“If I had known you were going to take my picture, I would have done my hair!” laughs Ebony Spencer as she walks through the Providence Culinary Training kitchen at Second Harvest.
In fact, she looks great. Ebony is intuitively adept at marketing, and presentation is her game. She flips through photos of cakes and cupcakes saved on her phone: they are creative, and sometimes over-the-top, designs, flawlessly executed.
Ebony pats her hair to make sure it is in place. “I don’t look like half of what I’ve been through,” she says.
It’s true. Ebony has experienced her share of hard knocks, and some pure injustices. Raised by her grandmother here in Winston-Salem, Ebony was young when she lost her son in 2012. She’s been hit by two different drunk drivers within a month of each other, has worked fast-food jobs to scrape together a living as a single mother, and can’t count how many times she has lost everything. On top of it all, she has scoliosis. “It was supposed to keep me from standing or even doing what I do now. But I never wanted to be handicapped. I always wanted to do it on my own.”
And so she did.
Sweet Guilty Pleasures
As a young girl, Ebony watched her grandmother bake pound cakes, layer cakes, and scratch cookies for her church. Standing on a chair in her grandmother’s kitchen, she didn’t know then what these lessons would become. “My grandmother has always been the one person in my corner. I should have known she was showing me all that for a reason.”
A cake by Sweet Guilty Pleasures
After her second son was born, Ebony found her wages at a local fast food restaurant not enough to cover even the most basic of bills. She started to make cakes like her grandmother did. She found that when she was short on money for a bill, she could sell a cake and be okay again. “Sell a cake and things can be fine. I can make that bill. It was great. Then I thought, ‘Hey, I could do this all the time.’”
“I started by walking from business to business trying to sell my cakes. I would make cupcakes and package them beautifully and walk to nail shops and barbershops to sell them. You know, where people can’t move much,” she laughs, thinking of her captive audience.
“But it worked. I would stay up all night making these cakes so I could sell them during the day.”
Eventually, Ebony grew her business, Sweet Guilty Pleasures, enough to get a booth in Cook’s Flea Market. “I was set up there for three years. It was hard and I got ready to give up, but then Love Church picked me for a Black-Owned Business award– I got a check for $500 and they helped to promote me.”
This money and the vote of confidence buttressed Ebony for a while, but when her grandmother died, her typical trademark energetic and cavalier attitude was shaken. “I was devastated. Not coherent. I knew, however, that I couldn’t be. I had to keep going.”
And so she did. Her brother, Anthony, gave her a Providence Culinary Training brochure.
“You do all this and you haven’t been in anyone’s class,” he said. “What if you go to school?”
“He said to me that he doesn’t believe in chance and that everything happens for a reason.”
So she applied.
Providence Culinary Training
Ebony always knew she wanted to work for herself, so school wasn’t easy. “I’m a little hardheaded because of how I run my kitchen at home. I wanted to quit this program so many times, but Chef Janis wouldn’t let me go.”
Ebony as a student in the PCT Classrooms at Second Harvest
“When I first got [to PCT], a lot of days I hadn’t gotten sleep. I was there in class from 8 to 3. I would get home and be mom for the evening, and then I would bake all night.” Right after starting the PCT program, Ebony got sick and forgot to call in. Chef Janis Karathanas, Providence’s Director of Culinary Education, insisted on the rules of the program, but also insisted that Ebony try again. She started with a new class and by the time she graduated her classmates had voted for her to receive the Most Outstanding Student award for her leadership in the kitchen.
Ebony, like many PCT students, came to the program with an entire background and a significant skill set. But the procedure and formality of an educational setting helped her fine-tune her culinary skills and assured her that she has what it takes to bring her business to the next level. While Providence Culinary Training offers graduates internships and job placement in many local restaurants, including Second Harvest’s own Providence Restaurant and Providence Kitchen, through the program Ebony grew even more certain that she wanted her own business.
“I have broke my neck to not become a statistic. I want to leave my children something.”
Fresh Starts & Full Plates
Ebony and Chef Bacon at her graduation
Ebony Spencer joins a growing number of Providence Culinary Training graduates who are launching their own culinary businesses. PCT students not only learn the hard skills of a kitchen, but the program also opens opportunity in the form of connections that students may not have otherwise had. That is certainly the case for Sweet Guilty Pleasures, as Ebony has found herself getting more and more orders from beyond the communities she knows and in which she lives. “Now I’m nervous,” she laughs, “because all these opportunities are flowing over!”
Ebony says she is nervous about making the perfect cakes for the gala, but she doesn’t seem so. She has a cool, comfortable, laid back confidence. “I don’t know,” she says, smoothing her hair again. “I’m just not used to things happening for me, so when it does, it’s hard to know what to do with it.”
But we know that she knows exactly what to do.