Sugar, sugar

By Joe Torok

Gourmet bakery sings sweet tune in bitter times

Cupcakes are recession proof, right? Thats what Derek Makhoul, owner and head pastry chef of Sugar Shack, is banking on after opening his mini-gourmet bakery in Lansing Township last month in the former home of Bell’s Greek Pizza West.

For 16 years, Makhoul got a taste of the good life as a personal chef to the stars, cooking for such high wattage figures as Brad Pitt, Salma Hayek and a couple of the Baldwin brothers. But living out of a suitcase for more than a decade can take its toll, so the DeWitt native decided to leave the hustle and bustle of New York and get back to his Mid-Michigan roots. He missed his family, but Makhoul also wanted to contribute to his community. "I was looking for something to better the Lansing economy, because I know its tough times around here — try to put a smile on every bodys faces,” he said.

A certified chef and pastry chef, Makhoul sees artistic merit in his work, using the colors and flavors of his kitchen canvas to bake his confectionary creations until 3 a.m. each day. His little cake-baking shop will even deliver smiles and tasty treats to your home for an additional $2 if your order is for $5 or more. "Its all creative," Makhoul said. "Everyone eats with their eyes first, and then they taste with their mouth. So if it looks good and tastes good, youve hit a home run."

Cupcakes are king at Sugar Shack, and most aren’t the typical palm-sized sweets you can cook at home in a pan of 12. The stars of Makhouls shop fill your whole hand, extra large cupcakes ($3.25) that come in a rainbow of colors and array of flavors. A rotation of more than a dozen different cupcake and frosting flavors keeps the daily special menu fresh, with a couple of options available for takeout every day. Stop in for red velvet or triple chocolate on Sunday. On Wednesday and Thursday youll find the caramel apple, key lime coconut and malted milk ball cupcakes.

The peanut butter and jelly, made with peanut butter cake and an upwardspiraling mound of peanut butter frosting topped with a dollop of jelly, calls out from the small display case. Kids are drawn to the Sugar Shack cupcake, made with white cake and frosted with an eye-catching teal frosting, speckled with multi-colored sprinkles on top. Red velvet with cream cheese frosting and lemon meringue are popular sellers. The salted caramel also sells well, combining sweet and savory elements by adding sea salt into the cake, which is then topped with a caramel frosting and dusted lightly with a touch more salt. "Its like a chocolate-covered pretzel," Makhoul said.

Regular size chocolate and vanilla cupcakes ($1.25) are also sold individually, as well as custom-topped brownies. With eyes the size of saucers, the kid-at-heart can dress thick, rich squares of brownie ($2), made fresh daily, with any number of fixings ($0.45 each), including ice cream, mint, chocolate chips or just pretty sprinkles.

Makhoul also sells an enormous birthday cupcake the size of a volleyball that feeds 15 people, decorated to the hearts content. Colossal ($2) and regular ($1) cookies can be enjoyed all by themselves, or a pair can be teamed up to make a warm ice cream sandwich. Cookie flavors include maple pecan, margarita, cappuccino, Hawaiian (with pineapple), fudge nut brownie and white chocolate macadamia nut, to name a few.

Pies are coming in October, along with an employee Halloween contest; customers will vote for their favorite scary-yetyummy design, and the winner will be featured throughout the month. Makhoul said an Oct. 10 grand opening celebration would feature free cookies and "crazy specials.”

"I love to see people, when they come in, put a smile on their face with a cookie or cupcakes," Makhoul said. "This stuff makes people happy; its comfort food."

And its extra fun watching kids make their first visit. "Kids get big eyeballs and they say I want that mom, I want that, that, that," Makhoul said. "They go outside and get chocolate all over their face. Its so much fun."

Sugar Shack, 2315 E. Grand River Ave., Lansing. Hours: 11 a.m. – 2:30 a.m. daily. (517) 316-2009.