by Leah Sottile
Eva Roberts and Tracy Hunter, sisters and owners of Just American Desserts, are roosting proudly behind a table of graduation cakes, multi-tiered wedding confections and other cakes commemorating God knows what else. Our photographer quickly snaps some shots of the sisters, donning their homemade aprons, before Tracy jumped up.
"If you wouldn't mind taking a couple with my camera," she says, thrusting out her digital camera and saying something about not knowing how to use it. While a professional was around, she might as well take advantage.
The sisters giggle and joke, laughing and offering up bites of chocolate and cake as samples. It was as if we'd walked into their homes, taken a seat at their kitchen table and kicked off our shoes. Eva and Tracy make everyone - bride, groom, graduate or weekly newspaper reporter - feel at home. It's been that way since the beginning, back when the sisters were only 22 and 24 and simply had a dream of owning their own bakery. Today, nearly 20 years after Just American Desserts first opened its doors, little has changed -- and running their own bakery is still a dream come true.
"Our dream was to build our own bakery from the ground up," Eva says. "We wanted to be a coffee shop and dessert shop, but we realized that in Spokane, after six at night, no one goes out."
So they shifted their focus from a cafe atmosphere to a full-time dessert business - without changing their homespun, straight-from-the-kitchen attitude one bit.
Tracy shakes her head. "We were so young," she says, noting that she and Eva started Just American Desserts with no more than $200 in a checking account. "What we didn't have in brains we made up for in brawn."
"We were before our time," Eva says. "Now, after 20 years in the business, you just constantly go where your customer leads you."
She says this as she puts the finishing touches - threads of bubbly icing and thick strands of lemongrass-colored ribbon - on a green wedding cake. Colored wedding cakes, among many other things, are just one of the ways that Just American Desserts caters to whatever their customers are looking for.
"Green just seems to be one of the big colors this year," she says. "In the late '80s, it was teal. Last year, it was periwinkle."
Tracy and Eva pause, communicating silently as sisters often do, then burst into laughter, cracking up over the variety of cake toppers, frosting colors and trends they've had to follow over the years.
"Wedding cakes, graduations, birthdays, divorces - you name it, we've probably done a cake for it," Eva says. "In 20 years, I've done it all."
"You have to change with the times," she says. "We're big-time into food, so we read all the magazines, the trade magazines, even Bon Appetit."
"We're our own little niche entity," Tracy says.
That willingness and thorough understanding of what their customers need and want has kept customers loyal - following Eva and Tracy from their roots as a pastry chef and server, respectively, at Patsy Clark's.
Eva talks proudly about how she got into the pastry biz. She doesn't hold a formal degree from a cordon bleu chef school. In fact, she simply baked up the recipes that she'd always enjoyed, arranged a sampler and took it to her job interview at Patsy Clark's. Those homemade confections were what landed Eva the job, and they are recipes that she and Tracy are still serving at Just American Desserts.
"We do everything from scratch. We're talking real butter, real cream cheese - our dairy bill is unbelievable," she says. "Our recipes are the same as they were 20 years ago. My carrot cake recipe is from when I was baby-sitting back in the '70s, and this gal gave me hers."
Those reliable, straight-from-Grandma's-oven tastes are what have kept Just American Desserts so popular. With the amount of elbow grease and long hours that go into each and every cake and dessert, you'd expect to see Eva and Tracy cooling five-tiered wedding cakes on the store's windowsill.
The recipes are all familiar. Slices of carrot cake, chocolate chip cake and Washington apple cake chill in the store's walk-up freezer. There's every kind of cheesecake from strawberry to chocolate cherry -- even a psychedelic Technicolor cheesecake. An employee decorates an entire tray of "celebration cakes" with happy birthday greetings. A case of hand-decorated "Bloomsday feet" cookies sits at the counter. Each and every dessert tastes like something you've had before. They're tastes that keep Just American Desserts' business booming not only locally, but even as far as Atlanta.
Tracy notes that even Ted Turner has sampled some of her desserts -- Eva's, too. They once overnighted tomahawk cookies to the Atlanta Braves when they were in the World Series. The Braves didn't win that year, but she feels sure that the cookies were all eaten regardless.
Keeping that homespun, just-baked quality is essential to Just American Desserts. You can try their stuff at Huckleberry's or at either of their retail locations (6406 N. Monroe and 213 S. University), where you can order a cake, pick one out of the display case or just try a slice with a cup of coffee. It's all worked well enough to win Eva and Tracy a first-place for "Best Dessert" in The Inlander's Best of the Inland Northwest readers poll last month. So they don't plan on changing anything. They're just happy it's worked this long.
"Think about working with your sister for 20 years," Eva says as our photographer snapped more pictures. "We deserve a plaque for that!"
Publication date: 04/14/05