If you're driving Route 1A in Maine, you're probably heading to the tourist hotspot of Bar Harbor. Here's a tip: Once you hit Ellsworth, the last bustling "city" before Mount Desert Island, it's best you pay attention.
Many good things are found off the beaten path, and MoMo's Cheesecake is no different.
A few miles from the center of town, at 471 Main St. to be exact, you'll find Honor System Garage. It's not a place you gas up, and there are no tools inside. What you will find instead is some of the best cheesecake in New England.
Just inside the open garage door, steps from the home where Brenda "MoMo" Ledezma resides (and bakes), the glow of coolers and strings of holiday lights signal to customers that they're in the right spot. Open 24 hours a day, the business is manned not by cashiers, but simply supplied with a red cash box. Customers pay and make change using the the honor system.
"Since we're so busy, the honor system is the only way it could work," said Ledezma. "Sometimes people will put IOU slips in there and when they see me around town or at my other job, they'll give me the money. It's really worked out well."
Five days a week, you can find Ledezma at a local Chinese restaurant doing what she's done for 20 years: tending bar. That means, on those days, she rises before the sun to get in some baking time before her shift, trying to get ahead of the 1,000 slices per week that fly out of her garage.
It was at the restaurant where her cheesecakes got their start. There wasn't a dessert menu, so Ledezma took it upon herself to experiment with cheesecake. They always sold out. And fast.
When restaurant regulars encouraged Ledezma to expand her baking into something more, she listened but with hesitation. After all, starting a business required more than just a solid recipe. With only $300 to invest, she knew she couldn't make it official until she met the state specifications for a separate kitchen. But as word spread in the community about MoMo's new venture, she came home to find donations of two hand sinks and an oven, left in her garage.
"She's humble and she gives back to the community so much that people just want to help her," said MoMo's sister, Nadine Barnes.
Barnes started helping her sister with the business from the get-go to do the tasks that are challenging for Ledezma. She handles the social media posts and some of the required paperwork.
But Barnes is just as humble as her sister, giving praise to the others who also help make the business possible.
"Her husband, Andres, deserves the credit," Barnes said. "He does everything from giving her encouraging words to handling deliveries to the different stores."
Along with the slices she sells from her garage, Ledezma takes catering orders and also has accounts with several convenience stores, which carry her cheesecakes. A local hospital does a pick-up every week as well.
"Her cheesecake is excellent," said JoAnn Brown, philanthropy officer for Maine Coast Memorial Hospital. "Her product is very high quality, consistent, and just yummy overall."
Ledezma catered a fund-raiser for the hospital last year, and every now and then, she will donate a portion of her sales to them. At least 10 percent of her sales is always given back to the community. She has paid off school lunches for local elementary schools, donated to breast cancer awareness, offered support to churches and other organizations. This summer, she plans to help send kids to camp with her cheesecake funds.
"People always seem to find her," said Barnes, noting the guestbook that is left next to the cashbox. "Actually, when we go out around town together, I feel like I'm with a celebrity. Everyone stops and chats with her."
With visitors from as far away as Australia, Chile, Ireland, and beyond, it just goes to show how good, old-fashioned word-of-mouth recommendations really go a long way. That, and 70 cheesecake flavors with a generous portion size.
"I never dreamed it would take off like this," said Ledezma. "It started out as just a hobby."
From your standard berry pies to a combination cheesecake-apple-crisp, Ledezma has tried just about everything, noting that other crowd favorites include her turtle, pistachio, and peanut butter cup varieties. In her kitchen, she utilizes the drawers of old library card catalogs to store her stock of candy. Next up? Rolo.
"People will leave flavor suggestions in the guest book. That's where a lot of new flavors are born," said Ledezma. She remembers being at a stoplight when someone rolled down their window to ask her if she'd try a certain flavor.
Ledezma has even attempted lobster cheesecake but said it came out too dense. Though, she does have an alternate method in mind should the request come up again.
"Our dad taught us that presentation is everything," said Barnes. "And MoMo really cares about the presentation and quality of her cheesecakes."
What's next for Ledezma? A bigger oven is her next goal, so she can bake 10 cheesecakes at a time, rather than the four her current oven allows.
And there's something else Ledezma is eager to have happen.
"I want Stephen King to try my cheesecake. I heard he loves cheesecake."
Erinne Magee can be reached at email@example.com.