Alum Keeps Cake Tradition Alive on the Eastern Shoreby Liam Farrell | photos by Tommy Leonardi
Brian Murphy ’99 works to make sure that everything in his business is run from a logical, common-sense standpoint—“common sense,” he says, “insofar as we run a bakery in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay.”
The former commodities trader now ownsSmith Island Baking Company, a 6-year-old Eastern Shore business that is churning out 80,000 to 90,000 Smith Island cakes a year and maintaining one of Maryland’s most beloved food traditions.
“We’re custodians of an icon,” Murphy says of the Maryland state dessert, defined by its 10 to 12 thin layers of cake, separated by frosting.
A former walk-on for the Terp soccer team, Murphy spent a decade working for Constellation Energy before earning his MBA in 2008 from the University of Pennsylvania. Inspired by stories of successful companies that began as humble enterprises (Berkshire Hathaway, for example, was once a textile company), Murphy looked for his own opportunity. One presented itself in February 2009, when he had a Smith Island cake at his mother’s birthday celebration and discovered the island itself had no major bakery; a few months later, the Smith Island Baking Company was founded, complete with a new logo, packaging, website and recipes.
Smith Island, which encompasses three villages nine miles from the town of Crisfield, has fewer than 250 year-round residents. Accessible only by a ferry that also brings in the mail and supplies for a general store, the island offers a glimpse into Maryland’s waterman heritage. Boat, bicycle, golf cart and your own feet are the best way to traverse the island, which is home to stately herons, aggressive flies and haughty wild turkeys.
As the story goes, the Smith Island cake was born in the 1800s, when oystermen took desserts out to sea. Having a bunch of thin layers kept the baked goods fresher longer.
Murphy, who grew up and lives in Easton, feels a kinship with the region. He also feels pride in providing jobs in an area that struggles economically.
“I like sending big paychecks,” he says. “And I can only send big paychecks if I grow my business.”
The Crisfield area, nicknamed the “crab capital of the world,” has long been known for its seafood industry. But Bill Buttrill, president of the city’s chamber of commerce and owner of a plumbing business there since 1983, says dozens of seafood packing houses have disappeared over the years. A business like Murphy’s, he says, helps provide both needed jobs and a tourist attraction.
“Smith Island cakes were just that, a local dessert,” Buttrill says. “Brian made them world-famous.”
Murphy has analyzed each part of the cake-making process—what he calls the “motions”—to determine whether it can be better done by machine than hand. The bakery on the island is also now dedicated to cooking individual layers that are combined later in a Crisfield facility; Murphy never plans to leave Smith Island, but needed a more pragmatic approach than packing frozen cakes onto a ferry in the dead of summer.
He is also partnering with retailers. The company has cakes in about 175 Giant grocery stores in the mid-Atlantic; 150 restaurants, including Phillips Seafood and the concessions at Camden Yards; and catalogs like Neiman Marcus. So far, Murphy says, he’s shipped to all 50 states and seven countries, including China, Afghanistan and India, and is exploring ways to get into Starbucks as well.
“Our real competitor is ignorance,” he says. “People don’t know it’s an option.”
Murphy has attained prominence not only for his cakes. In 2010, he unsuccessfully ran for the Republican nomination for governor, and digressions on topics like health care, transportation and Milton Friedman show he has not totally left behind an interest in public policy. (Endorsed at the time by Sarah Palin, he sent her a Smith Island cake.)
For now, however, Murphy wants to stay focused on his current business and leave flights of fancy for the future.
“Until we’re shipping a million cakes a year, I should staple my feet to the floor,” he says.
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