keep up a blog tracking their flavor creations and adventures in baking. They post the cupcake of the day online and patrons keep up with their favorites.

But Hall believes the secret to their popularity has simply been the taste.

“We don’t cut corners; we do it all homemade and use natural ingredients,” Hall said. “Our cupcakes aren’t really frou-frou; they’re just simple flavors that people like to eat. We’ve tried to keep our offerings to things you’d make at home.”

“We’ve kept our standards high and we push ourselves to do better every time,” Young added. “But we have to work around each other’s schedules and share the kitchen.”

That has been a challenge, as the small kitchen space at The Brew doesn’t lend itself to large productions. But as the girls have added catering of weddings and parties to their offerings, they’ve had to rely on their organizational skills and patience levels to get through creative situations.

Young said the entire scenario was a stretch outside her comfort zone in the beginning.

“I was pretty much a cooking disaster before this and would do really ridiculous things in the kitchen,” she laughs. “I never cook or bake at home, but I love this job. I never in a million years would have thought I’d be doing this.”

Hall echoes the sentiment of surprise.

“I always wanted to go to culinary school, but I put that to the side. I had no idea I’d be doing this,” she said. “Stacey and David are great to work for; they let us be creative and they trust us.”

That’s been important as they’ve plowed through some uncharted territory in the cupcake flavor world. A few creations have been big hits – banana pudding, peanut butter cup, key lime pie and tiramisu, inspired by dinner at an Italian restaurant – but others have been a learning experience.

“We tried to make a chai cupcake once but it did not work,” Hall laughs. “It tasted like cardboard.”

Back in March, the pair issued a cupcake challenge to themselves and created a special week’s worth of flavors inspired by Girl Scout cookies which were being sold at the time. The result were unique creations based on cookie classics like Thin Mints, Tagalongs and Samoas, which was a vanilla cupcake filled with fresh caramel, frosted with chocolate ganache and toasted coconut, all topped with a vanilla shortbread cookie.

Hall said future plans are to expand the baked items offered at the store, which is still trying to move past the reputation of being just a coffee shop. The Brew offers sandwiches, salads and soups at lunch and during that time, the small kitchen was getting pretty tight with three people working. So at the end of May, the crew knocked out part of a wall to make room for a larger, renovated kitchen for the workers.

While customers tend to have their own favorites, even the bakers admit to being partial to some flavors. Hall said she really loves the “enjoy” cupcake, a basic white with chocolate buttercream frosting, but she also loves the bright yellow lemon cakes. Young said lemon is her favorite, with birthday cake as a close second.

With creative minds and vision, along with the fact that they get along and are good friends, both Hall and Young are excited to see what sweet rewards the future at the Brew holds for them. Their dream would be to appear on the TV show "Cupcake Wars."