Sweets, savory and more
By Lenore Vickrey
While in graduate school at Alabama A&M, Joni Harris started baking cakes for fun. A friend had invited her to a cake decorating class, and to her surprise, she enjoyed it. Beginning in 1994, baking became a hobby for Joni.
After graduation, she realized this cake-baking thing might be more than just a fun pastime when she and her husband, Quinton, had their first daughter, Kayla. In March of 2001, it came time for that daughter’s first birthday. Joni took the convenient route and picked up a cake from a big box store. A few bites in, and she soon realized she could do better, so she did. This led her to start baking cakes for family and close friends and “she’s been baking ever since,” says Quinton.
As owner of KayBri Desserts, and with Quinton as manager, in 2020 the two expanded their home bakery to their own business location, a fully renovated home in eastern Wilcox County served by Pioneer Electric Cooperative, offering baked goodies including cakes, cookies, cupcakes and more to the public. Located on a rural hillside across the street from the post office in Furman (although some GPS locations show it being in Pine Apple), the business name is a combination of their two daughters’ first names – Kayla and Brianna.
“Basically, everything I bake is my own creation,” says Joni, who started cooking at age 8. “I have never followed a recipe. Even if it’s something my mom gave me, I tweak it a little to make it my own.”
Her first cake creation? “It was strawberry cream cheese,” she recalls. “That’s my signature dessert. “Cheesecake was my favorite so I thought, well, let me make sure I can make something I really like and I wanted to do it in a cake form. I did it and people loved it. Now, at every event or church function, they ask for it.”
The Strawberry Swirl Cream Cheese Cake remains a favorite with customers, along with Red Velvet, Cookies and Cream, Key Lime, Lemon, German Chocolate, a variety of pound cakes and many other desserts. Joni’s versatility includes creating these flavors in cupcakes, layer cakes, cheesecakes, and many other custom desserts.
“A lot comes from customer requests,” she says, “like tea cakes, Boston cream pies and turtle cheesecake. I will look to see what the main ingredients are and I will make my own. I know what I like and I know what’s going to taste good.”
Another popular item is her made-from-scratch cinnamon rolls. “I love desserts,” says Joni. “When I was pregnant with Kayla, Quinton would buy me a whole-six pack of cinnamon rolls and I would eat the entire pack. Over a decade later, during Covid-19, I said, ‘this would be a good time to create a new recipe.’ This was my opportunity to innovate my own made-from-scratch cinnamon rolls.”
The results were a huge hit, especially with grown-up Kayla. “I would eat an entire batch,” Kayla recalls.
Expanding the menu
The baking business did well. In an effort to accommodate their customers’ requests, in 2022 the business team decided to venture into offering a limited menu of food on the weekends. “We started with catfish, coleslaw and fries,” says Quinton. Gradually, they started rotating it with ribs, Boston butts, baked beans and potato salad. Friday night fish specials soon included hushpuppies, and customers began to call ahead for pickup orders or eat at the restaurant.
Thus was born Southern Venue, their catering and weekend restaurant venture. “Southern Venue is the place itself,” says Quinton, “and KayBri Desserts resides here.”
Although the original building was designed for a bakery only, they were able to create a dining area and a large outdoor deck to accommodate groups for small events. Southern Venue is now a popular place for celebrations of all types such as graduation parties, birthdays, showers and reunions. “Between the catering and baking, we get all kinds of requests,” he says.
“As we do catering events, we get more referrals,” adds Joni. While Alabama Living was visiting, for example, the team was preparing for a large family reunion in Enterprise the next day. On the menu were roast beef, chicken, green beans, field peas, cornbread, rice, poundcake, tea and Bri’s Lemonade.
“Customers always comment on the great taste of Bri’s Fresh Squeezed Lemonade,” Joni says.
They also do pop-ups at special events out of town, bringing their customized mini-trailer loaded with sweets and other dishes in pre-packaged containers to sell at venues in other cities. “We’ve been all across the state, Dothan, Auburn, Birmingham,” she notes.
The Harrises rely heavily on their family team for support and input to make their business work. Their niece, Lilly C. Flowers, handles social media and marketing and her husband, Justin Flowers, is community service director and self-appointed “taste tester.” Their daughters Kayla and Brianna help with events and catering. Important decisions are made only after family discussions.
Both Joni, trained as an environmental engineer, and Quinton, an area manager with the USDA, continue to work their day jobs, while devoting their weekends to KayBri and Southern Venue. Sunday lunch has proven to be very popular, as customers flock in for a home-cooked meal after church. And Quinton looks forward to finishing up construction on their outdoor kitchen, which will allow him and his staff to have a larger place to fry catfish as well as cook larger quantities of food.
What accounts for their success so far? “I believe it’s because of customer service,” he says. “Our goal, our aim is to make every customer feel a warm welcome. We haven’t had any complaints. If we do, we want to do whatever we can do to be better.”