Looking back, Rowie Reyes and Mike Ramos aren't surprised they were visited by inspectors from the Skokie Health Department on two different occasions. In two years' time the couple took a 47-year-old cake recipe Reyes's mother developed in culinary school in the Philippines and built a thriving underground bakery out of their town house. And business was just too good.
"At one point, there are five cars, all lined up the block," says Ramos. "And we have a two-car driveway. We've got people parking in other driveways. The neighbors don't know what the hell is going on."
The couple got off with warnings each time, but the incidents were sobering enough to lend momentum to their search for a licensed space, which they opened this week in an old Chinese takeout joint in Budlong Woods, in far west Rogers Park. Rowie's Bakery will specialize in chiffon cakes with buttercream frosting, cupcakes, and French macarons in flavors like ube, buco pandan, green tea, and mango.
This won't be the first bakery to marry Filipino flavors with European pastry technique, and it isn't first to get its start in a home kitchen. Two iconic Filipino bakeries, Goldilocks and Red Ribbon Bakeshop, both started decades ago as home-based businesses that grew into giant corporate chains, with hundreds of outlets in the Philippines, the U.S., and Canada.
Filipino-style bakery cakes have a lighter profile of their own. "Other cakes tend to be a little firmer," says Ramos. Filipino "buttercream is also not as rich as some of the standard buttercreams that are out there. So together it's the combination of the light buttercream and the softness and fluffiness of the cake."
In 1964 Reyes's mother, Corazon, came up with a recipe for a fluffy orange chiffon cake frosted with pineapple- and cherry-studded icing to complete her pastry degree from Le Cordon Blue Manille. She named the flavor "Rosemary"—not for the herb but for a popular baby name of the day. Lighter and less sweet than a typical European-style cake, it required a sustained amount of gentle manual folding to achieve its particular sponge. After graduating she opened a small neighborhood bakery with help of her brother Armando, adding a mocha variety to her repertoire, a flavor particularly popular in the Philippines.
She closed the bakery years before her daughter was born, but in 1971 Armando emigrated to Chicago, bringing the recipes with him. At first, he brought the cakes to parties and gave them away as as gifts, but word spread. At the age of ten Reyes followed him to the U.S., joining him and her aunt in their Lake Shore Drive high-rise, and helping after school with an increasingly active home business.
"What he started doing was on the side—he had a full-time job—on the weekend," she says. "He started taking money for it because it became a lot of people just asking for favors. But it was kind of getting out of control, like every weekend there was somebody that would want it for their party. Every weekend we would always be bringing those cakes to somebody's house. And it was like $15, for a big cake."