DURHAM — Transformations take place at different times, in unique places and in a multitude of ways. In the kitchen, a chef will pull together a cake batter of flour and sugar, vegetable oil, eggs, and so forth, and slowly those separate ingredients merge together and transform into a moist and delicious cake.
The chef himself will likely have undergone a transformation of sorts that brought him to the kitchen in the first place. As is the case with Favor Desserts’ Keijuane Hester, the street hustler turned successful baker.
It was the summer of 1990 and Hester was about to enter the ninth grade in the Durham Public Schools. He needed money in his pockets for school clothes and food, and later in his high school career to support a baby with his high school sweetheart.
“In urban areas, this sort of thing presents itself. There is easy access,” said Hester, now 42.
Hester found easy access to selling cocaine.
“The more and more I hustled, the more addictive it became,” he said. “I never used drugs. I just sold drugs to put money in my pocket.”
Hester hustled through school selling drugs to earn a living until August 1995, when a tip led authorities to bust him and he was sentenced to 42 months in federal prison at Butner.
While in prison, Hester took online classes and a job working in the kitchen with fellow inmate Cornelius Blackwell, who had gained a reputation for creating delicious desserts on the compound.
Blackwell helped him learn to bake cookies, cakes, breads and pies from scratch.
“One day he told me, ‘Keijuane, I’m teaching you this trade and if one day, all else fails, you’ll have a trade to fall back on,” said Hester. “Immediately I told him, ‘I’m not baking nothing.’”
That nothing eventually turned into something; something pretty special.
“He made a carrot cake that was so good I told him I wanted to write the recipe down,” said Hester.
Hester spent four years in prison for selling cocaine and when he was released, he turned from selling coke to cake on the streets.
“I took a liking to baking and when I was released I had a recipe for carrot cake,” he said.
He developed his own pineapple cream cheese frosting and learn to scale the recipe down from serving 1,000 people to a handful.
“I brought my carrot cake to a potluck lunch at my job following my release and everyone loved it,” said Hester.
People began to ask Hester to bake cakes for their families, parties and holiday functions. More and more people kept asking, and eventually, Hester said, “I realized I needed to step out on this gift of baking.”
And so, he did.
He started baking around the clock from his townhouse, making cakes and cupcakes he took back to the streets.
“I was going around to every barber shop, beauty salon, nail salon, everywhere I could go where people were,” said Hester. “My mentality was if this is something I wanted to invest my time and money in, then I first wanted to see how the people in the streets would react to it. I got a lot of positive feedback, so I got my peddler’s license and my business license, and I kept grinding.”
Hester opened Favor Desserts, a bakery known for its Five Flavor Pound, Red Velvet and Carrot cakes. More than 30 flavors are offered including German Chocolate and Strawberry Buttercream all sold by the slice or by the whole cake.
“Our icing and cakes are made from scratch,” he said. “We put our heart and soul into each one.”
He kept setting small goals and expanding his business for eight-and-a-half years until 2012 when he opened his first store-front bakery in Durham, followed by a second location in Greensboro in July 2017.
“This has been a blessing and it keeps growing,” said Hester.
Customers can also find his red concession trailer at NCCU and NC A&T athletic events where he sells out of his desserts every time. In addition, he sells at the North Carolina State Fair and caters.
“Working in the kitchen during my prison sentence was also a mode for survival,” he said. “I knew I didn’t want to go back to jail. I knew I needed to put as much energy into something positive as I did into the wrong thing. God gave me a second chance to use a skill he blessed me with.”
Transformation came for Hester in a prison kitchen as he learned skills for not only baking, but living an everyday life.
“I don’t regret going to prison,” he said. “If I would have not gone to prison, I wouldn’t have learned the skill of baking and be a business owner now. I wouldn’t be the man that I am today if I never went to prison.
“I look back, when I was going through it, I felt like it was the worst thing that ever happened in my life. But, when I look back, it was the best thing to ever happen in my life,” he added. “Not only am I able to create income for myself, but I am able to hire employees, create job opportunities so others can make a living. It’s a blessing.”