Bre’Anna Johnston is the kind of baker who believes in “small victories versus perfection,” understanding that building her new business Blck Cocoa Bakes takes dedication, intention and a passionate devotion to creating nostalgic flavors.
But don’t take her interest in the past and food history as a mark of someone who doesn’t look forward. Rather, Johnston wants Blck Cocoa Bakes to serve as a company that honors her family’s food traditions, thinks about every ingredient and how it is sourced as well as an innovator that sets a high standard for quality.
“It’s definitely messy fun,” said Johnston, who says taking her family-inspired recipes as well as her own creations to the public has proven not only an antidote to the coronavirus pandemic but giving her energy to take into the future.
At its heart, Blck Cocoa Bakes is a woman-owned bakery that produces vegan goods that taste as good as they look. Johnston, a former reporter, takes her own food photography, which has spurred a popular Instagram and Facebook account for the business. This attention to detail down to the last sprinkle is one of the things her customers appreciate, Johnston said.
Johnston works from a production kitchen in Plymouth, but her cakes and baked goods are sold in a variety of Metro Detroit locations, including Folk and Cold Truth.
Johnston’s interest in food, cooking and homemade meals started with her mom and uncle as well as her extended family. Johnston is an only child of a single mother, so they did what any regular busy family might do – they baked from boxes and made fast meals to get food on the table.
Her uncle, however, was working toward becoming a chef, and cooking together with him made Johnston feel safe, loved and excited about food, she said. Her grandparents as well as her great grandparents, especially her great grandmother, also were incredible bakers and home cooks, so she learned about cooking with family through hours in the kitchen.
Like many who grew up in the TV cooking-show age, Johnston also credits television shows like “Hell’s Kitchen” for giving her a view of what a food-focused life might look like. Working in actual restaurants became part of her education later on, but it was a glimpse into the family and chaos of kitchens that set a tone for her next phases in food.
After her uncle died at a young age, Johnston turned her attention toward writing. Journaling and preparing books for self-publication intrigued her, and she studied journalism at Wayne State University after working on her writing at the Communication and Media Arts High School in Detroit. She got several high-end internships, including the Detroit Free Press, which furthered her interest in telling stories, taking pictures and editing articles.
A switch to a vegan diet renewed her interest in food and how it is prepared, Johnston said. She also is devoted to sustainable cooking, locally sourced ingredients and giving people sweets without all of the guilt.
“For many people, vegan cooking is seen as a sense of loss – it changes how they think you have to interact with food,” Johnston said. “For me, as a food nerd, I looked at it as a time to think outside of the box. It was fun for me. You don’t necessarily have to remake something in its complete likeness. … Being imaginative is better for you in some ways.”
She tried several other careers, including as a natural hair culturalist and working in retail, before taking a job in a restaurant to see if food was going to be her new focus. She spent time at Chili Mustard Onions, a vegan and vegetarian restaurant in Detroit, as well as Folk before the pandemic hit. These experiences taught her a lot about patrons, food and food-business management.
“I wanted to try my own business,” Johnston said. “I knew it would be scary and uncomfortable but once you’ve been through this a few times, you out-learn the discomfort (and) build your confidence. … (The first results) may not be pretty, but you just try. That’s what I enjoy about (Blck Cocoa Bakes) the most – putting forward my best effort and believing in myself.”