Celebrations remain alive and well during the pandemic, even if incessant doomscrolling suggests otherwise. Milestone moments continue, and a South Loop cafe and bakery has kept busy.
“Our cakes have really increased during this time,” says TeaPotBrew Bakery chef and owner Veranda Runsewe. “I’ve tried to make it easy for people to know you’re still important. You still want to celebrate because you’re still here on Earth.”
The cakes at TeaPotBrew Bakery, which opened in 2018 at 1802 S. Wabash Avenue, are filled with nostalgia and family memories. Runsewe grew up cooking and baking alongside her mother in Hyde Park. She remembers asking for an Easy-Bake Oven one Christmas, but her mom did her one better, allowing her access to the real oven.
“She bought me these small pans and she would let me make stuff with her in the kitchen, or if she had extra cake mix, she would always let me put it in my own cake pan and make small cakes. I think that’s where my love for cooking came from,” Runsewe says.
Food is the origin of many family traditions. Dinner at Runsewe’s home was sacred, always eaten together, and birthday cake — an item in heavy rotation among Runsewe’s family of seven — reigned supreme. Cakes were never store-bought, always made from scratch.
Runsewe joined the “quarantine birthday” club herself in the early days of Illinois’s shelter-in place orders. That experience fortified her belief that honoring occasions small or large with cake is a ritual made even more meaningful during the pandemic.
Customer Isabel Vassiliadis lives near the South Loop bakery. She celebrated a birthday and a wedding in May, marking both with custom cakes from TeaPotBrew. “You celebrate with the variables that you can control,” says Vassiliadis. TeaPotBrew’s cakes “really brought a light to days of darkness.”
Coronavirus realities forced Vassiliadis to quickly reimagine her original plan of a 115-person, out-of-state wedding into a 10-person, in-state ceremony. She was able to pull the wedding together in less than a month by using small businesses located in the South Loop.
Runsewe worked closely with Vassiliadis and her then-fiance, Peter, to create the perfect cake for the couple. “It was really sweet,” says Vassiliadis. “[Runsewe] asked us what our original big cake plan was and she recreated it.” The small-scaled, two-tiered vanilla cake filled with lemon curd and covered in white lavender buttercream was a highlight. “It felt like we had the full luxury of the big wedding; it was represented in the cake. It was a big part of making the day special.”
For their anniversary, South Loopers Ashley and Terrance Threatt also wanted to support both a small business and a Black-owned business.
“It was even more powerful to not just celebrate our anniversary at just any bakery,” Ashley Threatt says. “We wanted to acknowledge a Black-owned bakery and show not only our appreciation for their business, but our appreciation as a people.”
The couple took one bite of their pumpkin cheesecake muffin from TeaPotBrew and knew they’d found the maker of their anniversary cake. Unable to preserve the top tier of their wedding cake last June, they needed a fresh one to mark the year milestone. That muffin was their guide. Runsewe created a summery version of a pumpkin cheesecake muffin — lemon cake with a layer of strawberry cheesecake filling, decorated in maroon and gold, the couple’s wedding colors.
TeaPotBrew Bakery hugs the corner of Wabash and 18th — a street where Chicago Bears fans and other other Soldier Field enthusiasts would usually pilgrimage, making stops at TeaPotBrew for sustenance en route. This is steady business that Runsewe won’t be able to count on for a while. The building — once a near windowless box of classic vermillion brick now painted slate gray, opened up by a storefront of double garage doors, and crowned with “TeaPotBrew Bakery” in hand-painted script above — sat vacant for years. Since the 1990s, the building had been in Runsewe’s periphery thanks to her father, who would drive by and dream of what could be.
Runsewe’s father owned a grocery store and a restaurant on the South Side in the ’80s and ’90s. When the family wasn’t working together, he would drive them around Chicago, taking stock of both cities. “We would go up north to Sheridan Road and look at all the mansions, and he was like, ‘This is what life looks like outside of poverty,’” Runsewe says. Heading back south, they’d drive past and admire the building where TeaPotBrew lives today. “I remember he always looked at this building. He was like, ‘I can do something there,’ or, ‘This building could be a great space for something.’ I don’t know exactly what he was thinking — both of my parents are no longer here with us — but I just remember him always looking at this property for something.” Her father was planting seeds in a young Runsewe’s mind that would germinate years later.
She was living in Seattle with her husband, Yomi, working as an engineer when the idea for a bakery sprouted. And she knew the perfect location was still vacant. Runsewe reached out to her siblings about the concept. “When I presented it to my brothers and sisters, they were like, ‘This is amazing! We’ve got to do it.’” A second generation of entrepreneurs was born.
Runsewe, along with her husband; her older brother, Alex; and her younger sister, Ambri, who relocated back to Chicago from San Antonio to help manage operations, all run the show. And a lot can be said for what they’re able to produce in the compact space of about 860 square feet. “We were like, ‘We have to use every square inch of this space,’ and that’s what we do,” says Runsewe.
The name “TeaPotBrew Bakery” denotes a big chunk of the menu and memorializes Runsewe’s mother. She fancied hot tea and was a pro at turning that oh-so familiar sachet of black tea into something inspiring, punching up the flavor with slices of fresh fruit and ripe berries.
“We would be on a road trip or at a family member’s house and my mother always had a canister of tea — it didn’t matter how hot or cold it was [outside], she had tea,” Runsewe says.
With a palate trained by years of sipping her mother’s treasured blends, Runsewe researched tea fundamentals — aroma, body, and character — to uncover her perfect cup, landing on Milwaukee-based Rishi Tea. The cafe looks like a candy store with airtight tins of more than 40 loose-leaf teas lining the shelves. The tea isn’t just for sipping. Runsewe infuses pastries like scones and vegan cheesecake with the essence of Earl Grey and lavender. Rounding out the menu are hearty breakfast sandwiches and quiche, prepared how her mother used to make it. While the tea is highly recommended, staunch coffee drinkers mustn’t be relegated to the non-grind type; brewed coffee and espresso-based drinks await.
TeaPotBrew Bakery is a vibrant quilt. Its layers are a patchwork of heritage and tradition, stitched with tenacity and hope. The bakery has become a neighborhood staple in the short two years it has been open. There is a large patio in the rear of the building where tables have been spread apart. Runsewe saw the writing on the wall early-on and paused indoor dining one week before the citywide shutdown.
The recent spike in COVID-19 cases across Chicago has been sobering. Runsewe scaled back operating hours from seven days to just Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, but she still takes cake orders every day. A few wedding cakes have already been ordered for next year.
“The community has been a huge support,” she says. “They’ve been really excited that we’ve been open, and they make it their business to come out when they can. And I’m grateful for that.”