FORT KENT, Maine — If the adage, “Life is short, eat dessert first,” is to be believed, little time should be wasted in checking out what Samantha Berry is cooking up at her newly opened Custom Cake Cafe.
It’s not all about cakes — which quite frankly alone are worth a visit. Berry’s 142 West Main St. bakery also offers cookies, pies, pastries, scones, muffins, brownies and confections along with breakfast quiche, daily lunch specials, soups and salads.
Just don’t ask for doughnuts.
“So many people come in looking for doughnuts,” Barry, said with a laugh. “I wanted to do something different [and] desserts are sinful enough without being deep fried.”
Instead, the 30-year-old is up and hard at work by 3:30 a.m. daily preparing fresh baked goodies from scratch.
A native of Fort Kent, Berry’s family moved to Berwick when she was just 3-years-old, but those family connections remained strong over the years.
“I’m part of the Boucher family here in Fort Kent,” she said. “That family is just too wonderful to not have a huge impact on my life.”
Before returning to the St. John Valley, Berry, her husband, Robert, and their two small children were living in Swampscott, Mass., where Robert Berry operated a successful arborist business.
“My husband fell in love with Fort Kent,” Berry said. “We would come and visit and then fight all the way home because he did not want to leave.”
Last year, when Robert Berry was on the verge of selling his business, Berry said she decided to call her husband’s bluff and suggested the family pick up and move north.
Berry had better never play high-stakes poker with her husband.
“Within two weeks JR Boucher came down with eight flatbed trailers and moved us up to Fort Kent,” she said. “Even though I never lived here growing up, this is home for me, and this was coming home.”
Once in The County, Berry, a longtime cook and baker, began quietly making wedding cakes on request for friends. Soon she was making them for friends of friends and then complete strangers began clamoring for her distinctive cakes.
After making 28 wedding cakes and 50 specialty cakes, it became apparent she was on to something so Berry began looking for a place to set up shop. This summer she moved into the vacant Main Street storefront where she completed the bulk of the necessary renovations on her own.
She opened her doors on Nov. 6, hoping for the best.
“I was not at all prepared for the response and how busy we were right off the bat,” she said. “It’s exciting and exhilarating to know people are waiting for food you have prepared.”
How busy is Berry?
Last week, before leaving to take her children to school, she filled the display case with a selection of muffins, turnovers and breakfast quiches.
“When I got back, the case had sold out,” she said. “We bake to keep up because our items have a short shelf life with no preservatives and we want everything to taste fresh.”
During a recent lunch hour the line stretched out the door and a woman at its head agonized over the quiche selection.
“Do you have any of the cheese and spinach quiche left?” she asked. “No? Any ham? No? Okay, I’ll have a whoopee pie.”
The recipes are based on years of family dining, research and kitchen trial and error.
“Unfortunately, people are subject to my palate,” Berry said. “That’s why you won’t ever see anything made with cherry filling in here.”
When it comes to what comes out of her kitchen, Berry refuses to compromise.
“I will not compromise on quality ever; I set the bar for what I do a little bit higher,” she said. “The response to our homemade baked goods has been astonishing [and] it’s nice to have people looking forward to something as a treat.”
While everything Berry offers appeals to her already loyal customers, there are several standouts.
“The gingerbread muffins with cream cheese filling are the most popular,” she said. “We almost can’t keep up and bake at least six batches a day.”
None of this surprises her mother, Murielle Jacques, who was visiting from Berwick last week to give her daughter a hand during the holiday.
“She never does anything halfway,” Jacques said as she readied a batch of blueberry muffins for the oven. “She’s always done whatever she sets her mind to full force.”
Berry is busy enough to employ one full-time and two part-time workers.
“I ended up working here through a twist of fate,” employee Ruth Roy said. “My husband, Mark, owns a garage and was working on Sam’s car and when he learned she was opening a bakery, he suggested we meet.”
Ruth Roy, a longtime baker and cook, and Berry instantly hit it off.
“She’s such a great person,” Berry said of Roy. “She strives for perfection [and] I can’t do it all alone, and it’s so nice to have someone like Ruth who cares as much about the product as I do.”
For the Roys, there may have been a bit more than a twist of fate leading Ruth to the bakery.
Custom Cake Cafe is located in the same building where Mark Roy’s late brother, Dr. Ken Roy, and his wife, Donna, for years operated their optometry practice.
“I had no idea this is where Sam was opening her business when I offered to drive her while we were working on her car,” Mark Roy said during his early morning coffee run last week. “I think this is just awesome.”
Chicken salad and tuna salad sandwiches always are available with lunch specials varying from day to day.
Berry said she likes to mix a bit of traditional St. John Valley fare with different culinary options.
Recently she offered spinach bisque but paired it with Chinese pie, a popular local dish of ground meat, corn and mashed potatoes.
“People are surprisingly willing to try something out of the ordinary,” Berry said. “You can always come in here and see something different.
This week, for example, Berry was offering roasted pears with a white chocolate sauce.
“I like pears and it’s the time of year for roasting things,” she said. “We’ll have the lighter side of baking come out next summer with fresh fruits and other local produce.”
Most of Custom Cake Cafe’s lunch specials are under $7 and the soup of the day runs $3.75. Saturday’s lobster items are bit more with the bisque at $9.95 and the lobster roll — which Berry said includes close to an entire lobster’s worth of meat — is $14.95.
Once Robert Berry is settled in Fort Kent and in the bakery’s kitchen, he will turn his own hands to baking and fresh breads will be added to the menu.
“It’s one thing for people to smell what’s coming out of our kitchen,” Berry said. “But then they see it and taste it so we are hitting all the senses we can, and the more senses we hit, the better.”
Custom Cake Cafe is open Mondays through Thursdays 6 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Fridays 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.; and Saturdays 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. All menu items are available to eat in or take out and pre-orders are accepted at 834-1140.