If you’re looking for a new way to enjoy sweet potatoes, then you have found the right chefs who are giving those root vegetables new life. Sweet Potato Kings, as this writer and foodie likes to call them, chefs Johnny Jenkins and Fredrick Douglas Jr. have found the way to my heart with their delectable desserts.
Read what they have to say.
How old is the business?
Johnny Jenkins: Crème Detroipolis is 2 years old.
How did you come up with the name?
JJ: Well, so Detroipolis is a name that I’ve been playing with on various projects. It seemed to fit this very well because it’s very indicative of Detroit and the product is very indicative of Detroit. Much of Detroit has southern roots and since our product is primarily based off of sweet potato crème, we decided to use the word crème and Detroit and we adopted the word Detroipolis so that it would include the entire region and not just Detroit proper. Of course a lot of people, migrated including my family, Johnny Jenkins, migrated to Detroit in the late sixties from Louisiana.
What prompted you two to go in business? Are y’all like family? How did you hook up and start this company?
JJ: Well about four years ago I started tweaking my mother’s sweet potato pie recipe because I didn’t like sweet potato pie before that. But, for some reason, or another, I just got the notion that if I change the texture of the pie I might actually like sweet potato pie. She gave me her recipe. I started tweaking it and refining the flavors and the texture, because I don’t like my pies chunky. I like them really smooth. After playing with that, and doing some different things, my mother just decided to say, “You know what? You should really start trying to do something with this.” She had really liked what I did with the flavors and she liked the texture of it.
Fred and I had been friends over a decade. He’s a really talented pastry chef, and he started tweaking the flavors even more. Then we started adding other elements to the pie and after that she just said on Thanksgiving in 2012, “You guys really need to take this to the next level and go ahead and do something with it.” Once we got her blessing that Thanksgiving, come January 2013 we both decided, let’s go ahead and figure out how to get this to market and refine this recipe and take it to the next level.
So, Fred where did you get your culinary training?
Frederick Douglas: Well, actually I had to start working restaurant business for, like, years. I’ve been in the restaurant business like 20 years and I was intending to go to school and more focus into doing a lot of schooling, but in going down the path, in the long run, short things started. It started me to do other things, so I jumped off. I ended up going back to school and doing other things to make me go off into what I really wanted to do. I always wanted to be a pastry chef, I always wanted to run my own kitchen. My thing is our goal is to get something else going and, me finish school and get the kitchen side of it, and we wanted to own our own business in the long run.
Basically you just have a natural gift to cook?
FD: Yes and my parents were also chefs. My father was a chef in school. He was a chef in St. Louis and he also cooked at the hospitals in the state of Michigan. Now he’s in St. Louis so he always pushed me to want to be a chef too so…
JJ: You know? Everything he cooks he gets nothing but compliments. Ya know that old southern term, “he put his foot in it”? Everything he cooks he puts his foot in. [laughs] He puts a lot of love behind it. And, then the whole gluten˗free aspect of this pie is something we kind of stumbled into. We’re finding a lot of people aren’t that good at doing gluten˗free deserts or meals at all. When we picked up on it Fred hasn’t missed a beat. He’s frying chicken with corn flour and now he’s experimenting with other things with different types of flours outside of high gluten˗based flour. He just has a natural talent for it. He’s not going to own it like he should, but he’s really good.
Well, I got one of your toenails in that sweet potato pie and it was wonderful. I enjoyed eating them.*laughing* It was so good. So, tell me what’s the vision for Crème Detroipolis? How many locations do you have now?
JJ: We’re at about, I think, four different locations here in metro Detroit. We are at a small gourmet grocery store. We’re at some other retail spots in Detroit proper, and we’re doing a lot of vending and pop˗ups this year, which is what we focused on in terms of distribution. We’re starting to make presentations to Whole Foods here in Detroit, and our long term goal is to expand our distribution network which is to include gourmet specialty food stores as well as to open up a store front. We’d like to ultimately have a coffee house bistro that would be producing our gluten˗free pastry goods in and then later specialty coffees and small place baby items.
What are your three most popular desserts?
JJ: It is sweet potato pie, our sweet potato truffles, and, right now, it’s probably the sweet potato cinnamon chip cookie. Fred wouldn’t you agree?
FDk: Yes, I definitely agree.
JJ: Yep. The sweet potato cinnamon chip cookie is outdoing our sweet potato chocolate chip cookie. Which, chocolate chip cookies are my favorite, but the cinnamon chip cookie is just, everybody’s eyes open wide when they eating that.
Who shops for the food? Like is there a special something that you have to look for with your sweet potatoes before you will use them? Is there some special secret?
FD: Well we know how to both do shopping.
JJ: Yes. We both do the buying. I have this thing for jumbo sweet potatoes because it’s a recommendation that my mother made when we initially started making the pies. I would love to locally source those sweet potatoes, because I’m finding that they’re some black farmers here in Detroit and Southeast Michigan that are actually growing sweet potatoes. Yeah, which I didn’t know you could do, but sometimes we get a lot of humidity and it could make it work. I’m looking to connect with them and see if we could potentially locally source our produce here in Southeast Michigan and in Detroit.
What’s next on Crème Détroipolis’ menu?
JJ: We’ve been adding to the product line. We’ve got two new items that are really popular. There’s a gluten˗free blueberry brownie that Fred just came up with that we’re doing in a mason jar, a small 4 ounce mason jar. I’m not sure if I sent that to you in that package. He just came up with a few weeks ago with a sweet potato bourbon cake that we’re also doing in an 8 ounce Mason jar. We’ve gotten rave reviews about both of those products.
I don’t recall if you sent it or not but I was sharing with my co˗workers. They might have eaten it. So now I’m mad.
JJ: Yes. That blueberry brownie was a surprise to me because I don’t like blueberries. I had no confidence in it when Fred initially came up with it. He came up with that when we were out at a taste festival in the suburbs of Detroit and we ran out of product that first day. So, we came home and he was trying to figure out what else could I bake off in the next 12 hours that we could take back out to that same festival. And he came up with this blueberry brownie thing, and we sold out of all the items that we took back to that market, and I was sold. And he was still able to make it gluten˗free and everything is all natural. Everything is gluten˗free and everything is an original for Crème Detroipolis. We’re looking to continue following that path and build up the Detroipolis brand. Build it up into a dessert company that does high˗end desserts, and work with our business partners to bring on some celebrities to help us take it to the next level.