Updated: Tuesday, October 10, 2017, 6:12 AM
In the early ’90s, Denise Gause’s North Philadelphia kitchen buzzed with the sound of three electric mixers whirring at once. After returning home from working two jobs, she baked late into the night, often collapsing into bed at 1 a.m. Her dishwasher never stopped running, and a dusting of flour coated the first floor of the house. On Sundays, her husband sifted bowls of it while watching football.
Her baking business, which started as a hobby and a way to share her cakes with friends and neighbors, was out of control. Something had to change. So Gause moved her equipment into a building on North 22nd Street that had once housed a bakery, hired six people, and put them to work.
This month, Gause is celebrating 25 years of Denise’s Delicacies, the bakery that has long been an anchor of its Allegheny West neighborhood. The staff has grown to 26, and Gause has weathered a changing neighborhood and a devastating fire that almost put her out of business. But after more than a year of renovation and rebuilding, she came back. She finally reopened in May 2016 to customers lined up down the block. Still, each and every day, people line up for her homestyle cakes, cookies, pies, and pastries.
“I didn’t have a business plan, I didn’t have a goal,” said Gause, 64. “For me, it was just about getting the baking out of my home and somewhere I could manage it. Little did I know what I was getting myself into. If you’d told me it would have turned out like this, I wouldn’t have believed it.”
Gause’s baked goods inspire fierce loyalty. Some customers come from New Jersey, or continue visiting even after they move away. Gause’s dense, buttery pound cake, sold whole or by the slice, is the biggest moneymaker; Gause’s team makes anywhere from 400 to 600 pounds of that cake daily. But Denise’s has also become known as a reliable destination for elaborate special-occasion cakes.
“She made all my grandkids’ cakes, my kids’ graduation cakes, all our pies and cakes for every Christmas, every Thanksgiving,” said Bonnie Mangrum of West Philadelphia, a customer for more than a decade. “My family looks forward to it. Every year, they ask and I tell them, ‘You know I’m getting Denise’s!’ What else would I get?”
Gause lives in West Mount Airy now, but she grew up close to the building that houses Denise’s. When she was a child, it was a German bakery, and she often stopped to peer into the display cases at the chocolate-iced cupcakes. Today, the cases are filled with sweet potato pies, 12 types of cookies, birthday cakes lined with colorful frosting, carrot cake, and more. Behind the front room is Gause’s empire, a labyrinthine series of halls and rooms dedicated to cake decorating, baking, and making dough in industrial-size mixers.
Gause went to Peirce College and became a secretary for a brokerage firm, then to Cigna, where she worked for 18 years as an executive secretary and director of benefits planning. For years, she held a second, part-time, job at a law firm, working evenings after her job at Cigna ended for the day.
In her early 30s, her career hit a difficult patch and she turned to baking as a way to relieve stress. She asked friends and neighbors to call when they needed a cake for a special occasion. She learned the basics of cake decorating, using silk flowers before she knew how to create them from icing. The orders piled up. She found a commercial kitchen to use, but she couldn’t keep up. So, with help from her father, a Realtor, she bought the building at 22nd and West Cambria Streets, with the goal of turning it into a bakery again.
Denise’s opened on Oct. 25, 1992, with a small team of people trained to make Gause’s recipes. They started getting walk-in customers. That first Thanksgiving, there were so many pie orders there was barely enough room to store them.
Gause thinks Denise’s took off because there was nothing like it in the neighborhood and people were hungry for non-supermarket desserts. At first, some customers complained about her prices — but not once they’d tasted the product, she said.
“I knew nothing about inventory, none of it,” Gause said. “I look back and think about it, and I don’t even know how I learned what I learned.”
Gause left her day job shortly after opening Denise’s. By year three, already outgrowing the space, she expanded, buying a series of vacant buildings behind the bakery, one of which was a former chop shop. The neighborhood strip was changing; gone was the dress shop and Italian deli from her childhood. For a time, her only neighbors were nail salons and bodegas. Now, there are restaurants, a drugstore, clothing stores, even a butcher shop — and local merchants say Denise’s has helped attract customers for all of them.
For decades, almost everything ran smoothly at Denise’s, until late one Saturday night in March 2015, when fire sparked in the corner of a back room. By the time the Fire Department arrived, the flames had spread to the front of the bakery. Gause and her husband returned from out of town to find a building with broken windows, damaged by smoke and water. Officials never determined the fire’s origin.
“Our first reaction was, ‘OK, we’re done,’ ” Gause said. “The devastation of it really sank in.”
But after a few weeks, she decided to rebuild. It took 14 months to repair the damage and get the building up to code, but Denise’s reopened in May 2016 to a line that stretched down the block. It was two months before those lines subsided.
Waiting in line on a recent Wednesday, Germantown resident Sweeney Brown said he’d been going to Denise’s several times a week for a decade, recently to get a cake for his and his wife’s 50th anniversary. During the year Denise’s was closed, he’d had to make do with baked goods from grocery stores.
“It’s a night-and-day difference,” he said. “It’s like having a quality lady. You don’t want to settle for the run-of-the-mill ones.”
Monique Collins, who lives a few blocks away, said she wasn’t supposed to eat pound cake for health reasons. “But I cheat,” she said.
Asked whether the line was always so long, she shook her head. “I don’t care,” she said. “It’s worth it.”