Last week, a South County baker known for competing in popular TV cooking shows packed up his small, at-home cake studio where he had worked for years.
“It was like a 12-by-20 (foot) little room with a bunch of my supplies. Every year I was outgrowing it,” said Jose Barajas, of Chula Vista. “(My family and I) were cleaning it out and we got really emotional because it’s years and years of memories and now it’s gone but in a good way.”
While bittersweet, the move marked a big milestone: finally opening his own bakery and café in downtown Chula Vista after working from home and at various local bakeries and hotels over the past 15 years.
The 2,300-square-foot storefront, Mmm … Cakes, officially opened Saturday on Third Avenue near F Street after a brief soft opening last week. With the help of his brother Miguel and sister-in-law Stevie, the shop brings “a fun Golden Girls” theme that’s “over the top” with neon elements. Hanging on one wall is a neon light piece that reads “Life’s too short, eat the cake.”
“I’m a very big Golden Girls fan. So, we did the décor almost as if (the character) Blanche was alive. It’s very tropical and really fun. We wanted to make this bakery extremely Instagrammable,” said Barajas.
Several customers who have already stopped by to check out the new venue said the bakery is just what had been missing on Third Avenue. Barajas said bringing a high-end storefront to Chula Vista had been a long time coming for him and his family.
“The community is really excited because it’s no more having to drive all the way to North Park or downtown (San Diego). We finally have something here where people can walk or take a short drive to,” said Barajas.
The family had been working on the project since 2019, slowly moving through the city’s planning process and developing the perfect menu. Then the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted their plans.
“We literally submitted our paperwork for the business the week before everything shut down. We were actually planning on starting construction that May (2020) and then the grand opening that summer,” said Barajas.
When several of his customers began canceling wedding cake orders, the family realized the severity of the pandemic’s effects. Many lost their jobs and income, including Barajas. Because the bakery business was still in the paperwork stages, the business did not qualify for COVID-19 federal aid, he said. To help make up for lost income and keep the excitement alive about the upcoming storefront, Barajas teamed up with other Third Avenue businesses to host pop-up events.
“I made desserts and they sold beer that would complement the food, so that was really helpful and it also helped spread the word with the community about our plans,” said Barajas.
Barajas has competed in several TLC and Food Network shows, including “The Next Great Baker” and “Gingerbread Showdown.” He also worked in culinary production for some of the shows. Now, locals and visitors will get a chance to try some of his specialty cakes, which will be sold whole and by the slice.
The shop also offers a breakfast menu with a variety of pastries like specialty cookies, croissants and Danishes, along with coffee. By the end of the year, the goal is to expand the menu with additional food items for brunch, as well as beer and wine options.