Jamal Lake has had an entrepreneurial spirit since he was a kid. From selling cookies at age 10 in his hometown of St. Croix, Virgin Islands, to becoming “Coconut Guy” in his early twenties at West Palm Beach’s GreenMarket, Lake found his passion in baking.
After he moved to Florida to go to Florida Culinary Institute, he met Joan Lewis, a woman who reminded him of his mom, and who had similar culinary ambitions. Together, they’ve found sweet success with Ganache Bakery Café located in Downtown West Palm Beach. Their concept for a cake shop has inspired a contagious love for serving city workers and teaching locals how to bake delicious goodies.
I met up with Jamal Lake at his shop at 3pm one day after he closed his doors to the public. But as he says, “It’s when all the creativity begins!”
How did you come up with the name for your business?
When we were trying to come up with a name, we wanted it to represent something that we do. I’ve always loved ganache, is one of my favorite things. So, after trying some different names, Ganache just stuck with us.
And when you say “us,” who are you referring to?
Joan Lewis, my business partner who’s originally from Jamaica.
How did the two of you meet?
At the Florida Culinary Institute, where we eventually earned our degrees in International Baking and Pastry. I moved to Florida to attend culinary school when I was eighteen. And that’s when I met Joan. She just reminded so much of my mom. So I actually call her Mother Joan. One quarter we had a class together and I told her that she reminded me of my mom, and after that we became really good friends. Our families adopted each other as family.
What’s your hometown?
Born and raised in St. Croix in the Virgin Islands.
That’s a beautiful island, and home to an impressive number of talented chefs that have mastered the art of Caribbean cuisine. You are in good company. Now, did you always know that you wanted to be a baker?
Yes, I loved baking and spending time in the kitchen, while my friends were out playing!
So after you came to Florida and graduated from Florida Culinary Institute, what happened next?
I decided to stay in West Palm Beach. I love it so much here!
And why do you love it here so much?
I just love the way they do everything in downtown. All the things they do is very clean and they just take it to the next level. Like if you go to any of the city events, they are always well organized, very professional, and people love it. And the people here [downtown area] are very nice. I love the energy at the GreenMarket, which gives you a vibe and makes you think, “I want to be downtown.” And when I came to West Palm Beach, downtown was the upcoming thing. Everybody wanted to be downtown…
And here you are! Tell me how that happened.
Well, I knew this was the place to be. I started my business “Jamal’s Cakes & Things” at the market. At first, I just did juices, because I didn’t have a kitchen. In fact, when I first signed up for the GreenMarket, one of their representatives in the special events office told me, “If you can do coconuts and sugar cane juices, you’re in!” So, I ran to Miami and found the machine to do this, and that’s how my business started. I didn’t have a kitchen to produce the cakes, and so doing the juices first was the perfect solution.
Why juices? I mean, I know that the Caribbean is well known for its coconuts and sugar cane, so tell me what made you think of starting a juice business.
I had a friend who would do local events, and his dad had a sugar cane farm. He also had a lot of coconuts and sugar cane. He never would let me cut the coconuts, but I would serve them for free.
Did you always have that entrepreneur spirit?
Oh, yes! Even as a kid, I always liked selling cookies and things. And some of them were really bad, but I guess people didn’t care! [laughing] I always said I wanted to be an entrepreneur, so starting a juice business was my way to get my feet wet.
You had a good idea in the making and had the courage to execute on it. But how did your business evolve from juices to cakes and more?
I was at the GreenMarket one day during the Strawberry Festival with the Florida Culinary Institute. And I thought, “This market is amazing!” And so that brought to mind when I helped my friend sell the coconut and sugar cane juices. Eventually, I found a kitchen which I rented from a caterer and that’s when I started doing the rum cakes, and brought them to the GreenMarket.
And how did the people react to your new rum cakes?
They began asking me, “Where can we find you during the week?”
Well, that’s a great sign!
Well, yes, but I had to tell them that I didn’t have a store yet. By this point, Joan and I were baking our separate cakes. She was doing her thing, and I was doing my thing. So one day we decided to join forces and start a new business together.
Is that when you sat down and came up with the name for your business?
Yes, that’s how Ganache got started.
How long have you been in this location?
June 7 will be four years since our grand opening. We’re looking for a bigger space now. We’ve outgrown this spot.
Who are your typical customers?
Typically, a lot of the workers from the courthouse, the correction offices, all the business around us and many of the residents who live in surrounding buildings here in downtown. It’s so nice to bump into them and hear, “Jamal, I knew you when you were just the ‘Coconut Guy’ and now you have more juices and different things.” So, a lot of our hard core customers are actually GreenMarket customers. And again, the workers around here support us a lot.
Is that why you decided to add Lunch to your menu?
Yes, because at first we just did cakes and juices. And my wife said to me one day, “I think you should have a few sandwiches to your menu.” And so, after we had the grand opening, all we had were desserts. And people would ask us, “Nothing for lunch?” So that pushed us to add the lunch and breakfast specials.
What do you serve for breakfast and lunch?
For breakfast, we have our egg and cheese sandwich, and you can add bacon or ham. We do it on croissant, English muffin, or toast. And for lunch, we have our Grilled Chicken Panini. I actually did a test run at a cooking class I teach at the Gardens and the ladies loved it. So, I put it on my menu and that’s our most popular sandwich.
And what does that consist of?
Grilled chicken, red peppers, provolone cheese, spinach…so good!
What are your business hours?
We’re here from 8am to 3pm. But, after we close our doors we’re here until the wee hours of the morning doing the birthday, wedding, and anniversary cakes. So, we do a lot of special occasion cakes, which are all done to order. Many times people come in and ask me if they can have a cake for that same day. Everybody wants their cakes fresh, especially our downtown people. So, we need to be fast, but I always tell them that we need at least 48 hours. The only cake we can do in a few hours is a rum cake.
Now looking at Ganache, you have all these great products, including the coconut and sugar cane juices that made you famous as the “Coconut Guy.” And you started telling me about how you’re outgrowing this spot. What’s your vision for the future?
Joan Lewis: We want a bigger space so that we can do more cakes, and have them available for our catering business. We cater many events for the downtown neighborhood, as well as the Downtown Development Association. We want to do more catering and we also do classes. But the problem we have here is that we don’t have enough space.
What classes do you offer?
Well, first a bunch of people come together and they pick a subject, like “How to Make Christmas Cookies.” We once had a great group of ladies, most retired teachers and administrators, who wanted to know how to make Christmas cookies from scratch to finish—from making the dough, rolling it, baking the cookies and decorating them. The ladies told me that I should do this more often. So, eventually, I did other classes, including kids’ birthday parties where they can learn how to bake cup cakes, and that kind of thing.
So is there a big market for the classes?
Oh, yes, and being that I already do some classes at Publix, some people have asked, “Why don’t you do classes at your store?” So, again, it would be nice to have a bigger place so that we can offer those classes.
Will you stay here in Downtown West Palm Beach?
Yes! I’m a Downtown West Palm Beach man, even though I live in Lake Park. I love Downtown West Palm Beach. It’s cool and hip.
If you were to share a recipe with our readers, what would it be?
I have so many favorites! It could be a cookie or a cake. But I think if I were to share one recipe it would be my Chocolate Ganache.
Now, Jamal, like you, there are so many great chefs and bakers who have graduated from the Florida Culinary Institute, and are now working right here in Downtown WPB. Do you have some words of wisdom that you can share with the next batch of chefs entering the culinary industry?
I would say, always try to do your best. Always try to reach for the next level. Be professional. And out of all of that, you have to have passion. Because sometimes people think, “Oh, I’m going to culinary school and I’m going to be this big baker or chef.” But it is never really their passion. They’re just doing it to make money. The truth is you don’t make money in the beginning. So, you have to have passion and drive. You know, I often think, “When am I going to get to that next level?” You can’t plateau. You should always try to elevate. Stay current with the trends, continue learning, because it doesn’t end after culinary school!
Ganache Bakery Cafe is located at 120 S Dixie Hwy, Suite 103, West Palm Beach, FL 33401. Visit www.ganachebakerycafe.com or call (561) 507-5082.