Laid off from school cafeteria, Berkeley baker concocted nostalgic cake business

Aunty Pooey’s Sweet Tooth serves up hard-to-find desserts made with heart and flair.

Adrienne Johnson founded her popular dessert business after a career with the the Berkeley Unified School District. Courtesy: Adrienne Johnson

Sometimes, all you want is a piece of cake — you know, with the gluten, the dairy, the sugar and everything else, like you’d eat without a second thought in the “before” times. That must be how the customers of Aunty Pooey’s Sweet Tooth — people who stop by her home-based Berkeley kitchen and walk away with a slice of chess pie or Hummingbird cake — feel. During the pandemic, in a sea of health fads and self-care nutrition trends, Aunty Pooey’s had emerged as an island of throwback, unapologetic sweetness, entirely by word to mouth. 

The owner, 52-year-old Adrienne Johnson, launched her business in the beginning of 2020. She had just been laid off, part of that pandemic-era wave of job losses, from her job as a cafeteria cook for the Berkeley Unified School District. Leaning into her lifelong love of cooking and baking, Johnson applied for a license to prepare and sell food from her home, and set up shop on the Doordash platform. By September 2020, Aunty Pooey’s was in business. 

Aunty Pooey’s 7 Up pound cake, a hard-to-find dessert in the Bay Area. Credit: Aunty Pooey’s/Doordash

The structure is simple. Anty Pooey’s sells whole 10-inch cakes, pies and desserts for $40-$50, or slices priced at $7. Both are available via pick-up directly from Johnson’s doorstep or through a delivery platform. While customers love to order cakes for celebrations, single-slice walk-ups are incredibly popular “all day long,” she said. And why not? Johnson’s creations are the embodiment of comfort.

Take any dessert — the peach cobbler, the red velvet cake, the sweet potato pound cake decorated with a spiced chai glaze or the layered Hummingbird, rich with spices and frosted. All of them are undoubtedly retro, but also refreshing in their self-assured nod to classic indulgence. Others were born on a whim. “I was laying in bed one day, wondering if people would like a pineapple pound cake,” Johnson said. “I went into the kitchen, played with some batter, and now it’s one of my bestsellers.” Still others, like the banana pudding and the pecan pie, she learned from her mother, who was also an avid baker. The camel cakes and chess pie came from her mother-in-law. 

Aunt Pooey’s Sweet Potato Crunch, a sweet potato pie topped with a crunchy cake topping. Credit: Aunty Pooey’s/Doordash

Then, there’s the 7 Up pound cake, which Johnson adopted from a friend’s mother. “I was a teenager when I first tried it, and couldn’t believe how good it was!” she said, adding that she managed to get her hands on the recipe only with a promise to never share it. The fizzy drink is hiding in the batter, and Johnson swears by its culinary qualities. 

Johnson makes anywhere from 30 to 60 cakes a week, assisted by her husband and daughter. “I try to put as much love into my cakes as possible,” Johnson said. She’s proud of the fact that Google and Yelp reviewers love her, calling her treats “heavenly,” “decadent” and “delish.” Some clients especially enjoy the fact that cakes like Pooey’s — Johnson has had that nickname since childhood — are very hard to find in California. “A good pecan pie is especially hard to find around here,” Johnson said, who, despite having grown up in the Bay Area, has Texan roots. 

Of course, as adored as her cakes are, Johnson is regularly asked about gluten-free and vegan options. She does have a couple of vegan items, but “I need to sit and calculate how to make the gluten-free versions.” That might happen soon, or not. But in the meantime, the steady trickle of happy customers, cake in hand, isn’t going anywhere. 

Aunty Pooey’s Sweet Tooth desserts are available to order for pickup via her website, or through DoorDash or Uber Eats.