By Susan Swagler
Kristal Bryant’s sweet success is absolutely made from scratch.
The chef-owner of K&J’s Elegant Pastries & Creamery, a custom cake shop in downtown Birmingham that specializes in cakes for all occasions, including weddings, started her business in 2010 in her home kitchen making sweets for friends and family. She outgrew that space and opened a shop on Kent Dairy Road in Alabaster in 2013 selling custom cakes, cupcakes, cookies and cinnamon rolls. The initial investment was $15,000; she and her husband painted the place and built their own counter.
Then the internet found her and her signature, over-the-top milkshakes. And those “Kollasal” Milkshakes launched her career.
Today the culinary star has an Instagram following of 29,000 people; 62,000 Facebook friends; “Pinky” the food truck that will bring the party to you; and a bright, shiny, new shop (cleverly decorated with an icing motif on the storefront and murals of the Magic City inside). Opened in May, it’s ideally located along the exciting, new City Walk BHAM and next door to Eugene’s Hot Chicken (a profitable, symbiotic situation for both). And these days, customers fly Bryant to places like Miami to bake and assemble custom wedding cakes onsite.
Bryant attended Virginia College Culinard in Birmingham. “I am classically trained as a savory chef,” she says, “and just didn’t want to be boxed in, especially being a female in this industry.” Her classmates figured she would study pastry, but she told them, “’I want to be with the big dogs.’ It was always a dream to run a big hotel or to work in a big-time restaurant like Highlands or Bottega. That was kind of where I envisioned myself while I was in school.”
Ironically, pastry is where she made her name and found an outlet for her creativity. “I felt like I could be a lot more creative on that side, because when you’re in restaurants it’s kind of repetitive; you’re making the same dish, it looks the same exact way. … I felt like, when I was doing pastries, I could just kind of freestyle and have fun with it.”
She has more than 18 years of experience in the food industry in restaurants of all sizes, but she’s also an artist who enjoys painting. She even helped design her shop, swapping out what the architect had originally drawn for cool marble and clean lines in pink and white; choosing the striking, whisk-shaped light fixtures; and designing her own cozy-chic onsite office.
“I like to say that we’re ‘the happy place,’” she says. “You come in here, it’s pink, it’s bright. Everybody’s happy, and you get something sweet.”
It’s happy, in part, because they offer more than 100 flavor combinations of cupcakes that change seasonally and even daily. Customers can rely upon five popular standard flavors: vanilla, strawberry, red velvet, sweet potato, and cookies and cream. There will be another 10 to 14 choices in the colorful display case, too. Depending upon the day, you might find pancakes and bacon, salted caramel, cotton candy, white chocolate raspberry, banana pudding and peanut butter cup.
Bryant delights in riffing on crowd favorites like strawberry. “That’s one thing I like about my business. We try to step outside of the box all the time. How can we take that same cupcake but make it different? I’ve got a strawberry cupcake, but I’ve probably got eight different variations of the same cupcake. I’ll add something or fill it with something or add raspberry and blueberry and make it ‘triple berry.’”
Some of her more inventive cupcakes include Karlyn’s Soul Food, named for her mom. “It’s a honey cornbread muffin, candied yams as icing, a piece of (fried) chicken and drizzled in honey. We do that at Thanksgiving, and it is popular! You wouldn’t believe it.” In 2016, she won the Magic City Chocolate Challenge with a sweet-salty peanut butter cup cupcake topped with bacon dipped in white chocolate.
While she was still in Alabaster, at her husband’s suggestion, she added ice cream to her menu. Then someone showed her a photo of what people in Australia were calling “freak shakes,” and she decided to make them herself. Her Kollasal shakes come with lots of toppings, but her “Kollasal Jawdroppers” are something else entirely.
Incredibly Instagramable, these milkshakes are topped with a big slice of cake or cheesecake, a cloud of cotton candy, or whole cupcakes or doughnuts or cinnamon rolls. Her shakes come in some 12 different flavors, including the K&J original, strawberry shortcake crunch, strawberry cheesecake (people love strawberry, Bryant says), ultimate Oreo, birthday cake (topped with a slice of rainbow-colored cake), cotton candy (topped with cotton candy) and salted caramel with pretzels. She does seasonal shakes during holidays.
One day, following an online article that she didn’t even know was coming out, she suddenly had people crowding into her small, one-table Alabaster shop just to buy shakes.
“We were like, ‘What is going on?’ The line was a mile long … The place was packed, and they were saying, ‘We saw these online.’ … They would come in and take their pictures, and then their friends would see and they would (come in and) take their pictures. … Over the next couple weeks, we were having people from Ohio and Florida and Georgia (telling us) ‘Yeah, we drove seven hours.’ I’m saying, ‘What? You drove … seven hours to try this?’ It blew me away because it was so unexpected. I would get so down at the old bakery because I’ve got a great product, but people have to figure out I’m here. I didn’t have a whole lot of money to advertise and put myself out there like that. So, that was really a blessing. … That was the way that people found out about K&J’s.”
Since then, Bryant and her milkshakes have been featured in Southern Living, on the Travel Channel, in Cosmopolitan magazine and more. Thanks in part to the buzz, she competed on the Food Network’s “Girl Scout Cookie Championship.”
Also, since then, social media has been a vital part of her business plan.
“I still don’t do any paid advertising. I don’t sponsor my posts. I don’t do any boosting.” Any advertising, she says, comes from articles written about her or televised cooking gigs or her volunteer work. “All of my advertisement is still really word-of-mouth and social media. I tell people all the time, ‘Social media can be your best friend as a small business.’ If you use it to your advantage, you can really get your name out.”
She’s on WBRC’s “Good Day Alabama” the second Thursday of every month. After a recent live segment, where she made a peach cobbler ice cream taco and posted a quick selfie in the studio kitchen, she already had more than 100 Instagram likes before she was even out of the building.
Bryant is attuned to her customers. That’s why she recently added sandwiches to her menu. She started simply with honey ham and cheddar as well as smoked turkey and Swiss (or whatever combo you want) layered into a fresh croissant and then cooked crisp on a panini press. She also serves her mom’s chicken salad on a warm croissant.
The over-the-top milkshakes, the colorful cupcakes and now lunch certainly bring people in the door, but Bryant says she most loves to create cakes.
She offers some 50 flavor combinations and an endless number of eye-catching, elaborate designs. If you can dream it, she can likely make it. A quick scroll through her Instagram account shows a pirate birthday cake with an “old” map made of fondant; a Fortnite-themed cake with a custom, silver, military-style dog tag; a colorful, flower-strewn art deco cake; a multi-tiered, semi-naked wedding cake with roses; graduation cakes; retirement cakes; a safari-themed baby shower cake; and much more. She recently created a custom cake for Birmingham Coca-Cola’s closing ceremonies party at The World Games. It was topped with cans of Coke spilling fondant “soda” down the layers.
Her wedding cakes, especially, are taking her places. She has delivered custom wedding cakes throughout Alabama and across the Southeast. She has a booming business in Atlanta (a celebrity event planner found her on Instagram) and has worked in Miami and Nashville, too. She says she loves doing this, even though there’s a lot of pressure involved.
“I’ve done cakes that have taken me a whole week,” she says. “The largest cake that we ever made was for a big Italian wedding at The Club for 500 people. It was 12 tiers; it had 4,000 sugar flowers. I had to take a team of four people to go set it up. We had to have a ladder and everything.”
If you want a cake from K&J’s, there’s generally a two- to three-week lead time and a detailed questionnaire about flavor, frosting, filling, number of tiers, theme, colors, message and number of guests. No cake order is complete without an in-depth discussion with a team member. Bryant says she welcomes inspirational photos but cautions customers that those only give her “an idea of what they want.” What they get will be uniquely theirs – and hers.
With K&J’s, Bryant has built a family business. Even the name speaks to that. “I am the only K in my household. The rest are Js.” There’s Jonathan, she says, referring to her husband who is part owner of the business, and Jonathan Junior – their newest family member and only a few months old. She has two daughters, Ja’Kaiya and Jaliyah.
When her business took off, her extended family, including her parents and in-laws, stepped up to help out. “I employ a lot of my family members,” she says. “My sister is my main squeeze at the bakery. She represents me when I’m not here. … So, she oversees inventory. She oversees all the cake orders and invoices and those types of things.” While her sister didn’t plan on being in the bakery business, her accounting degree serves her well in the role of general manager.
Her daughters, cousins, nieces and others have worked here, too.
All are committed to customer service, Bryant says. “We all believe in taking care of the customer. We really want them to have a good experience.”
Bryant credits her career path to growing up in a family with a passion for cooking. She says she knew by the time she was 14 that she wanted to be a chef. While she’s had offers to franchise the business, Bryant says she’s more likely to keep it all in the family. “I care so much about the quality. I don’t want to lose that. So, to me, that’s more important than having 10,000 K&J’s. My nieces and the kids are coming up. If they say, ‘Hey, I’m ready to open a store,’ to be able to bring them up, knowing that I have somebody that can go open a store here, open a store there. That’s the ultimate goal. Way down the road. … I think that would be the way we would spread the business out – from within.”
Meanwhile, she’s proud to have something to pass along to her kids.
Her older daughter is at UAB and plans to become a brain surgeon. Her younger daughter is going into high school, and in ninth grade they begin focusing on what career they might want. Jaliyah was two when Bryant opened her first store, and she has grown up with it. “She knows how to run everything,” Bryant says. “She knows how to make fondant pieces. She knows how to make every shake. She runs the register. Her tips at the end of the week, I’m saying, ‘Girl, you’ve got too many tips.’ But everyone says, ‘Your little one, her customer service is so good.’ She started out running shakes. She was our ‘shake runner.’”
Now Jaliyah is thinking about her future.
“She just now said, ‘Mama, I’m going to take over the bakery.’ That made me so happy. So, she’s going to take business administration and marketing classes … one day she’ll be ready to take the bakery to the next level.”
2260 9th Ave. N.
Birmingham, AL 35203
Tuesday through Friday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Saturday 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Closed Sunday and Monday.