By Jemayel Khawaja
In three short years, the ‘Big Man’ Chip Brown has already weaved his visage into the fabric of Angeleno culture as the beaming face behind Big Man Bakes, a cupcake bakery with two downtown locations within a brisk walk of one another.
The Main Street store sits at the cusp of a rapidly progressing gentrification campaign and is a large part of what gives the corridor in which it sits such character.
Within eyeshot are Baco Mercat, Pete’s, Blossom, and The Lash — all uniquely differentiated establishments that convene to make Main St a quite pleasant place to be. Its wide pathways and open feel serve to foster a community feeling, something that is central to the Big Man’s ideas.
“To be honest,” he says, “In the past three years, I’ve seen tremendous development and its great to be a part of that. People come up to me and say ‘we feel like a real neighborhood now that we have cupcakes.”
As he sits outside the bakery on what he calls his ‘New York Stoop,’ people stop by to say hello and to pick up on conversations left from previous days. Both physically and in terms of personality, Chip is a sizable presence and he provides the type of charm and continuity that change a place into a neighborhood.
That said, he is realistic when confronted with the looming spectre of skid row just a block or two away, “Look, re-gentrification in any city is a mix. But ultimately I think it is good for the community and for the city. I think there is a way to be helpful to people that are down on their luck but also bring up the neighborhood at the same time.”
This is, perhaps, a sentiment easier said than done, but it is reassuring to note that local business owners are mindful of their social responsibilities.
William ‘Chip’ Brown grew up in Harlem as part of an upwardly mobile family in which his father worked as a hotel manager. His elder brother Ron went on to a highly successful political career serving as Chairman of the Democratic National Committee and Secretary of Commerce under Bill Clinton before passing away in a tragic plane crash in 1996. One could say that high-achievement ran in his genes, but cupcakes? Where did they come from?
The well-trod story goes that Chip was a wide eyed young medical student who put his surgical precision and scientific perspective towards making a cake to impress a pretty girl. It worked so well that eventually he dropped out of med school and took on baking at a professional level and somewhere along the line he became a walking example of how the sheer love for something can defy pretty much every convention available. A 6’5 black man from Harlem is perhaps the last person you’d expect to don the apron and add delicate flourishes to a pastry. But when you taste the cupcakes, it all begins to make sense.
They’re good. Very good.
When asked if he felt an obligation to represent the black community as a business owner, he responded, with some enthusiasm,
“As an African American I think you have a responsibility to be uplifting to your community, to do great things, to represent. I have no problem with that. I embrace that. I’m proud to be part of a black-owned business. My partner Claudine Grier was a black female of Jamaican descent who was proud to be African American and didn’t shirk any responsibility in terms of embracing who we are. Obviously, you’re trying to be a successful business period and in so doing you’re uplifting people’s perceptions of black people.”
Similarly, as a man in the female-dominated niche of cupcakery, he revels in the role as on of the few bastions of masculinity. “It’s great!” He laughs, “It’s great. I love being unique in that way and I love that there’s a face to our business. Most people can’t put a face to any of the big cupcake houses anywhere. We’re different. I created all my recipes, they’re not my great grandmother’s recipes. I created most of my recipes on both a science background and a creative slant, put them together, pushed it to the limit and came out with the best recipes, I think, out there. The short answer is: I love it. I love being the one guy or one of the few guys in the business.”
If all goes to plan, you may not see Chip on his stoop for much longer. “We’re looking at Atlanta to launch a southern branch of Big Man Bakes. I’m from New York so ultimately I’d like to put a store there, but more likely is to branch out over California. We keep getting calls from Orange County and the Westside. It is hard to keep up. But ultimately it is a goal and a mission that Claudine and I came up with to win the hearts and sweet tooths of people globally.”