Martha Austin grew up surrounded by food and extended family near 16th and Meinecke Streets on Milwaukee’s North Side. Her family’s home was close to a bakery, a deli (now Jake’s Deli) and a grocery store and she says the operators of these food businesses were part of the village that raised her.
Her mother and "church mothers" also had a great impact on Austin’s love of food, cooking and most of all, baking.
"We cooked, but baking was always our signature," says Austin. "And mother Winters would always say to me, ‘don’t skimp, baby.’"
Austin took that advice to heart and for years created gourmet cakes and pies from scratch with rich ingredients such as butter, eggs and condensed milk.
"This is old time cooking. And people love it," she says.
For decades, Austin made cakes and pies for friends and family and always gave them away. People raved about her baking abilities and encouraged her to sell them. Eventually, Austin took a business course and guidance from Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corporation (WWBIC).
Two months ago, at the age of 60, Austin opened Memah’s Kitchen on the second floor of the Grand Avenue Mall, across from Brew City Beer Gear. She teamed up with her daughter, Brandi Iberia Austin, who attended Howard University and received an MBA. She is also a recording artist known to her fans as "Iberia."
Austin’s sister, Iberia Lewis, owned and operated the now-defunct Cajun restaurant Iberia’s Kitchen. Lewis is currently fighting cancer. Her photo, along with other family member’s photos, hang on what Austin calls her "legacy wall" in the lounge area behind the cake shop.
Austin, a former pastor of a non-denominational church, plans to have regular "coffee with Memah" events where people are invited to hang out, chat about their lives and enjoy coffee with Austin.
"You don’t know the tears that have been shed in this space already," she says. "I’m not a psychiatrist and I’m not so heavenly bound that I’m no earthly good. I really care about people."
Austin left the ministry at her church five years ago to focus on the marketplace but continues to approach life through a lens of ministry.
"I was a Pastor To the People and I continue to listen to people or to give homeless folks a piece of cake," she says.
Austin bakes a variety of cakes, including caramel, caramel pecan, caramel apple, red velvet, German chocolate, coconut peach, strawberry cream, almond delight, turtle heaven, bread pudding, chocolate chocolate, vanilla walnut, lemon pound and more. As for pies, she makes sweet potato, Kool-Aid, cream cheese, buttermilk and banana pudding, among others.
She also takes special orders – including orders for gluten or sugar free cakes and pies – and enjoys experimenting on her own to create new flavors.
"I make my cakes with the wisdom I received from others and also, most importantly, with a whole lotta love," she says.
Austin bakes three days a week at a commercial kitchen on the North Side and transports the desserts to the shop daily. She also delivers the sweets to customers.
"Baking is therapeutic for me," she says. "I have a passion and I love a challenge."
Memah’s cakes and pies are $30 or $35 with a second topping. They are available full size and in bite-sized versions called "mini-mahs."
"The one thing I don’t make is cupcakes. There’s enough of those out there. I want to do something different. Let’s wear cakes on our heads," she jokes.
Austin is also a writer who has penned four children’s books and owns a production company. In 2011, she wrote, produced and directed "No Daddy," a play based on a book written by Shontina Gladney.
"No Daddy" was performed at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts and continues to tour today.
Austin says Memah’s Cakes is just phase one of her business and it has already surpassed her expectations.
"So much is happening so fast. Now I’m just trying to duplicate me," she says. "People ask why I would want to start a business at 60. Well, here I am and I am loving it. If you care about what you do, it shows."
To order a cake or pie, call, stop in at the shop or contact Memah's through Facebook.
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.