Sunday, March 6, 2011

Sisters Pursuing The American Dream One Cupcake At A Time

Kathy Burke and Mary K. Oney

The current economic trouble the United States is experiencing has brought a gloomy and pessimistic mood to many of its citizens.  Many people are without jobs and are clearly hurting.  As some countries around the world appear to be growing and thriving, a lot of Americans seem to have given up, convinced that this country’s best days are behind it.
Observing the current negative attitude among many folks these days, it’s always nice to meet people that share a much different view.  Entrepreneurs are the ones who initially built, and have historically sustained, a strong economy for the United States.  They are in a class by themselves.  They see a world of possibilities, even in troubled times.  By nature and by temperament, they are proud, positive, energetic, and enthusiastic.  They believe in themselves, and what they can achieve.  And, most important of all, they never give up.  I found two living examples of this recently at the Oldsmar Flea Market.
Mary K. Oney and Kathy Burke are sisters.  Originally from Ohio, they learned a lot about life from their great-grandmother, Ida Mae, including the love of baking.  As adults, Mary and Kathy pursued their own separate lives and careers, as most siblings do.  Mary, after moving to Florida, worked for the City of Dunedin.   Kathy spent her career working in a factory in Ohio.  But through the years, these two sisters never forgot about Ida Mae, each other, or their love of baking.  And, they are now reunited with each other as bakers, entrepreneurs, and small business owners. 
After Mary left her job with the City of Dunedin, she wanted to fulfill her dream.  That dream was attending the culinary arts program at The Art Institute of Tampa, with a focus on baking and pastry.  Like most entrepreneurs, nothing could get between Mary and her dream, and she successfully completed a one year program to become a pastry chef.  One of her proud accomplishments as she was completing her studies at the institute was creating a cookie tree several feet high.  Mary showed me a photograph of the cookie tree she made.  It was impressive to look at, and I’m quite sure tasted even better. 
Kathy was still back in Ohio when Mary was undergoing her transition from city employee to baker. Kathy, like her sister, always liked to bake, and the delicious results of her baking was appreciated by everyone who knew her in Ohio, friends and family alike.  One night, Kathy said, “I had a dream about baking with Mary,” and she soon relocated to Florida to join her sister.
The two began selling cupcakes under the name, “Sweet Ida Mae’s,” at the Fresh Market at Seminole Mall, as a respectful tribute to their great-grandmother.  But, early last fall, they decided to move to the Oldsmar Flea Market, a flea market which bills itself as “The Mightiest In The South.”  When they opened their booth in Oldsmar, they initially sold cupcakes, cookies, chocolates, candy, barrel bread, and popcorn.  Recently, however, because of certain restrictions, they have been informed that they can only sell a more limited number of items.  As a result, Mary and Kathy now focus almost exclusively on their own baked cupcakes, and the barrel bread which is baked by Giovanni’s Bakery in Largo.  Having to cut back on what they can sell might have devastated the spirit of some people, but not these two ladies.  And, while they are a little disappointed, it only makes them more determined to succeed.
Despite this recent setback, the sisters have big plans for the future.  One of their goals is to open a storefront bakery in Safety Harbor.  Mary said that they eventually want to get to a point where they can “employ people.”  She believes that the economy will only begin to recover when small business owners flourish again and start hiring.  She said, “I want to bake my own bread, hire drivers, and help the economy.”  Her sister Kathy couldn’t agree more.
In addition to their booth at the flea market, and a small but growing catering business for weddings and the like, Mary and Kathy have other plans.  They recently went to Ohio to purchase an old, retired, bomb squad truck which they intend to refurbish into a mobile food vehicle once they can afford to do so.  The thought of these two energetic and determined women driving down I-75 in a bomb squad truck would bring a smile to your face if you knew them. 
The cupcakes Mary and Kathy bake are delightful works of art. Of course, they are both outstanding bakers, and, they are both very creative.  In addition to the colorful and artistic frosting designs topping their cupcakes, they have also created decorative bags and containers in which they often sell their product. They have even made a brightly decorated cash box in which to store the day’s income.  Their aprons, and hats, are all their own design and creation.  In short, they do it all.
As with all entrepreneurs, the sisters are always focused on ways to improve the status quo.  One of the problems with transporting bakery items topped with frosting in Florida is that the extreme heat tends to melt the frosting.  Mary and Kathy have solved this issue, by developing a frosting which is more resistant to heat.

Looks are one thing, but as someone once said, “the proof is in the eating.”  My observation with most of the cupcakes I’ve eaten in my life is that they are too dry.  As a result, I usually end up eating only the top portion of the cake, just below the frosting, and then I throw the rest away.
The first thing you notice when you open a container of cupcakes baked by Mary and Kathy, is the pleasing aroma.  You instantly realize that these are no ordinary cupcakes.  They have a homemade smell, like something which just came out of the oven.  The cakes are moist, and the frosting is not just a bland and sugary topping, it has a flavor, and it has a substance.  These cupcakes are something very special.  It is little wonder that people keep coming back for more.  One customer said that she had “traveled around the whole world, and have not found a better cupcake.”  There is no way I can pay a better compliment than that, and so, I won't try. But, if you want to purchase some of these cupcakes, or, have a special event for which you need catered baked goods, Mary and Kathy can be reached at the flea market, or, by calling them at 727-726-2305.

An old framed photograph of great-grandmother Ida Mae sits on a shelf in the booth overlooking Mary and Kathy as they sell their cupcakes to both new and repeat customers.  Mary K. Oney, and her sister, Kathy Burke, are passionate about what they do and their enthusiasm and positive energy is unbelievably overwhelming.  Even though times are tough, and they’ve been dealt a setback or two, these two proud bakers are actively pursuing the classic American Dream of building a successful business, and they’re doing it one cupcake at a time.  Ida Mae would indeed be proud.


  1. The chocolate ones with the pink frosting and sprinkles look soooo good... Are you sending these articles to Southern Living?? Food Magazine? Frommer's Travel Guides? I can see one entitled "See Florida a bite at a Time."

  2. Great article ladies . Although I haven't been to the flee market , I had the pleasure of tasting some of the girl's treats when I was in Saftey Harbor with their brother Lonnie . Hope to get back soon . rudy ...Fremont , Ohio

  3. Rudy, thanks for your comment. I appreciate you reading the blog. These two ladies are so talented, and could not be nicer people. I sincerely wish them all the best.

  4. Donna, thanks for dropping by...The cupcakes are delicious. That would be a great title to a collection of articles on the Florida food scene.

  5. I was fortunate enough to be down in Safety Harbor when this article was published. Congrats to both of them, and Bob, what a well written article - and Donna's idea is great! You should definitley look into doing that, I have also tried their prouduct the last time I was here (back in August), and by far the best cupcakes I have ever ate....not just saying that, you can tell a quality cupcake when you taste one, and this is definitley a product that is top of the line. keep on baking girls'!

  6. Chris, thanks for reading the blog and the compliment about my writing. I appreciate it so very much. Of course, writing is made so much easier when I have wonderful things to write this case, two fine ladies and extraordinary cupcakes!

  7. Donna, thanks for dropping by...The cupcakes are delicious. That would be a great title to a collection of articles on the Florida food scene.

  8. Certanily is an inspiring story!!!
    I studied with Mary K. at tha A.I.T. and is one of the most positive and lovely persons I have ever met. I see how serious she is in pursuing her goals and all what she makes is with passion and puts her heart in everything. I'm sure how delicious their cup cakes are.
    What a good example of perseverance and love for this country! A big applause ladies! Thanks Mr. Bob Glass for the article.
    Liliana V.