Delco Profile: Zakiyyah McKelven of Kia’s Cakes & Cafe

Her spot-on Gritty groom’s cake may have put her on the map in 2018, but Zakiyyah McKelvin, owner of Kia’s Cakes & Cafe, has been baking cakes to wow friends and family since her teens. Roughly 11 years ago, she graduated from prettying up “boxed cakes” to teaching herself how to make eye-popping custom creations from natural ingredients.

Kia — her nickname and the inspiration for the business’ name — took time to get real with us about her journey, how the novel coronavirus changed the landscape of her business that relies heavily on special events, and about how she’s pivoted to continue to thrive.

Visit Delco, PA: Let’s start at the beginning: At what age did you develop an interest in baking?

Kia McKelvin: I think I was around 30 when I got serious (I’m 41 now). I’d been the “Box Cake Guru” in my teens and 20s, when I focused more on adding extra flavors and adding fresh fruit and flower decorations to boxed cake mixes. It wasn’t until a friend offered to buy a cake from me that I felt there was no way I could sell a boxed cake; I knew I needed to bake from scratch. I did some research, had some trial and error and I’ve been baking from scratch ever since.

What’s your background? We see you are also an artist and instrument maker.

I went to Arcadia University (then Beaver College) for interior design. It was there I realized that I loved my fine arts classes way more than my graphic arts classes and decided I needed to change my major. I took “a year off” to consider my options and ended up never finishing college. I kept doing art for fun! I was traveling as a singer and percussionist in a group my mother started called “The Voices of Africa,” which is when I learned to play and make the Sekere, a West African beaded gourd instrument. I made and sold those for years, along with other gourd art. I was invited to Art Space Lansdowne by its owner, Jennifer Hoff, to debut my artwork and instruments. I was also invited to present as a local artist at the local farmers market, and it was there that my husband and I fell in love with Lansdowne. We were living in Darby at the time, and made plans to move here. We were welcomed warmly and subsequently ended up moving his Kung Fu studio to Lansdowne; I later opened the bakery.

So, how did you get into baking, particularly custom cakes?

I never went to school for baking. I was homeschooled as a child, and I think somewhere in my subconscious it just made sense to do the research on my own and learn what I needed to learn for each project. I also didn’t see baking as a career at first; it was just something I was doing for fun and extra cash. It wasn’t until we moved to Lansdowne that I realized opening a location was even in my reach. I started renting kitchen space from The Seventh Avenue Grill and selling my goods there. I was constantly learning and looking at new ways of decorating cakes, as my clientele and the demand for more intricate designs grew. 

Ironically, I never wanted to work with fondant (the smooth, moldable sugar icing on some custom cakes). I’d been using all natural ingredients and I didn’t want to then cover my entire cake with that “stuff.” It wasn’t until a regular customer of mine begged me to do it for her son’s birthday that I realized fondant wasn’t as bad as I’d thought. It was more for show and, though it’s much tastier these days, most people didn’t even eat it. I took to YouTube and learned as much as I could to master using fondant. My background in fine arts and clay modeling came in handy, but I became discouraged as I saw just how time-consuming these fondant cakes were to create. It was a woman who owned another bakery who encouraged me to really go for it. I’d moved from the Grill to renting space from The Icery, where I had more room and more time. Fondant cakes became my new obsession.

Why did you decide to use all-natural ingredients?

I grew up vegan in a very “crunchy granola” family. I’d since strayed from the path, but all-natural just seemed logical. I couldn’t imagine buying ingredients my mother told me to never put in my body and giving it to other people and their children to eat. So, I use things like real butter (no shortening), whole milk that’s free of hormones, sea salt, fresh eggs, beet sugar, pure vanilla (despite skyrocketing vanilla prices), aluminum-free baking powder and unbleached flour for my recipes. It’s more expensive being an all-natural bakery, but I believe my clientele can taste and appreciate the difference. I’m told it makes them think of Grandma’s and/or Southern baking. One woman even teared up because our coconut cake tasted so much like her late mother’s cake. 

Are you able to accommodate vegan and gluten-free requests?

Yes, I’ve made a host of vegan and/or gluten-free products over the years, and I try to have at least one vegan and one gluten-free option at Kia’s Cakes & Cafe daily. Our gluten-free cakes are moist and wonderful! Our gluten-free cupcakes are a major seller, too. We also make vegan cakes, cupcakes, cookies and even cheesecake.

What’s the status of the cafe right now?

In 2017, I moved from renting space at the ice cream shop to acquiring my very own location at 16 S. Lansdowne Ave. We opened with a bang, and a line around the corner! We’ve been growing ever since, navigating some pitfalls and setbacks and growing pains all the while. Early in 2020 we weren’t exactly thriving, but I had a plan in place to get Kia’s Cakes & Cafe more financially stable. Then the novel coronavirus happened. We shut down like so many other businesses, then gingerly reopened for only 2 days a week. March through June we were open on just Fridays and Saturdays with curbside options and touch-free pickup. We weren’t able to do delivery;  it was just too complicated for the type and variety of products. 

I was able to pivot a bit and restructure. My priorities changed greatly as I was forced to reduce staff hours and double my workload, which was already substantial. I stopped paying myself and focused all of our profits on paying my remaining staff, rent and supplies. I created a crowdfunding-style website for my concerned customers to make purchases and send donations to help keep us going; there’s also gift cards. I also applied for grants and government funding. I never received any funding from the government, but I’ve been awarded two grants so far. I’m still in the process of applying for grants and looking for opportunities to get Kia’s Cakes & Cafe out of crisis-mode and financially stable again.

In the meantime, we forge on. We’re currently open Thursday from noon to 7 p.m., and Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.

How else has the pandemic impacted your business? 

Initially, we were hit pretty hard financially. A major portion of our income came from custom cakes and wedding cakes. When COVID-19 swept the world my bakery lost nearly 100 percent of our large cake and cupcake orders. Weddings and parties were being cancelled left and right, and those that remained went from ordering 30-125 serving cakes to just 10 servings. People were afraid to leave their homes, so our daily sales dropped significantly. My husband’s business was deemed non-essential, so he closed completely. We were able to lean on each other in the past, but now we both were in financial crisis, with our businesses and at home, as well.

But today, I recognize that this experience has forced me to be more concise and innovative. Kia’s Cakes & Cafe is now open three days a week and I’m noticing an increase in sales that rivals our profits from when we were open 5 days a week pre-COVID. I’ve been working with a smaller staff of dedicated individuals who are determined to make every day their best day. I’ve also seen an increase in patronage and an influx of new customers, who either had limited options during the height of COVID and sought us out, or were just concerned with making sure a small business like ours was able to survive. I’ve heard more than once: “I’ve been meaning to come here, but I just never got around to it. Now just seems like a good time with everything going on.” 

We’ve always maintained the required food safety standards, but now it’s interesting implementing additional measures with social distancing and discontinuing all of our dine-in options. This led me to realize that we should discontinue our breakfast and lunch options all together and focus on our baked goods, which eliminated a significant amount of overhead and streamlined our daily schedule.

Are you seeing growing support for black-owned businesses?

Yes, it’s been incredible just to see how many times my name came up or was tagged in black-owned business posts. My customers, friends and business associates are really looking out for me. The Lansdowne community has always been a huge support for all small businesses — and now is no exception. This community has supported and encouraged me from the start. I’ve also found that new customers are coming out to purposely support a black-owned and woman-owned business. They are very excited to see that we are still open.

Anything else I didn’t ask that you’d like to add?

As a baker, I know from experience how applying heat affects outcomes. Though this is an exceptionally hard time for our country as a whole, it really is also a time to lean in to the struggles and come through the other side better than before.

It comes from supporting each other as a community. Even this blog, along with others, they’ve reached out to me to include me and make sure people know where I am and that I’m open. It’s individuals that are making all of the difference right now. So, I just want to thank everyone for their support and patronage that’s keeping us afloat during this time. I want to thank the people who have made it their business to support small businesses and black- and minority-owned businesses. We truly need each other to survive.

Kia’s Cakes & Cafe: 16 S. Lansdowne Ave., Lansdowne, (484) 461-3793. Open Thursday from noon to 7 p.m., and Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., featuring custom cakes and cupcakes for all occasions. Note that two weeks’ notice is requested. The cafe (currently takeout only) also offers muffins, pies and other specialty desserts, plus coffee, tea and cocoa.

Want to know more about everything Delco? We’re more than just your source for good eats — we’re your source for Delco From Home Experiences and where to get takeout and support local businesses in Delaware County, Pennsylvania. We’re Visit Delco, PA, and we’ve got you covered during the coronavirus crisis (and beyond). Contact us at (610) 565-3679, by email or online.

Nina Malone

All photos courtesy of Kia’s Cakes & Cafe