Joy Marsh Stephens first embraced baking a couple decades ago but didn’t launch Blissful Cakery until the tail end of 2016. That’s when a longtime hobby turned into a lifeline—a much-needed “mindful release” from a demanding role as the Director of Minneapolis’ Race & Equity department.
After a few years of fielding custom orders from a growing fanbase, Marsh Stephens established her e-commerce presence and made a rotating selection of macarons its main focus. “I don’t know if I’ve mastered the technique,” she says, of the classic French confections, “but I do know that I’ve converted many people who never liked them before they tried mine.”
While she’s already tackled more than 60 (!) meticulous French macaron flavors—everything from Grapefruit Pink Peppercorn to Lavender Strawberry—Marsh Stephens’ refined, self-taught skills really shine in scratch-made showstoppers like the layered spice cake featured in the current issue of Minnesota Monthly. Originally created for coworkers at a special year-end dinner, the birch-inspired beaut gets to the heart of Marsh Stephens’ end game.
“Food has always been a love language in my family,” she explains. “Baking is my expression of that love, so I put a lot of time and attention into everything to ensure a high-quality product.”
Those macarons, for instance? They took a year-and-a-half to get just right.
As if she wasn’t busy enough with her day job, Marsh Stephens runs Blissful Cakery out of her Brooklyn Park home and delivers orders directly to curbside customers. In a lot of ways, it builds upon her background as a local activist and grassroots leader. (Marsh Stephens was endorsed by the DFL party in 2014’s mayoral race, but lost to Republican incumbent Jeffrey Lunde.)
“Blissful Cakery is a creative outlet that feeds me mentally and spiritually,” she says. “ has been a year of grief and loss, for sure. A box of brightly colored macarons can bring a spark of light.”
It can also be a subversive political statement, and welcome source of change. For instance, Marsh Stephens created a limited “Dessert Table” collection as part of a Bakers Against Racism fundraiser after George Floyd’s police killing. “Each macaron was a nod to a dessert traditionally found at a Black family gathering,” explains Marsh Stephens, “including German Chocolate, Red Velvet, Peach Cobbler, Apple Pie, Sweet Potato Pie, and Banana Pudding. I sold out of 50 bundles in three days and donated 100% of the sales to a local Black-led anti-racism organization.”
In our interview, Marsh Stephens recounts her roots as a true cake boss and why the natural-born entrepreneur is finally ready to take her business to the next level.
What’s one of the earliest, most impactful memories you have related to food?
I was visiting my maternal grandmother in Columbus, Ohio. One of my cousins who was around my grandmother’s age had driven up from a Southern state to visit her. She brought a coconut layer cake with her. The cake was very simply decorated with a handful of jelly beans on top.
Food has always been a big part of my family celebrations, including desserts. But this was my first memory of a layer cake. I was mesmerized.
Have you always preferred baking over cooking savory dishes?
Quite the opposite, actually. I’ve been baking for about 20 years now, but cooking savory dishes was my biggest focus, primarily when my kids were still home. Baking was strictly a hobby—a mindfulness activity for me to balance out an emotionally and mentally taxing job.
When did you realize food was something you’d like to pursue as a career?
I love this question, largely because I don’t know that I’ve actually made this decision. I’ve been rather afraid of my success when it comes to baking, so I’ve been slow to build up my business to the scale that people often tell me I can.
For the longest time, I just gave away the things I baked. I wasn’t baking nearly as much as I currently do, and people really enjoyed what I made, so it was a win-win. Over time, I found myself doing so much baking that I decided to monetize my self-care. I was generating too much product for my network to consume, and baking is a fairly expensive hobby. That’s when I launched Blissful Cakery.
Who were some influential figures when it came to developing your voice and brand?
About a year ago, a friend gave me the nudge I needed to build my web presence and sell macarons online. My business model up to that point was based exclusively on custom orders, which was challenging to manage alongside a demanding job because of the unpredictable nature of it. Opening a web presence that invited custom orders seemed precarious in nature, so I avoided doing so.
This friend, who happened to love my macarons, suggested I create the inventory I want and sell it online. Macarons store very well for a couple of months in the freezer, so I created a revolving inventory of flavors to sell over time. That was a game-changer for me.
You come from a family of entrepreneurs, right? What kind of businesses have they owned over the years, and what were some key lessons your family taught you that were more useful than any business school could ever hope to be?
My maternal grandparents owned a bowling alley on the east side of Columbus in the ’40s and ’50s. Their business was located alongside other Black-owned businesses in a Black community. They were innovators at their time. For example, my grandmother taught women and children to bowl. That was unheard of then. She was eventually inducted to the Bowling Hall of Fame as a result.
Their business was in a thriving business corridor. By the time I came along in the early ’70s—after decades of strategic economic disinvestment in this community—it was only a shell of its early glory.
My grandfather was a hobby photographer and took some iconic pictures of that community during its economic heyday. If it weren’t for those pictures, I wouldn’t have an image of what it was like. Those images of Black wealth-building and economic vitality spur me on. They remind me of what is possible and what Black people are up against in the form of structural racism, anti-Blackness, and internalized racism if we ever want to build another Black Wall Street or, in my family’s case, a Black Mount Vernon Avenue.
Did you receive any formal training or are you completely self-taught?
I have not had any formal training. It took me 18 months of trial and error, YouTube videos, a course at a local bakery, cookbooks, Facebook groups, more YouTube videos, and lots of maca-wrongs before I was able to make French macarons at a standard I found acceptable. I’m still working on improving my technique.
When did you fall in love with French macarons, and why?
I became pretty committed to learning how to make French macarons about three years ago. I’d heard they were difficult to learn to make well, which was about all the motivation I needed to try my hand at them. I wasn’t personally very familiar with them up to that point.
I fell in love with them as I learned to make them. The flavor combinations are seemingly endless. That is the part that I love most about them. I have yet to run out of flavor combinations.
What were some of the earliest flavors you mastered?
Mastery would require me to make the same flavor repeatedly, and I don’t do that very often. My business model is really adventurous and exploratory by its very nature, so I’m more energized by tackling something new than going back to revisit what I’ve done before. I’m always down to do a custom order for someone if I no longer have a flavor they like in inventory.
Now that you have more than 60 flavors in your repertoire, what are a few of your favorites, and why?
Chocolate Caramel Macchiato: Three of my favorite things all in one macaron. It just doesn’t get better than that for me.
Grapefruit Pink Peppercorn: I heard about this flavor pairing somewhere on the internet and decided I had to try it. I was putting a series of “Some Like It Hot” macarons together and figured this was one to put in rotation. I didn’t know what to expect and was really thrilled with the outcome. They are unexpected and delightful.
Chocolate Nutella Dulce de Leche: These macarons are very indulgent. They remind you right away that you’re eating dessert and it’s special.
What are some of your bestsellers?
Fruity Pebbles, Chocolate Caramel Macchiato, Key Lime Pie, Brownie Batter, and Lavender Strawberry.
How about flavors you wish more people would order—the secret weapons of your web store, so to speak?
I’m not sure if I have secret weapons since my inventory shifts pretty frequently. I’m beginning to think I need some staples.
Without giving too much away, what is your creative process like when it comes to developing new flavors?
I find flavor inspirations all over the place. I see a product at the store and wonder what a macaron would taste like if I added that ingredient. I see a dessert and begin thinking about what it would be like in macaron form. Customers share ideas for flavors as well. I keep a running list of all the flavors I want to make. If I had all the time in the world, I’d be cranking out new macaron flavors.
What are a few new flavors you’re hoping to experiment with in the months ahead?
I’ve been fascinated with savory macarons and am hoping to introduce a couple in the months ahead. Since we’re heading into a major end-of-the-year holiday season for many, I’m also thinking about how to center some familiar holiday flavors.
Do you often use specialty ingredients in your macarons?
Yes, I use specialty ingredients and small-batch products often—particularly in the form of jams to place in the middle of my macarons. One of my best-selling macarons was when I collaborated with another Black-owned business, Jay Jay’s Jams & Such. I placed their pear jam in the center of a ginger macaron shell. I love the idea of collaborating and cross-promoting, particularly with other Black business owners.
This gets back to my grandparents’ story. I want to grow my business, but it is just as important that I am doing whatever I can to grow Black wealth. That means being intentional about partnership and cross-promotion whenever possible.
You’ve done some pretty elaborate cakes over the years. What were some of your favorites—ones you’re especially proud of?
I had a mother order a donut cake for her daughter’s birthday. This was a first for me, but I love a challenge when it comes to baking. In the end, I created an elaborate cake with donuts seemingly sinking into it in places, or suspended above it. The birthday girl was thrilled when she saw it. My love affair with blending donuts and cakes continued for a while after that.
I [also] decorated a cake once with about 50 butterflies printed on rice wafer paper. It was for a birthday celebration, and the honoree really loved butterflies.
Is most of your cake business custom orders? Does that help make every day both challenging and infinitely rewarding?
All of my cake business is custom orders. I make every cake from scratch after a fair amount of collaboration with the client.
[This means] I have to be very intentional about when I take on a new custom baking order to make sure I’m not rushing and have the time needed to deliver a product I can put my name on. I have to be willing to say no to business if someone wants something I know I can’t deliver with quality. This is when it helps to have a network of other bakers so I can make a referral.
How has your business changed since the COVID-19 pandemic started? Are you getting more and more orders meant to simply brighten someone’s day, as we’re all forced to celebrate special occasions with small groups at home?
With so much stripped away this year, I have had the time to focus more on building my business. Initially, after the stay-at-home order, I put the brakes on the business momentarily and just watched to see how to proceed in a safe way. After slowly reopening and implementing some contact-free pickup and delivery protocols, I was back in business. This has been the best year for my business yet.
What are some items you offer, but don’t make as much?
I make cake pops but not very often. I loathed cake pops for years personally, so I was reluctant to make them in my business.
A good friend asked me to make some for her bridal shower, so I researched and toyed with [different] methods until even I enjoyed them. My cake-pop business complimented my custom cake business quite a bit. When I switched to macarons primarily, the cake-pop orders fell off.
Why did you decide to become a private baker/caterer rather than open a public storefront? I assume it helps you achieve more of a work/life balance, and keeps you on your toes creatively, since you deal with so many special orders.
Yes to a work/life balance, whatever that is anymore. Being a private baker/caterer also provides me more room for creativity. Since everything I make is either custom or in small batches, I can give great care and attention to everything I make. I don’t have to mass-produce anything to keep shelves stocked. I also don’t have to crank out hundreds of cakes to cover expensive overhead.
What are your plans for Blissful Cakery moving forward?
My plan is to maintain that [work/life] balance, because it is the key for me delivering consistently and delighting my customers. Beyond that, I plan to challenge myself every day not to be fearful of success in this business. I am reminded regularly by my customers that Blissful Cakery is special. I have many creative ideas about how to grow the business. As I move forward, I hope I’m trusting in myself and remaining ever ready to try the next thing.