The Sweet Life
Linda Burke has been the queen of sweets for over 39 years. She’s a testament
to the necessity of combining one’s passion with one’s profession for longevity.
ARTICLE BY MEREDITH MCKINNIE & PHOTOGRAPHY BY MARTIN G MEYERS
For the last 39 years, Linda Burke has been serving up her famous tasting and impressively decorated cakes. Her following speaks for itself with many customers from all over making the drive to Bastrop because only Linda’s cakes will do for their special occasions. Over the years, Linda’s business has grown, always adapting to changing trends and tastes, but retaining that personal service and attention to detail that keeps her customers coming back. After decades of creations, Linda still seeks out a challenging design. She gets excited by a new cake she’s never done before, still getting as much joy as she did in her mother’s kitchen coloring icing as a child. She found her passion in creating and combined it with a love of personal service and interacting with her community. Being her own boss hasn’t been bad either, and the success of the shop shows through her efforts.
Linda found herself cooking cornbread, biscuits and peeling potatoes as a young girl. Linda found the responsibility of helping Mom in the kitchen on her, and even more so after her Mom went to work outside the home when Linda was just nine years old. Her mom wouldn’t let her fry or anything dangerous, but after her mom would do most of the prep work in the morning, it was Linda’s responsibility to come in the afternoons and finish supper for everyone. Baking became especially sacred to Linda. Her mom would let her cook cakes on her own, and Linda remembers the excitement of putting the food coloring in the batter. “Anything sweet I wanted to do, Mom would let me do it,” she remembers. As much as she could, Linda would decorate the cakes with what she had. Though she admits she is not an all-round good cook like her mother was, but when it came to baking, she excelled. She particularly liked making things pretty, and baking allowed her to do that. She took the place she had to be, the kitchen, and turned it into the place she wanted to be.
Linda married Kenneth Burke at 18, her high school sweetheart, and started having children shortly after. Making clothes for her children – Kevin, Kesa and Buffi – became Linda’s creative outlet. Always finding it hard to just sit still, Linda started making all of their clothes. She would get patterns and wear the outfit the next day. She sewed so much, her husband found it hard to sleep without the hum of the sewing machine. All of the kids’ birthday parties featured cakes by Linda, long before the cake shop was a reality. She frequently baked and decorated cakes for social events for friends in town and adapted quite a following just working in the evenings at home. Also, working as composing room supervisor at the Bastrop Enterprise newspaper for twelve years after the kids were born, Linda’s evenings were full sewing clothes and baking cakes for coworkers at the newspaper and members of the congregation at church. It got to be too much, working full-time, and then fulfilling orders at home until late in the evenings. She had no time for herself or her home life.
In the late seventies, there was only one bakery in the Bastrop area, and Linda was looking for a way to combine her passion with her income and save herself some time. Kenneth encouraged her to “get out of the house” and into her own shop. Baking was always more of a passion than sewing, so the cake shop came to be. Linda loves the challenge of a uniquely decorated cake. She likes balancing all the orders, organizing when to bake what cake and the timing of it all. Fortunately, the startup was relatively easy, as her husband had an empty building downtown off the square in Bastrop. It was just Linda in 1978 when the doors opened, a smaller operation where she sold cake supplies, made cakes and cupcakes. And again, her following from the newspaper, church and her social circle had her busy from the very beginning. It only took five years for the business to outgrow the building, and Linda bought the current building on McCreight Street. It was an old warehouse, so they remodeled and installed the kitchen. Linda was able to build it how she wanted; it became more her own.
With the bigger location, the shop was able to expand, adding wedding rentals (silver punch bowls, cups, plates, fountains, etc.) and party ware (napkins, piñatas, and balloons). It became a one-stop shop for local events and people keep coming back. One patron claims, “They made my wedding cake over thirty years ago, and I still think they have the best tasting cakes.” With reasonable prices, a friendly atmosphere, and delicious sweets on hand, the shop has its own unique charm and something for everyone. Linda later added the antique shop next door, which began as a means of getting her collectibles out of her house. She was always one for collecting, often buying estates, attending auctions and garage sales. She learned what was valuable, what would sell, and she combined it with what she liked. She brought another one of her passions into her business.
With a span of almost four decades in business, Linda has seen the trends and styles of not only cakes, but brides and events evolve. Admittedly, some she likes more than others, but the market is always there, and Linda is always willing to please her customers. Linda recalls in 1961, when she married, weddings were cake, punch, mints and nuts, period. All the cakes were stacked and always white. Grooms cakes were not popular then, only an American tradition that later evolved. Years later, people started wanting gigantic, tall cakes separated across a table in pieces, almost resembling a village of sorts. They frequently included stairs, fountains, bridesmaids and groomsmen. The style got showy, sometimes covering an eight-foot table, but still just white cakes with charms in the cake. Then it was back to stacking, adding different flavors and fillings on each layer that make for decadent moist cakes. But with all the varying flavors and combinations, Linda says white cake is still the most popular choice for brides. The last few years, brides have embraced the rustic theme, calling for naked cakes where most of the icing is scraped off. The style is simple, with the cake often featured on a cut log rather than a fancy cake plate. These venues are typically outdoors, either in a barn or featuring barn décor, lots of wood, trees with strung lights, boots and burlap. Linda is anxious for the next wave of requests and to see how the trends will evolve.
When Linda opened her cake shop, it was a one-lady operation, but didn’t stay that way for long. For the last 37 years, Janice Carroll has been by Linda’s side with her specialty being “a little bit of everything.” She was meticulously decorating what looked to be a birthday cake the day of the interview. Together with Ramona Davis, who has worked in the shop for the last twelve years, the ladies work in tandem with each other. Linda usually arrives at the shop first, with Janice and Ramona coming in later. A typical day at the shop is a full one, depending on the orders on hand. Linda claims her favorite part is the look on a bride’s face when she loves one of Linda’s creations. One recently gushed, “Oh, it’s prettier than I ever thought it could be.” And as Linda admits, “everyone loves compliments.”
Outside the shop, it’s her home that brings Linda joy. Kenneth and Linda have always had a lot of kids in the house. In addition to their three, they have fostered eight girls over the years. Linda’s life has always required balance. Today the house is full of grandkids and great grandkids. Every Sunday, many of them will come over and Linda will cook, sometime 10-20 at a time. And the holidays again feature everyone at Linda and Kennth’s home where she hosts everyone. She keeps the shop because she likes interacting with people and serving her community. Her husband has been retired for the last twelve years, but she’s not done yet. Her life consists of her faith, her family and her passion, her shop. And as if she’s not busy enough, she devotes her time to Oak Hill Baptist Church, where her husband is a deacon. She thrives on service, and she was smart enough to do what she loves. She’s a testament to the necessity of combining one’s passion with one’s profession for longevity.