In the 1970s, west Thibodaux residents knew whose door to knock on for the best sweets in town – the one of Gertie Mae “Madea” Cooks-Adams. She and her sister, Evelyn, turned their modest St. Charles Street home into a makeshift neighborhood bakery to serve folks who stopped by for Gertie’s famous pies, pralines and fudge. With baked goods selling for 75 cents apiece, the business proved to be fruitful for Gertie, who gained patrons wherever she moved after leaving the St. Charles Street house.
Yet, Gertie saw baking as mainly a side business or hobby as she maintained her job as a housekeeper over the years. Plus, for her, preparing sweets was always more than just about making money; rather, it was an opportunity to provide a service for her community: raising money for the local church or a place to keep neighborhood kids out of trouble.
Little did she know she was creating an everlasting recipe. In addition to her acclaimed treats, she developed the recipe for caring, healing, togetherness and love that her family follows to this day.
On Saturdays, Gertie would be joined in the kitchen by her granddaughter. “I was the girl who did all the taste-testing. Of course, that meant free pies for me,” says Karen Johnson, with a smile as she fondly remembers times with her family’s matriarch.
But Karen wasn’t just there to indulge in her grandmother’s renowned sweet potato pies and other treats; she contributed to the family business as well, selling goods and making deliveries. Also, it opened the door to mimicking the pastry chef’s recipes.
“I learned from my grandmother,” she shares. “I stayed in there, watching her, seeing exactly what they were doing because I thought it was something all of our family members should hold on to and keep going.”
As time went on and Gertie’s health began to deteriorate, baking responsibilities started shifting to the younger generations. “[Gertie] used her hands for everything; I mean, these hands were working,” Karen remembers. “It got to the point because of her arthritis and other conditions where she couldn’t do it anymore.”
Karen’s daughter, Monique Johnson, didn’t come to know her great-grandmother in the kitchen — but instead through nursing home visits when Gertie was in her eighties. Gertie’s character, however, made a lasting impression on her.
“Anytime I would go there, she would always crack jokes; she was very goofy,” Monique remembers. “But she was a very headstrong woman: she knew what she wanted.”
Although she passed away in 2002, Gertie’s spirit and traditions live on in the family, especially in the Johnson household.
Monique, just like her mother, appreciated baking at a young age, with early memories of using her Easy-Bake Oven to serve cakes to her Barbie dolls. And she acknowledges that, just like her mother, she too has a sweet tooth. But there’s more than what lies on the surface in preparing pastries for this family. For instance: baking acts as a catalyst for healing.
Diagnosed with lupus, Karen endured multiple lengthy hospital visits. When she returned home after each stay, she baked.
“I never understood why she did it, but it was very calming for her,” Monique recalls from her childhood. “So, I would just help her bake pies because I loved hanging out with my mom.”
Baking is a form of therapy for the women in her family, Monique says, and later in life, she too would use it to heal. In 2014, she survived a sexual assault; however, she wouldn’t receive justice until 2018. That year, she used baking to cope with the trauma she endured from the assault and subsequent trial.
“It was kind of a natural thing to bake once that happened in 2018,” Monique shares. “I felt like I had nothing left in me, so I just started baking since that brought comfort.”
Later that year, an opportunity arose for Monique to achieve her dream of working in the New York fashion industry, but she needed to raise enough money to move.
So, blessed with her great-grandmother’s sweet potato pie recipe and her mother’s help, she began selling the pies and acquired enough money to fund her relocation.
In 2020, Monique returned to Thibodaux for what was intended to be a temporary stay, but she fell seriously ill, causing her to go back and forth from the hospital throughout January. Doctors diagnosed her with several different conditions, unable to find the true root of her sickness. Not until receiving an antibody test did Monique later discover she had the novel coronavirus.
With restricted travel and closed businesses, the mother and daughter found themselves stressed during challenging times. While the pandemic didn’t seem it would be ending anytime soon, as many had hoped, the two decided it was time to earn some extra income while quarantining. And a business idea was then born out of a simple question Monique asked her mom: “You want to sell some pies?”
After an electrified “yes” from Karen, Monique built a website for Gertie Kay Sweets, named after Gertie and Karen — whose nickname is “Kay.” When the site launched on the night of June 7, 2020, orders came pouring in.
“It was 11 at night; parents are knocked out. My dad wakes up to the ‘cha-ching’ notifications on Shopify. And he was just like, ‘These people don’t even know y’all and they are buying these pies. How are y’all getting all these orders,” Monique laughs.
Thanks to some help from Monique’s friends in The Big Apple and promotion from a social media influencer, the business took off.
Though, as with many new enterprises, Gertie Kay Sweets hit a snag. Due to the high volume of orders for the Thanksgiving holiday, the shipping company it used marked the account as fraud, which resulted in their baked goods being held at a warehouse until they could clear up the matter. Monique had to present documents at one of the company’s locations to prove the business is legit, which she did quickly. Still, after being held for two days following Monique’s visit, the products spoiled, causing Gertie Kay Sweets to lose over $8,000 in profit.
The setback forced Monique to create a GoFundMe to save the young business, with insurance only covering a small portion of the losses. Fortunately, through Monique’s connections, the business’s story was picked up by the right influencers and business executives who banded together to bring the bakery back to life.
Today, Gertie Kay Sweets thrives. Its website, gertiekaysweets.com, receives orders from all over the country, in addition to international requests. Monique, who now resides in Los Angeles, markets the business, handles shipments to areas in the Western United States region, and bakes Gertie’s recipes that she tweaked to be vegan- and keto-friendly. Karen bakes from the Thibodaux home and handles orders from the Southeast, Southwest and Northeast regions.
“My great-grandmother never thought that her pies would make it out of Thibodaux, and the fact that they made it out to the United States is insane,” says Monique, who also shares that the company brings the family closer as well.
Karen says she’s proud of her daughter for all she’s done and continues to do for the business. “We have our normal run-ins,” she smiles. “But she’s great to work with, my baby girl.”
The mother-daughter duo also still keeps Gertie’s legacy of helping others, donating funds to those in need, whether it’s to keep someone’s lights on or pay for a single mother’s daycare expenses. “On a grand-scale, we are getting people to understand that [Gertie] was really about the community,” Monique says.
Folks can visit the website or Facebook page (facebook.com/gertiekays) to see what Gertie Kay Sweets has in store.
“I love baking — I really do,” Karen adds. “It’s rewarding in so many ways.” POV