Feature: LEE Graduate Niallah Cooper-Scruggs

2019 LEE Graduate Niallah Cooper-Scruggs

Learning Through Cupcakes: Baker Hopes to Spread Kitchen Knowledge

MAY 27, 2020, SEATTLE

BY JASPER NIGHTHAWK, Common Thread, Antioch University Seattle News

“I think I’ve always just loved making cupcakes for people,” says Niallah Cooper-Scruggs, a graduate student at Antioch University Seattle. This love began the day her mom taught her how to make her first batch, topped with a sweet and tangy cream cheese frosting that was just right – not too runny, just stiff enough. She perfected this in high school when she made it her tradition to bring cupcakes in for friends’ birthdays. As an adult, she kept making them, and this love deepened. “They’re cool little bite treats that can be full of tons of flavor,” she says, and she came to “love using the local ingredients here in the Pacific Northwest.” So it was natural that when, in the fall of 2018, Cooper-Scruggs decided to stop working in professional kitchens and open her own bakery, she decided to focus her menu around this simple delight – the cupcake.

Keeping things relatively simple was smart because – in addition to opening her first business – she had recently begun studying for a Masters of Education program at Antioch Seattle. “It was actually kind of hard,” she says. “I was constantly juggling baking during the nighttime, and then I would have class during the day.”

She thought business would be slow at first, but her cupcakes were quickly a hit. Working out of a shared industrial kitchen belonging to a senior center, she developed distinctive offerings. There was the Gold Digga, a chocolate cupcake soaked in Irish cream with salted caramel frosting. The Queen Bee topped a lemonade cupcake with lavender-rosemary lemon curd. Experimentation showed that seasonal flavors were big sellers, so Cooper-Scruggs found local sources for pumpkin, apples, pineapple, sage, and mint.

As she became an empowered part of the Seattle food world – exploring shared kitchens, local farms, coffee shops, and farmer’s markets – it tied directly into her studies. When she chose to study at Antioch, Cooper-Scruggs had been excited for its Leadership in Edible Education certificate program. And it was through this program that her two worlds came together. Every week around a table laden with delicious food, she and her classmates “discussed things like food systems and problems within our food system today, we talked about food in schools and how there need to be changes in nutrition and food education in general.”

These conversations tied in with field trips, and sometimes the topics would mirror the decisions she was having to make with her bakery. “It was amazing. We went to farmer’s markets, we went to grocery stores, we would ask each other which was the best as far as food quality and food resources.”

Cooper-Scruggs made the choice to source most of the fresh ingredients for her cupcakes from a farm called Nurturing Roots. She had met the farm’s founder and director, Nyema Clark, at an all-women’s event some years before, and she knew she wanted to work with her if she started her own business. Now that she had started Sugar Queen, Nurturing Roots became her main purveyor for everything from apples and raspberries to carrots and lots of herbs. This made her cupcakes even better, but at the same time it served Cooper-Scruggs’s value of giving back to her community “by supporting local people-of-color owned businesses and farms.”

A Foodie Family

Cooper-Scruggs’s love of food goes back to her childhood. “We always gathered around food, we always ate together every night for dinner, so it was just a big thing for us in our family,” she says. Her mom loved cooking at home, her grandfather had been a professional cook, and her aunt owned her own restaurant. “I like to say that cooking and food was just a part of our family culture.”

As she grew older, she came to cherish those memories of gathering around her family dinner table. “You can remember those conversations and the things you all laughed about with a really great meal.” When it was time to get a job, it was natural to begin working in professional kitchens. One job had her working at a farm and resort where she taught kids how to cook and showed them different techniques. That was the first anyone suggested she might have a future as a food educator. “One of my chefs was like, ‘You’re really good at this. You should become a teacher.’ I was like, ‘Alright, okay.’ But I was [thinking], I’ll never be a teacher. This is not true.” Then at another job she ended up teaching food skills again, and she started to realize, You know what, I really like this. So it began to crystallize in her head that if she went back to school, that might be what she studied.

However, it took an unpleasant working environment to push her to the point of starting her own business and actually enrolling in graduate school. She was working in a restaurant where “They hired me on for a position and then they changed my position and then they changed it again.” That was hard, but even worse, they constantly questioned her abilities, making comments like “Are you sure you’re able to do this? Are you capable?” It was unpleasant enough that eventually it pushed her to a realization: “You know what? I’m going to do my own thing. I think it’s time for me to start my own business and try and see if I can be successful at that. And I did it also with school.”

In retrospect, she isn’t upset that she did that work, as unpleasant as it could be. “Now looking back, I see why I had to do that—just so I could learn more skills and go through all these restaurants and learn the skills so I could start my own business eventually. So I don’t regret it at all.” Making the leap into starting her own business has been, by all accounts, a wonderful experience. “Sometimes, it seems surreal that God has provided me with a business I love,” she says, “but I am constantly reminded that dreams can come true and they are possible.”

Big Plans and Uncertainty

Sugar Queen Bakery has been on hiatus since December, when Cooper-Scruggs took a sabbatical to focus on finishing graduate school. The plan was always for her to re-open the bakery after she graduates in June. She would take Sugar Queen to farmer’s markets, re-open accounts with coffee shops, and try to land more wedding cake and cupcake jobs. The dream is for Sugar Queen to eventually have its own storefront where regulars can drop by in person—and where she could have a kitchen set up just to her own specifications.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has put all of those plans on hold. Cooper-Scruggs is grateful that by chance she was already taking a break—so it didn’t force her into an unexpected closure—but it is putting serious roadblocks in the path toward re-opening. It doesn’t seem like the senior center where she was renting shared kitchen space will be in any hurry to allow outside chefs to rent space again. It’s a period of uncertainty for Sugar Queen Bakery.

In the longer-run, Cooper-Scruggs seems well-positioned to thrive and continue making an impact on her community. Getting her degree in education has made her even more passionate about sharing her love of food. “I believe that I can combine both my skills as a cook and baker, and use them to teach others how to create healthy meals and desserts,” she says. “My hope is to have Sugar Queen Bakery as my business, while using teaching to give back to the community.”