I can rattle off the names of the ones that I remember: Pi Cappuccino, Cantata Cafe, the Supreme Bean, Crave Cafe, Javanaut. Each of them, no matter how short-lived, had a distinctive personality. But Mud Pie was a completely new incarnation: a casual and utterly un-corporate coffee and snack shop (as different from the Starbucks right down the street as Rooney Mara is from, say, Callista Gingrich) that served both vegan and gluten-free pastries. It was a unique niche for any bakery in the city, but could it support Hughes and the Valverde family (daughter Ella was 18 months old when her parents and grandmother opened the business)?
The answer has been a resounding yes.
There's been a learning curve, of course. The first big lesson was that Michael was a little too ambitious when he set the hours for the coffeehouse. "When we opened," Ashley says, "Michael was here serving coffee drinks from 5:30 a.m. to 11 p.m." The long hours took their toll on all of the Valverdes, and two months later, the hours were rolled back to a more manageable schedule: 7 a.m.-8 p.m. during the week, 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturdays and 8 a.m.-7 p.m. Sundays.
"We also had no idea,"Sharon Hughes says, "how much demand we would have for special-order cakes. We do dairy-free cakes, gluten-free cakes, nut-free cakes, sugar-free cakes, and cakes for any other kind of allergy issue. We have customers who suffer from multiple allergies, too. It forces us to be very creative."
But the creativity has been both a challenge and a delight for Hughes, who now has a new outlet for her interest in the visual arts. "We're getting more and more requests for wedding cakes," Ashley Valverde says, "and my mother has created some outstanding designs."
But the day-to-day needs of the bakery make up the primary focus for Ashley and her mother. "I usually come in at 4 a.m. to start baking," Hughes says. "If I come in later and the bakery case looks empty, I start mixing up batter." There's almost always a spicy crumb coffee cake available in the mornings (it sells out quickly) and an array of muffins, cookies, cupcakes — including a fudgy vegan cupcake that looks amazingly similar to the most famous commercial snack cupcake in America. I'm not mentioning any names. When Mud Pie opened a year ago, Hughes and Ashley were making a gluten-free dessert only on Wednesdays. Now they offer one or two gluten-free treats every day.
"We still have a lot of dreams for this place," Ashley Valverde says. "We've experimented with lunch items and soups, but that still requires a bigger staff than we have right now. We would like to improve our morning business, though, so we've been experimenting with vegan biscuits and gravy."
Ashley Valverde's cheddar and sausage scone — made with soy cheddar and a spicy gluten product that can effectively pass as "sausage" — is one of this venue's most popular morning pastries.
"Some people order it and don't even understand it's a vegan version," Ashley says. "We've discovered that most of our walk-in customers are not vegans or vegetarians."
But the coffee drinkers pick up the cues quickly. No milk or cream is served at Mud Pie, only almond, soy, coconut, hemp, rice or cashew milk. The almond milk has been picking up a lot of new fans since soy has been getting a bad rap for its alleged role in encouraging growth in cancer cells.
The Mud Pie owners also say their coffee business — they serve local Oddly Correct coffee — seems to pick up in the late mornings and afternoons (except Saturday, which is busy all day), even though the pastry-case offerings sell out as the day goes on.
"Later in the day, we get people who like to get comfortable in a chair and read or study," Hughes says. "And that was the idea from the beginning. This place feels like a home because it used to be one."