All in the Family at Brown Betty Bakery
BY CHRISTINA PELLEGRINI
It’s a postcard-worthy scene: Norrinda Brown Hayat and mother Linda Hinton Brown spending countless hours in their kitchen whipping together batches of grandmother Elizabeth “Betty” Hinton’s famous pound cake recipe. The mother-daughter co-owners of the Philadelphia bakery Brown Betty Dessert Boutique have almost single-handedly rekindled Philadelphia’s love for homemade treats with their made-from-scratch cupcakes since the bakery opened in 2004. Eight years later, the family’s floury passion project has yielded a storefront in Center City, an expanded Northern Liberties flagship, and most recently, their first book, The Brown Betty Cookbook, which hit shelves on October 15.
But lest this success story taste too saccharine, Brown and Hayat will be the first to admit they have experienced their fair share of hardships over the years. The biggest challenge: melding business with their personal lives. “Initially it had a really negative impact on our mother-daughter relationship. During those first couple of years, [we were] trying to figure out how to be partners,” Hayat says. “We struggled doing things outside the business together. But I had a son in November, and that has been really good for keeping business separate—even my mom doesn’t want to talk about business when Kingston is around.”
As far as their business dynamic goes, the duo has developed a foolproof formula. Brown is the whiz in the kitchen, creating variations on her mother’s traditional pound cake recipe by adding sour cream and sweet potato. On the other hand, Hayat, a Washington, DC-based attorney by day, is the brains behind the clever marketing campaign that keeps Brown Betty foremost in the minds of its customers. “Using real ingredients, taking your time, using the slow method makes everything taste better,” Hayat admits. “We’ve done what so many bakeries in Philly have always done, but many have closed because they didn’t [embrace] the new environment [in which] you have to brand, Tweet, and [use social media].”
Brown Betty manages the latter well. A quick click on the bakery’s Facebook page reveals sights like a set of adorable swirl-topped cupcakes “aged” with a vintage Polaroid filter courtesy of Instagram. “Norrinda had a vision, which is wonderful,” Brown says. “Her vision continues to grow for Brown Betty, and it’s just beautiful.”
This vision includes the new cookbook, as well as plans to expand the bakery into the trendy, foodie-friendly landscape of Brooklyn, which Hayat compares to Northern Liberties in terms of its accessibility and energy. “We wanted to be able to reach a national audience,” Norrinda says. “We’ve had people write to us over time asking for recipes. If you do a cookbook, it legitimizes [handing] your recipes out. We hope the book will be a launching pad for a lot of other opportunities.”
The book chronicles both the recipes and the rich family history behind them. “What I really like most about the book is Norrinda’s stories—how she recalls my mother and my uncles telling her about the family,” says Brown. “And she was only a little girl. It almost makes me want to cry every time I read it. It’s beautiful. I didn’t know that she could write so well.” In addition to the touching family tales, Brown and Hayat think Philadelphians will be most excited to try their hands at Brown Betty’s secret—until now—red velvet cupcake recipe, a cult favorite.
Even before the cookbook, Brown Betty has received plenty of national press—TLC and the Food Network have both featured the bakery on air, and O, The Oprah Magazine has also shown it some love. But despite her dead-on business instincts, Hayat always looks to her grandmother and bakery namesake, Betty, for inspiration. “She was way ahead of her time. I look back at what I thought to be the norm and appreciate it so much more. She always worked, but she cooked every night, she baked every weekend; she was also in social clubs. It’s something for me to aspire to.”
photography by alison conklin