ELLSWORTH, Maine — Brenda Ledezma sells cheesecake on the honor system out of a portion of her home called, appropriately enough, Honor System Garage.
And that’s pretty much how it works.
Customers who came into the unattended garage during Wednesday night’s rush hour grabbed a few slices of cheesecake from her tall, glass-fronted coolers, dropped money into her honor system deposit box and, as the traffic in her driveway backed up onto Main Street, hustled right back into their cars. With its continuous grab and go, for it is open 24-7, the garage could have been any home in America — if parents docked their kids a sawbuck every time they hit the refrigerator for a snack.
Customers leave IOUs, in the form of dozens of sticky notes, on two bulletin boards above the deposit box and the smaller honor system change box. They leave their names or initials promising or documenting payback — slices cost $5.50, and cakes cost $27 to $45 — or they leave notes that just say thanks.
“Awesome!” wrote two patrons from Hebron, Kentucky.
“Here for a bachelorette party. What a lovely and delicious idea. Thank you!” Katie wrote.
Most of the rest say things along the lines of “Yum!” or “Tasty!”
Ledezma, whom everybody calls Momo, said her faith in her customers has been amply rewarded.
“People have mailed us checks from as far away as Greece saying that they had been here and forgot to pay for what they grabbed,” she said.
Momo regularly gets stopped on the street by people who hand her money and say they’ve been to her shop. She and her husband, Andres Ledezma, have been running Momo’s Cheesecakes Bakery on the honor system at 471 Main St. since 2016. Both 53, they began the business with her selling her confections at China Hill Restaurant and Lounge in Ellsworth, where she works as a bartender.
Baking about 60 cakes a day, the business (mostly Andres) distributes her 47 flavors of cheesecake to 24 outlets in Hancock County and as far away as Carmel, Machias and Old Town. But much of its revenue relies on the honesty of patrons in Ellsworth. People come in at all hours for slices or cakes, Momo said.
The 3 a.m. customers are her favorites.
“They’re people who are drunk. That happens quite a bit, maybe once a week,” Momo said. “They come back later because they forgot to pay or they realize that they didn’t leave enough money.”
Sometimes people show up in their pajamas, Andres said.
The Ledezmas have no idea how much money they might be losing to dishonorable customers. Having begun the work as a side gig to keep herself busy after the last of her three sons moved out, Momo claims to honestly not care whether they get ripped off.
“If they’re going to steal it, they have to sleep with it. I’m going to sleep just fine,” Momo said. “All the truck drivers get free slices. Anybody who delivers gets a free slice. The garbageman gets a free slice. We give out a lot and all the schools we donate to. I just love to do it. I love to feed people. I love to do things.”
David and Mimi Miller of Ellsworth said they found the honor system flattering, the garage clean and well appointed and the cheesecake positively scrumptious.
“It’s delicious. We have had a bunch. This is really good cheesecake, better than anything else around town, unfortunately,” David Miller said.
“It’s easy, and with the varieties you can pick, it’s amazing. We are honest people. I don’t think of all the other people being honest, but I think it is somehow inspiring that people trust you,” Mimi Miller said. “It must work. They’re still in business.”
The business continues to grow. The Ledezmas are just finishing a $40,000 renovation. They replaced the garage doors with French doors, put on a new roof, installed an electrical generator and are adding a dining room to the garage.
With her sister, Nadine Barnes of Steuben, handling the books and her husband doing the deliveries, Momo concentrates on the baking. She uses five Hotpoint residential gas ovens in a wing of her kitchen added to accommodate the business. Barnes, part-time worker Nichole Ginn and the Ledezmas do the slicing and packaging in the kitchen, where Momo also uses the oven that came with her house. One cake takes about 1 ½ hours.
Her vendors have encouraged her to try commercial ovens, but Momo is comfortable with the home ovens and unsure that new rigs would bake her cakes as well.
“We can’t lose that momentum of getting a big oven in here and having it not work, right? If it breaks down, we have no downtime,” Momo said.
She bakes from 6 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. and for several hours after her shift on bartending days, which she does three days a week. On her days off, she spends 12 to 16 hours baking.
Having begun dating Andres just after a difficult divorce, Momo said she has found more than a business partner in her husband. Momo is chatty, warm, enthusiastic and humorous. A naturalized American citizen from Juarez, Mexico, Andres met his wife when he began working as a dishwasher at her bar.
Momo marvels at Andres’ precise memory and ability to listen, while he enjoys her energy and ambition. The two have a date night every Wednesday when they go out for a drink and a meal at a local restaurant and just talk. It keeps their relationship alive, Andres said.
The Ledezmas have no great plans for the future, beyond finishing the dining area.
“We just want to keep this going,” Momo said. “I don’t see myself stopping. It’s just something I love.”