Rockport’s Inga McCarthy, 51, got her start making pastries at Lydia Shire’s legendary Biba. She took time off to sell educational software — and have kids — before relocating from rural Bolton to Cape Ann, where she launched her dream: a Gloucester bakery called, appropriately enough, Cake Ann. Here, she serves sweets and savories like meat pies, quiches, and wedding cakes made with local ingredients in a new location on Rogers Street.
Tell me about Cake Ann.
Cake Ann really came from my working as a baker, as a pastry chef, and sort of getting a little bored and wondering if I could ever put together something smallish where I could have a variety of different culinary items to offer and be able to experiment and do lots of different things and change things up, aside from being in a kitchen where you’re doing the same thing over and over again.
How did you get your start?
I went to the Connecticut Culinary Institute, and after that I worked at Cakes for Occasions in Danvers and then at Biba in Boston. It’s hard, because you just do the same thing over, and over, and over again. And then I had children and sold educational software. I always sort of knew that I wanted to go back to it — and that I would really regret it if I didn’t try.
We formally opened in 2016. I’d had a terrible year. I got laid off, which allowed me to sort of focus. It was the biggest gift that I’ve ever been given, because I don’t think I would’ve ever been able to quit a job and really dive headfirst into this project if I didn’t have the support of unemployment. It really did make it possible to go all in and start this culinary adventure of mine.
I found a space. We had moved to Gloucester from Bolton, because we knew that we wanted to do something foodwise. My husband had family in Gloucester, and so I just sort of took the plunge and decided that’s what I would do. It’s grown exponentially from there. It’s no longer a little, small location where I can just putter around. We serve a really lovely community that has really embraced us.
How was COVID for you? That must have been tough.
I remember the day where everything sort of shut down. I looked at my husband and I said, “I can’t believe that I’ve worked this hard” — I felt like I was really gaining traction at that point — “to be derailed by a pandemic.”
The good thing is, people ate their feelings. They really did. We did a lot of delivery. We did special meals. We partnered with one of our local fishermen and did fish pies that we delivered. We did Mother’s Day brunches. I was fortunate that I never had to close because we were never an eat-in location. My wedding business and my event business is pretty balanced with walk-in, and so it wasn’t like I lost all of the opportunities that I had.
We worked with our local bank. We got a PPP loan. All of those things together, I think, really helped. I think people were so excited to just go out and get something that they didn’t make. We did have a lot of community support.
What was it like to work for Lydia Shire?
It was really transformative because it was the first time that I worked with somebody where ingredients were really what shined. It was the year that Susan Regis won the James Beard Award . I was working with Kilian Weigand, who was their pastry chef. He was really good about being really open and mentoring people. It was nice to always have the first peaches and the first raspberries from Washington. The quality of her ingredients is really front of mind. It was never about how we could squeeze one more tart out of berries that are barely making it. She probably wouldn’t remember me. But it was just really nice.
Why did you leave?
I wanted to have a family. It’s really hard, I think. I was too old to just kind of stick it out and try and have a family while being a pastry person. I was 28, 29, at the time. But being a salesperson gave me great experience in preparation for all of the other things that are involved in running a business. In hindsight, it was definitely the trajectory that was right for me.
What do you love about desserts? Some people sell cheese. What is it about baking that you love?
You get to be part of somebody’s life, this really interesting little snippet. With wedding cakes, you get a little screenshot of like a couple; it’s a very specific moment in time. For me, I was trying to recreate the things that I really loved, that my mother baked, and that her mother made for her. My mom is German, and we lived in Brazil, so we had a lot of sort of German stuff that carried over and got mixed in with the Brazilian stuff.
My dad is from Iowa, so there was the stuff that she really loved coming from Germany, from Iowa — but, you know, she took half of the sugar out of it. I love being able to take my mom’s apple cake that tastes a certain way to me because of the memory and sharing it with people.
You can have almost anything you want except for lemon meringue pie: I had somebody tell me that it was the worst lemon meringue pie that they ever did. I have no control over the meringue once it leaves the store. But it’s that connection with people that makes it really fun.
Have you gotten anything totally memorable, weird, wacky wedding cake requests?
We did a Death Star cake for a wedding on May the fourth this year. That was really cool. And, for a January project, I took one dress I absolutely fell in love with and translated it into cake. It’s really moody; there’s a lot of black and silvers and metallics and purples in it. Those are the things that are exciting to me.
What do you think makes your cake business unique? There’s a lot of them out there. What makes you different?
I really care about what something tastes like and what you’re getting out of it. You know, you can get a beautiful sculpted cake with sugar flowers from a lot more places. But I really want somebody to come in, sit down, and think about the whole experience. People come to me for weddings, especially. And they’re like: “Well, what do people have?” And I’m like: “You’re throwing this party for yourself. You should have what you want, not necessarily what people want.”
We did a wedding cake for somebody who really liked ice cream with stuff in it. And so we did a chocolate chip cake with chocolate chip cookie dough inside and caramel and candy bar bits. I want you to be excited to cut into this cake, as opposed to saying: “Yeah, I have to feed you, we have to take a picture, and then we can be done.” My memories are very attached to food, so that’s probably why. And I just want people to be able to enjoy something that’s really delicious, and maybe something that they haven’t had before.
How would you describe the food scene up on the North Shore?
The food scene in Gloucester especially is phenomenal. Right now, you can sit on our deck and watch fish being unloaded from boats. You can see lobsters coming off boats in the back of the dock. There’s so many people who are excited about food. I have gardeners who bring in their rhubarb now. So we have all-local rhubarb, and now we’ll have more rhubarb stuff. People are really excited about food. We have great restaurants. We have a lot of Italian stuff. It really is a lovely place to be.
What would you say to somebody who’s considering starting their own food business?
It’s like having a baby. So if you have a baby, or a puppy. Cats are a little bit more mellow. I feel like I have 6-year-olds right now. It’s like having a child. If I knew how much work it was, I don’t think I would’ve done it. But I would’ve always regretted it. It’s sleepless nights; it’s changes. It’s like when your kids go from three naps to two naps, and you just don’t think that there’s anything in you anymore, and then you just have to push through. That’s the only way that I can describe it.
Favorite snacking vice?
Cheetos. Crunchy Cheetos. It’s obscene, but that’s what I want.
Favorite COVID-era binge-watch?
My favorite binge watch through COVID, when I had to quarantine for two weeks and I got to be by myself because my son came back from an overseas trip, was “Tiger King.”
Oh God. People always make fun of my name: I am not [”Tiger King” star] Carole Baskin.
Oh, I’m so sorry, because that could be so bad.