Changing Chesapeake: Baking Cakes

Brian Murphy and his employees started a multimillion-dollar baking company in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, hoping it would bring tourism and jobs to an island struggling to survive. But it’s been a tough sell.

Karen Coulbourne makes it look so easy when she plops on just the right amount of icing, spreading layer after layer to create the iconic Smith Island cake.

“It’s relaxing,” she said. “I just love making them.”

Karen grew up on Smith Island, a remote community of about 200 people living on the last inhabited island in Maryland not connected by a bridge.

“It’s all family,” she explained. “I would not change it for the world. It is the most awesome place to me.”

She said there’s no crime, no police department and no government in the community where everyone knows everybody, and every woman knows how to carefully stack as many as ten layers of yellow cake between gooey frosting using recipes passed on since the 1800s.

“I stood under my grandma’s apron,” to learn how to make her version of the cake, Karen said.

Murphy is not from Smith Island.

The former commodities trader grew up on the Eastern Shore about 50 miles away and said he was visiting the island as a tourist when he had his first bite of Maryland's official state cake. "I ate a cake and I said, ‘Wouldn't it be fun to start a business in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay?’"

Murphy originally set up shop on the island in 2009, creating taller cakes to satisfy out-of-state customers paying $55 per creation.

But he said the reality of shipping ingredients by boat finally caught up with him when he started to become a victim of his own success. "The roof was leaking, the power wasn't reliable, the phone doesn't work and the ferry sometimes isn't realiable because of weather. And you're moving tens of thousands of pounds of butter and milk."

When he could no longer get enough dry ice to the island to ship all his cakes, Murphy moved into a former seafood restaurant back on the mainland in Crisfield.

He said he offered to pay to ferry all of his employees from Smith Island to Crisfield. It’s a 45-minute ride each way.

“The offer still stands,” he said. “Any employees that want to come over, I will pay their ferry to and from."

But no one took him up on the offer.

Except for Coulbourne and her sister Donna Smith, who decided to follow the company and live full-time in Crisfield.

“It was kind of hard for me to make a living in the winter time, so I moved over here," Coulbourne explained. "If I could have found a job over the winter months, I would still be there. I would never have moved."

The sisters are now busier than ever.

Even though Murphy just purchased high-tech machines to grease, flour and pour out just the right amount of batter, the icing and stacking are still done the old fashioned way.

"On average, we probably do around 300” cakes a day, Coulbourne said. “Sometimes more around the holidays, it might be 400 to 450."

But Murphy said they can do even more, the only thing holding them back is space. “We could do ten, twenty thousand cakes at Christmas if we could actually have a building."

After three years securing financing, Murphy is now transforming a former grocery store into a state of the art cake factory in Crisfield.

When asked about how his relationship with folks still living on the island, he said, "There are still some that are very skeptical. But I always say you can't fake showing up. When I put a million dollars in this building, they see that."

Murphy said he hopes tourists from the D.C. region will drive the three hours to Crisfield to visit his new factory, where they can “see their food being made.”

He plans to offer discounted ferry tickets back to where it all started. “People will start saying, 'Wow, Smith Island is a really cool place to go.' Maybe they should buy a second home there or go fishing there or spend time, and that's how you really build an economy."

The centerpiece of his vision? A giant glass window at the front of the factory, with Karen Coulbourne and Donna Smith sitting up front, showing everyone what it takes to frost Maryland’s most famous cake.

Reported by Tisha Thompson, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Jeff Piper.

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