It’s not yet 10 am on a windy October Saturday. The sun is hidden behind the clouds and the smells of hot corn and hand lotion waft through the air. Dogs of all breeds and sizes come up to people for a pat on the head or a chuck under the chin.
“I had the bourbon today. I had the bourbon-dipped cinnamon rolls,” said an enthusiastic voice from the southeast end of the Arrowhead Towne Center Farmer’s Market.
It’s Slade Grove that welcomes customers browsing its “wicked” products, from pumpkin spice tres leches to peanut butter and bacon CBD pet treats.
Grove, 51, will tell you he has 21 on the internet. He’s a comedic guy who’s turned his hobby of making really good baked goods into a full-time business – Wicked City Kitchen – which has grown to include pet and body care products.
But it took time to go from years of working in the tech industry to becoming a successful pastry chef. Throughout this experience, he had to adapt to new spaces and realities.
Baking is in Grove’s blood. His great-grandmother owned a pastry shop in Indiana, so he alternated between baking pies with her and helping his mother make candy and caramels for Christmas. Grove said he always cooked on the side because it was “cheaper than therapy.”
But he went to computer science and marketing school and took a job with AT&T shortly after graduating in 1990. But by 2000, Grove said, working for AT&T and Microsoft had exhausted him. After quitting his job in IT, his hobby as a pastry chef came one step closer to becoming a business when a friend persuaded Grove to work part-time in Williams-Sonoma. Grove began hosting in-store cooking demonstrations and teaching classes in the Phoenix metro area.
Grove continued to cook in her Peoria home while working in Williams-Sonoma. One day, he received a call from the Arizona Department of Health Services: his cake was delicious, but he lacked a permit for his home cooking. From there, Grove used a friend’s restaurant kitchen at night for cooking. It lasted about six months until Grove opened its bakery and storefront in the mid-2000s.
Although his pastries attracted local and national attention, Grove said the brick-and-mortar location was not right for the times. He closed Wicked Bakery on Cave Creek Road nearly a decade ago, and Wicked City Kitchen now only sells at farmers’ markets and for local delivery in Peoria and Glendale. Grove works his magic in a commercial kitchen at a house near his Peoria home.
His company’s name, Grove said, comes from his friends on the East Coast who refer to anything good as “bad.”
Grove believes the lack of a permanent storefront helped it through 2020, when many small businesses had to close due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many businesses could no longer afford rent, Grove said, but Wicked City Kitchen continued its delivery service and experimented with body-care products.
But the company is still struggling.
Nancy Sanders, regional director of the Maricopa Small Business Development Center, has seen many businesses like Grove’s.
“What the pandemic has taught all businesses is that they have to be able to adapt to changing conditions,” she said.
Census data revealed that more than half of small business owners say the pandemic has had a moderate or largely negative impact on them.
With many farmers’ markets closing, Wicked City Kitchen needed to find a new way to spread the word. The biggest issue last year was branding and reaching its customers, Grove said.
A former business partner, Aimee Rose, 37, of Phoenix, said it’s because “Slade is incredibly dedicated” that Wicked City works. “He does research you wouldn’t believe to make sure he sells the most up-to-date products.”
But Grove said many of his articles came out of necessity. Wicked City Kitchen is not only known for its decadent desserts, but it also sells body care products, including muscle balms and bath bombs, infused with CBD. The manufacture of hand lotion was born out of the need to nourish the dry hands of bakers. Pet treats were born out of customers who wanted something to soothe their dog’s skin or help calm anxious animals.
Grove said it took cosmetic courses to ensure the quality of its body and pet care products.
Grove credits his time at Williams-Sonoma for helping him turn his passion into a business.
“They fostered my culinary development, which I found, you know, amazing,” he said.
Grove has won more than a dozen culinary awards and has appeared on local affiliates of Fox, NBC and ABC. He calls it “The Oprah Effect” because his red velvet cupcakes captured national attention when Oprah Winfrey and Gayle King visited his Phoenix store in 2006.
Grove’s Bourbon Pecan Pie and Sweet & Spicy Infused Caramels also won Best of Phoenix awards and were recognized by Food Network magazine.
Grove said the recognition of his food was nice, but he was happy to continue at farmers’ markets because that’s where the people are.
For more stories from Cronkite News, visit cronkitenews.azpbs.org.