PICAYUNE — George and Barbara Bush order their king cakes. Garth Brooks loves them. Trent Lott has king cakes shipped to his U.S. Senate office in Washington. Celebrated Cajun chef Justin Wilson favors them, too.
Folks from corporate America to the entertainment business to neighbors frequent Paul’s Pastry Shop in Picayune, billed as “the biggest little bakery in South Mississippi” and “home of the original cream cheese king cake.”
Earlier this year, Paul’s Pastry Shop sold 52,128 cakes during the Mardi Gras season, from Jan. 6 to Feb. 27, accounting for 50% of the store’s annual revenues. During February alone, the bakery logged 2,300 phone calls on the store’s toll-free number, not counting walk-in traffic, mail orders and online orders.
“I can’t possibly do everything,” said Sherri Paul Thigpen, 44, owner of Paul’s Pastry Shop in Picayune, with a laugh. “We have some great employees that make all of this happen and allow us to continue to be a family business that cares.”
Paul’s Pastry Shop offers king cakes in more than 40 flavors. Some are quartered into four flavors, such as Berry Deluxe, Thigpen’s favorite, with strawberry, blueberry, raspberry and blackberry over cream cheese, or the more exotic Banana Split — banana filling over strawberry, pineapple and chocolate chip/pecan.
In-store prices range from $5.99 for a small king cake to $19.99 for the largest. Paul’s ships medium and large king cakes overnight to all 50 states.
“During the Mardi Gras season, we shipped about 9,000 king cakes,” Thigpen said. “The balance was sold in-store or wholesale.”
But it’s not only the Mardi Gras season that keeps the king cake orders rolling out. From March to December, about 25 king cakes are made every day. Customers routinely drive from Laurel, Hattiesburg or even Meridian to pick one up. It’s not uncommon for Delta Burke and Gerald McRaney to drop in.
“When Garth Brook’s band was on the Coast for an appearance, a friend of mine took them all on a fishing trip and the band wanted king cakes,” Thigpen said. “Early that morning, we sent king cakes for each one, along with a big breakfast for them all. That was kinda neat.”
Many king cakes are sold to corporate customers. One company recently placed an order for 400.
“We had a whole bunch of king cakes going out today, and when I looked at the tickets, I noticed they were for thank yous, birthdays, congratulations and wedding anniversaries,” said Thigpen. “Once, we sent one decorated in red and white with red silk roses to some folks who were in Kentucky for the Kentucky Derby.”
All king cakes are shipped with the plastic king cake baby, a Mardi Gras cup, two strings of beads, one doubloon, a brief history of the king cake and a map of Mississippi. For an extra five bucks, customers can order the “party-in-a-box,” which includes plates, cups and napkins to fit the occasion.
“One company wanted to distinguish themselves, so instead of sending traditional Christmas king cakes, they ordered Thanksgiving king cakes, which we decorated with turkeys in fall colors and shipped out,” she said.
Paul’s offers 33 flavors of Mother’s Day cakes, from the plain cream cheese to the more exotic, such as Mississippi Mud, Maple Pecan Praline, Amaretto and Hawaiian Delight. Mother’s Day cakes are packaged with long-stemmed roses and ribbons and garnished with Hershey’s Hugs and Kisses.
More than 10,000 customers belong to the shop’s birthday club. Last month, 1,145 postcard reminders with in-store coupons were mailed for September birthdays — the first time a mail-out surpassed the 1,000 mark, Thigpen said.
“When I purchased the bakery, I immediately started a birthday club, jotting down information on three-by-five handwritten index cards,” she said. “Several years ago, we got a computer program to keep a database, which really gave it a boost. It’s another item that’s not a 12-cent or 25-cent cookie.”
Paul’s staff whips up birthday cakes in cutouts, copyright decorations, freehand drawing and cakes with computer pictures on top. The shop also stocks ice, soft drinks, ice cream and other party supplies.
Another popular item shipped from Paul’s Pastry Shop is the Pecan Praline Coffee Pack that includes Paul’s Pastry Pecan Praline Coffee blended in Covington, La.
Earlier this year, Thigpen acquired Mississippi Hush Puppy Co. and plans to distribute a hush puppy mix, biscuit mix and bread mixes to retail outlets the company services during the Mardi Gras season. Winn-Dixie has expressed interest in selling the products in 52 stores around the South. Thigpen also plans to market 25-pound bags to restaurants.
“It’s a challenge for us to start something new, especially a completely different animal from what we’re used to doing,” she said. “But this isn’t just a plain old piece of cornbread.”
Thigpen’s parents, Shirley Gregersen and Harry Paul, opened Paul’s Pastry Shop in a tiny 855-square-foot facility in Picayune in 1970. Thigpen bought the business from them in October 1988. The next year, she built a larger facility, which recently expanded to 5,000 square feet. The original location closed in 1992.
In the early 1990s, she placed a small ad in the Denver Business Journal, which generated numerous orders from Colorado and led to a feature in the publication about her business. Entrepreneur magazine read about it and selected Paul’s Pastry Shop as Mississippi’s Entrepreneur of the Year.
In 1993, Thigpen began selling king cakes wholesale in South Mississippi and Louisiana. She now services 112 retail locations.
“I don’t get into Louisiana too much because I’ve got a lot of good friends that are bakers there and I don’t want to get into their area,” she said. “We’re all good friends in the Deep South Retail Bakers Association.”
About 90 bakers comprise the Deep South Retail Bakers Association, which encompasses Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and the panhandle of Florida.
“We’re very particular about putting out a good product, because if one of us puts out a bad product, it leaves a bad taste, so to speak,” she said.
In April and May, Thigpen conducts hands-on tours for groups, mostly from out-of-town. For an hour, participants decorate cookies, glaze king cakes, watch the staff whip up cookies of nearly every flavor, brownies and bars and icebox pies.
Many times, they gaze at the framed letters on the wall from celebrities like the Bushes, Reba McIntyre, Billy Ray Cyrus and Restless Heart. When they leave, they take home a cake with a computer generated group photo on top. Already, store tours are booked almost through 2002.
“We like to try to do things that you’d like a business to do for you,” Thigpen said.
Open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., six days a week, Paul’s has 27 employees, adding seasonal help as needed. Thigpen’s two daughters, Terri Cochran and Laci Brunson, are store managers. Her first grandson was born recently, adding “a fourth generation to the planet” for the family business, she said, with a laugh.
Her latest venture is having the computer system upgraded, so online orders automatically route to UPS and customers receive an e-mail when their order has been shipped.
“We take pride in having a good product,” said Thigpen. “Our dough, even our cream cheese, is our recipe. We go to the extra time and trouble to put four different flavors in cakes because we know customers like having a choice. And we work hard. People think when they call us that we’re this great big monster corporation, but we’re
. We’re still a family business that cares.”
Don’t ask for the recipe. It’s a closely guarded family secret. “And it always will be,” she quipped.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at email@example.com or (601) 853-3967.