Owner Elizabeth Harris said she was forced to close the 9-year-old bakery when she found herself spread too thin between Elizabethan Desserts and a pie shop she owns a few miles away. But after receiving dozens of calls, letters, emails and pleading visits from distraught customers, Harris changed her mind and reopened a scaled-down version of Elizabethan Desserts in the same location just five months later.
The only problem, Harris said, is that many customers never heard Elizabethan was resurrected, so efforts to rebuild the shop’s once-thriving business have been slow. She’s hoping to kick-start her recovery this weekend when she reintroduces Elizabethan’s long-popular Mother’s Day Tea event on Sunday.
Over the past several months, she has freshened up the store with more seating, new decor, introduced a line of retro candy and old-fashioned party supplies and she continues to expand the store’s bakery product selection.
Harris grew up in San Diego, where she learned baking by her mother’s side. In college she studied theater, but her skills in the kitchen led to more steady work in the pastry trade. So in 2006, the North Park resident set aside her acting dreams and opened her original Elizabethan Desserts store at the Sunshine Gardens Nursery in Encinitas.
Inspired by her love of 1950s kitsch and nostalgia, the store became a local and Internet sensation with its old-fashioned desserts like whoopie pies, berry buckles, magic bars, molasses crinkles and red velvet cupcakes.
The shop uses no canned, pre-mixed ingredients or shortening, only fresh butter, cream, local eggs and fruit and imported chocolate. The shop’s look - color scheme, flooring, furniture and decorations - appears as if it was clipped from a home magazine circa 1955.
“I guess I’m just an old soul,” said Harris, 42, of her attraction to the look and tastes of that era.
The original shop eventually outgrew its location at Sunshine Gardens and in 2013 Harris moved Elizabethan Desserts to a new, larger location at 114 El Camino Real in the Kohl’s shopping center.
Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays
Where: Kohl’s shopping center (four doors south of Five Guys), 114 El Camino Real, Encinitas
Rather than end the lease at her nursery space, she decided to launch a new concept, Betty’s Pie Whole, a Western-themed bakery and cafe/saloon that sells large and small sweet and savory whole pies (no slices).
Betty’s was also a hit with customers, but as the sole business owner and head baker, Harris soon found herself exhausted running both shops. She had a hard time keeping her bakery cases full and rising labor and ingredient costs made it hard to turn a profit. To help figure things out, Harris applied for a business makeover from the CNBC reality series “The Profit” in 2015.
During the months-long filming of the TV episode, she was advised to close Elizabethan Desserts as well as her wholesale baking business and focus all of her energies on Betty’s Pie Whole (which continues to do well at Sunshine Gardens).
The producers bought her new ovens and equipment and she learned many new business techniques, but she was heartbroken over the decision to close Elizabethan. She wasn’t the only one. Elizabethan customers banged on the shuttered shop’s doors and flooded into Betty’s to corner Harris and beg her to reopen.
“It touched my heart that people cared so much,” she said.
Since she still held the lease on the closed shop and needed the extra income, she decided in spring 2016 to give Elizabethan Desserts another go, but with a much smaller staff and product line and reduced hours.
Unfortunately by then the damage was done. The TV episode had aired nationally, temporarily spurring sales at Betty’s but convincing local customers that Elizabethan was gone for good. Compounding the problem, Elizabethan is tucked away in a corner of the Kohl’s center, so the chances are limited for shoppers to make a drive-by discovery that it’s open again.
“People are still finding it. Every day we have about 20 people who come in the shop and they say ‘we didn’t know you were open again,’ ” Harris said. “We’re grateful that they’re coming back, but we used to have a line out the door.”
Harris hopes special events will help spread the word. On Sunday, she’ll offer Mother’s Day tea seatings from 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. with options for a “sweet tea service” with scones and fruit for $16.50 and an Elizabethan tea with hot tea, finger sandwiches, mini-scones and clotted cream for $27.50.
In future months, she hopes to rent out the shop for private events, including birthday parties and bridal and baby showers and she hopes to host book club meetings, cake-decorating classes and “mom’s night out” events.
Harris said she hopes that things will improve this year and she’s heartened daily by the smiles on customers’ faces when they rediscover the shop or visit for the first time.
“I have an open-mindedness toward people and things and I want to give people an escape from all the trouble and divisiveness in the country today,” she said. “When you come in here, you can find common ground. It’s not just getting a cupcake, it’s coming to a destination to relax and enjoy something sweet.”