Food & Drink

Bradenton's Sweet Side: This neighborhood baker is doing amazing things with sweets

A day at Sugar Cubed Pastry Lab

A typical day in the life of pastry chef Dana Johnson at Sugar Cubed Pastry Lab.
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A typical day in the life of pastry chef Dana Johnson at Sugar Cubed Pastry Lab.

"Chef's Table Pastry" is now streaming on Netflix. The popular show takes a look at pastry chefs with daring, creative visions that are making a mark in the world of confection.

Watching the hour-long vignettes featuring sugar, vividly colored and in every form imaginable, can tend to make one's mouth water.

The show's producers might want to come to Bradenton, where there are several local sugar crafters who are putting their own spin on sweets.

Richey's Chocolates, Atomic Cat Craft Ice Cream, Retrobaked and Hometown Desserts are a few of the best Bradenton havens for bold confections.

One place that stands out is Sugar Cubed Pastry Lab. The small business started out of the Village of the Arts four years under the cottage food law before expanding to a new location in downtown Bradenton last year. The new space is presenting all new opportunities to experiment for one ambitious head chef and his culinary team.

Dana Johnson Sugar Cubed Pastry Lab
Dana Johnson, head chef at Sugar Cubed Pastry Lab. Ryan Ballogg

'Pastry lab' cooks up experiments

lab·o·ra·to·ry, noun (ˈlabrəˌtôrē/): a place providing opportunity for experimentation, observation, or practice in a field of study.

When Dana Johnson opened his bakery in 2014, laboratory was the perfect word for his vision.

Johnson's passion for desserts drives him to bake a little bit of everything.

"I didn’t just want to be a cupcake or doughnut shop. I like to be innovative," Johnson said. "You want to change the way people think about a bakery."

Innovations on dessert at Sugar Cubed Pastry Lab include cappuccino muffins, key lime danishes, guava cheese pastries and Mexican hot chocolate toffee cookies. They also put their own spin on classics such as key lime pie, chocolate truffles and French macaroons.

After all, the most important course of a meal deserves some consideration.

"I always was partial to dessert because it's the last thing you see in a meal, the last thing you remember," Johnson said.

Even if a desert is not on the menu, Johnson and his culinary team are usually willing to give it a try.

Sugar Cubed Pastry Lab Cake
A cake halfway through decoration at Sugar Cubed Pastry Lab in downtown Bradenton. Ryan Ballogg

Johnson also makes a point of using wholesome ingredients wherever possible.

"This stuff still isn’t going to be healthy exactly, but we do use whole grains and high quality ingredients," Johnson said. "We don't do anything fried."

Commitment to ingredient quality can make prices go up a little bit. Customers don't always understand the expense behind it, but it is worth the trouble for Johnson.

"It's hard to do, but you have to pick your battles," Johnson said.

The bakery also uses sustainable packaging for its outbound goods. Hot tea and hot or iced coffee from local roasters are available at the bakery every day. Savory options, like a chorizo and egg bun with horseradish white cheddar, are a recent addition to the menu.

In March they began offering online ordering and local delivery through GrubHub.

Sugar Cubed Pastry Lab cronut
Sugar Cubed Pastry Lab's "cronut of the month" sits in the foreground. A cronut is a pastry mash-up of a croissant and a donut. Ryan Ballogg

Learning while baking

Like a true laboratory, Sugar Cubed is a place of learning.

Teaching others helped Johnson realize the need for a bakery in the Bradenton area in the first place.

Johnson was born and raised in Bradenton. He always pictured himself being a part of the downtown scene someday. But after he finished the baking and pastry arts program at Manatee Technical College, Johnson could not find a place to practice his craft.

"There aren't a lot of bakers around," Johnson said. Johnson tried a few jobs in the restaurant industry before going back to MTC, this time as a teacher.

The experience pushed him to become a better baker.

"It really makes you step back and think about what you are doing," Johnson said.

"Why do doughnuts rise? What are the functions of all the different ingredients?" Johnson said teaching for five years was rewarding, but the same problem was still lurking in the background. Students were graduating from the program only to have trouble finding work in the area.

"I wanted to create somewhere where I could take people in and help develop their entry-level skill set," Johnson said.

Victoria Fletcher is one of the newest members of the team at Sugar Cubed. Fletcher went to Kaiser University for culinary arts before getting an internship at Sugar Cubed last August. After four months, it turned into a job. Her forte is cake decorating. She also bakes in her free time at home.

"Whatever my friends ask me to bake," Fletcher said.

Sugar Cubed dessert
Chef Dana Johnson created this dark chocolate cremeux with blackberry rosewater gelee and dulce de leche caramel for a ten course dinner at Seafood Shack in the fishing village of Cortez in March. Dana Johnson

Building community at a new home

Sugar Cubed Pastry Lab opened in Village of the Arts four years ago. Last December it moved to 531 13th St W. in downtown Bradenton.

"It's a bigger spot to grow and expand," Johnson said.

Though he is happy to be downtown, Johnson says the move has almost been like starting over.

Most of Sugar Cubed's business comes from custom cakes and food arrangements. There are also some wholesale clients and a little bit of walk-in business.

One frequent walk-in is Errol Mehmet. Mehmet owns the City Hall Shoe Shop next door. He doesn't mind the proximity.

"I'm their guinea pig. I always get to try Dana's new bits," Mehmet said.

Mehmet, a native of London, says he is working on convincing Johnson try and make some British sweets like Cornish pasties. In the meantime he recommends the scones.

"They're very close to what we used to make in the UK, but he adds cinnamon," Mehmet said.

Mehmet sends a lot of his customers to Sugar Cubed.

"Dana is honest and good at what he does," Mehmet said.

Johnson also has a good relationship with Darwin Brewing, the Bradenton craft brewery that opened around the same time as Sugar Cubed. The two businesses collaborate on events throughout the year. The brewery has created beer infused with tea from Sugar Cubed, and Sugar Cubed has made desserts for beer dinners at the brewery.

The lab's efforts go far beyond the walls of the bakery. Sugar Cubed has been part of a 10-course meal at Seafood Shack in Cortez, a long table dinner at the Downtown Bradenton Transit Station, a fundraiser for Geraldson Community Farm, multiple Culinary Innovation Lab events at USF Sarasota-Manatee and countless other community gatherings and projects.

On a Thursday afternoon in Sugar Cubed Pastry Lab, Johnson is putting the finishing touches on an order of sugar cookies. They are in the shape of little crosses for a first communion. He pipes out patterns in sky blue frosting onto each one, a little different each time. It is a four-hour job start to finish.

Fletcher works a mound of dough soon to become bread buns. The smell of baked goods and creativity fills in the air.

Ryan Ballogg: 941-745-7024, @rballogg