A burner turns baker
In the world of cooking, chefs often divide themselves into burners and bakers.
DeMargeo White and his friends from culinary school would have definitely placed his name in the “burner” camp, one of the guys working the grill, coming up with dinner specials, and finding the perfect sear on a nice cut of meat.
So, what do they make of White’s success with Huey D’s Goodies, creating and hawking designer cheesecakes in Southwest Michigan?
“All of my friends say, ‘I did not see that coming,’” White says.
Huey D’s Goodies, cheesecakes and cheesecake cupcakes, are sold online through his website and app, and they can also be found by the slice in stores and restaurants in the area including Midtown Fresh, select Harding’s Friendly Marketplaces, Chocolatea, Saugatuck Brewing, La Familia, Round Bread Sandwich Company, and Twine Urban Winery.
The cheesecakes come in more than 20 flavors. White started with strawberry, cookies and cream, and turtle. Now, there are chocolate-laden candy bar flavors inspired by Reese’s, Twix, and Snickers, a decadent-sounding Banana Pudding and Strawberry Crunch, and the cereal series that include flavors like Fruity Pebbles.
And then, there’s the Superman, that replicates the multi-hued ice cream and is a flavor combination of lemon, blue raspberry, and red pop.
All those sweet, creamy, gooey goodies from a guy who says he’s tried to cut back on sugar as he’s gotten older, from a man who spent a dozen years as a “burner” at cafes, gastropubs, and high-end restaurants?
“Yeah. I didn’t see it coming either,” he says.
His very first cooking venture was with his brother, a well-intended surprise for their mother. Breakfast in bed started with watery eggs and pancake mix all over, and ended with his shocked mother walking into the kitchen saying, ”What are you all doing?”
That meal didn’t go as planned, but his mother started teaching him how to cook and he has been hooked since. He made meals for the family and learned skills like how to fry chicken.
He was a senior in high school when a teacher asked him what he planned to do after graduation. He honestly hadn’t thought about it much. College wasn’t really talked about in his household.
“I said, ‘Well, I find cooking relaxing,” he says. The teacher took him to his first orientation at Kalamazoo Valley Community College before it even had a culinary school. He transferred to Grand Rapids Community College’s Secchia Institute for Culinary Education in 2010.
“I’m a hands-on learner,” White says “I’ve always felt like you show me the first time, walk me through the second time, and the third time I’ve got it. It’s just something I fell in love with.”
He started working in a kitchen on campus and quickly lined up work as a line cook in a variety of cafes and gastropubs in Grand Rapids. He spent time at The B.O.B. and Smokey Bones, but one of the most influential restaurants on his resume has been The Green Well.
He started on salads but moved up to the grill and flat top. “That’s where I really learned to cook,” White says. Every morning, each cook was charged with creating a dish for the menu.
“So you had to go in the fridge and come up with a special,” he says. “At first there was a lot of pressure, but the more I did it the easier and easier it became. It was really focused on creating and they gave us room to grow. I became one with the food. There’s nothing like the food industry. It was just a perfect fit.”
After The Green Well, he took a position with Nona’s in Ada, which is where he really began experimenting with desserts thanks to one of the other chefs, a fellow GRCC culinary school graduate.
He felt he had enough restaurant experience under his belt and his girlfriend, now wife, was expecting, so in 2017 he moved back to Kalamazoo. He was catering private dinners, doing meal prep and selling desserts out of his home. It was a lot of work, and the young chef, in hindsight, realizes he was underpricing his wares. He was selling whole pecan pies for $11, which barely covered the costs of the nuts.
By 2018, he started working at area restaurants including Lindbergh’s Landing and at Kalamazoo College. He also decided to simplify and started focusing his dessert business on cheesecakes. He took a basic cheesecake recipe, which was given to him by the mother of Nona’s executive chef, and started creating his flavor variations.
When the pandemic hit and he was laid off from his job at Kalamazoo College, he shifted focus and put all of his energy into Huey D’s Goodies.
“Within a month after being laid off, I had the mobile app and website. We hit the ground running,” White says. “I just said we have to make this happen.”
Talking to White, you sense two things. One, he definitely loves food and cooking. Two, he is a devoted husband and father. Huey D’s Goodies is named after his son Houston DeAndre (“When my wife said she wanted to name him Houston, I said fine but his nickname needs to be Huey.”). White chose to go with the term “Goodies,” because under that umbrella he hopes to launch other dessert lines Moo Moo’s Cakes, inspired by his daughter Serena, and Roman’s Cookies, named after his infant son Roman.
He laughs appreciatively as he tells how his wife Sherita White helped get Huey D’s cheesecakes in Harding’s. After several missed opportunities to talk to Harding’s officials, she took it upon herself to approach the manager of the Harding’s in Richland during a shopping trip.
He also appreciates the support of customers and the business community who have helped Huey D’s take root. “I’m thankful for the support of the customers. We’re nothing without them.”
He estimates he makes 15-20 cheesecakes a week and has made 600-700 cheesecakes over the past few years in the commercial kitchen at the Kalamazoo Nonprofit Advocacy Coalition space, which is housed in the former First Baptist Church.
He’d love to continue to grow the business and his business skills. In 2019, he completed a food incubator camp through Can-Do Kitchen in Kalamazoo. He’s also worked with John Schmitt at the Small Business Development Center at Western Michigan University and Rob Peterson, broker and owner of Dover Birch real estate services. He recently participated in a competition at Southwest Michigan First’s Catalyst University for which he made 1,000 cheesecake cupcakes.
Although White has distant plans for perhaps opening a cafe in the future, what he’s focused on right now is expanding his wholesale business. He’d like to be in restaurants and stores all along the west side of Michigan and to create his own distribution system.
“I’m putting myself out there,” he says. “If you don’t put yourself out there — no one is going to know you.”
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