St. Louis Standards: For SweetArt's Reine Keis, Baking Is a Calling

Jan 21, 2022 at 6:54 am

click to enlarge Reine Keis feels thankful to still be running SweetArt on her terms. - ANDY PAULISSEN
Reine Keis feels thankful to still be running SweetArt on her terms.

St. Louis Standards is a weekly column dedicated to the people, places and dishes that make our food scene what it is.

A student of French and English, Reine Keis always assumed she would work in journalism, not the restaurant business. However, her plans would change after a fateful job interview that left her questioning not only her current opportunity, but her career trajectory in general.

"I was doing freelance writing and was going up for an associate editor position with one of the magazines in town," Keis says. "I had gotten to the final interview with four editors — three women and one man — and when we were finishing up, we were talking about life and children. When I stood up to shake hands, one of the editors asked me, 'How many children do you have again?' and the other one leaned over to her and said 'three' as if I had fifteen. I remember seeing her do that and thinking to myself that there was no way I was going to get this job. It was pretty painful to live through. As I walked across the street to my car, I thought that this might be the time to think about opening my own space, because I loved baking."

Now, roughly a decade and a half since that ill-fated job interview, it's difficult to imagine Keis in any field other than baking. As owner of the beloved Shaw neighborhood institution SweetArt (2203 South 39th Street, 314-771-4278), Keis has been sharing her talents with her customers for thirteen years, producing some of the area's most delicious, artfully presented baked goods and daytime fare. Even though she never set out to be a restaurateur and baker, when she looks back, she can see that she has been working toward this life for as long as she can remember. Growing up as the only girl with three brothers, Keis was always with her mother, standing alongside her in the kitchen as she showed off her cooking chops for her family. Those experiences instilled in Keis a passion for food — one that stayed with her no matter what she was doing in her life.

click to enlarge Vegan cupcakes are a SweetArt specialty. - ANDY PAULISSEN
Vegan cupcakes are a SweetArt specialty.

"I've always cooked and baked, because that's what my mother did," Keis says. "I've done everything — I've taught aerobics, edited dissertations — I was the queen of small part-time jobs, but I would still come home and want to bake something. When I started dating, I would want to cook for that person, because it was my way of saying, 'I really like you.' Some young girls might twerk, but for me, I'd make you a plate. It was my superpower."

Keis found herself constantly daydreaming about baking, and she would fill her free time by following bakeries on social media and watching food-centric programs on television. Eventually, her hobby expanded to include baking for her brother's co-workers; Keis' wares were so well-received they started buying cookies from her, turning the endeavor into an actual small business.

"I would go to work, but all I could think was, 'I can't wait to make this when I get home.' I just couldn't stop thinking about it," Keis says. "Every time I went on vacation or took time for mental health, I was always trying to find the neighborhood bakeshop. I'd say to myself, 'This is what I want to do; this is what I want to do.' I finally had this realization that I am sure this is why I was born. I was born to cook and bake."

Keis found a champion in her ex-husband, Cbabi Bayoc, who encouraged her to take the leap into baking full time. He suggested that they collaborate on a space; an ideal storefront would provide a place for her to bake as well as room for a proposed art studio and gallery. When they found the spot on 39th Street that ticked off all the boxes, they decided to go for it. Keis admits it was difficult; with three children under the age of ten, she felt overwhelmed and questioned whether or not she should have waited a few more years to follow her dreams. However, as guests started coming in to ooh and ahh over her cooking, she understood that this was her moment.

click to enlarge Buffalo cauliflower is one of SweetArt's most popular dishes. - ANDY PAULISSEN
Buffalo cauliflower is one of SweetArt's most popular dishes.

It didn't take long for SweetArt to evolve from a simple bakery into a full-blown breakfast and lunch café. Thanks to her knack for plant-based cooking, Keis gained a loyal following of vegan and vegetarian customers; thanks to her culinary prowess, she was loved by omnivores alike. Her veggie burger — created in a time before the Impossible or Beyond Meat products came on the market — was a huge hit and garnered SweetArt serious buzz that led to features on local television shows, and even Netflix's Fresh, Fried and Crispy, which ran last year.

Through it all, Keis has felt the range of emotions that come with running a business. Exhilaration, satisfaction, fear, discouragement — all have hit her at some point in time, some simultaneously, and she is open about the added difficulties that come with running a Black-owned business.

"A lot of people don't understand that there is a stigma that comes with Black businesses and restaurants, with people thinking everything should be $5.99," Keis says. "Heaven forbid that something is $10. You get a lot of pushback from that, and I've had people tell me things like, 'This is why I don't support Black-owned businesses.' However, you have to let it go and not hold it. There's so much other shit to hold. During the life of this I've lost a parent suddenly, ended a business, sent kids to college, had friendships dissolve, had good employees and bad employees, and I'm still living life. You can't let people who want to complain get you down. You have to keep pushing."

Keis also admits that the last few years have added an extra layer of challenges. Dealing with staffing shortages, higher costs of doing business, dramatic changes to how restaurants can operate and the uncertainty that surrounds daily life in general have not been easy to endure. However, the situation has also spurred her to make important changes and pursue other endeavors as well. Recently, she has transitioned SweetArt to a full vegan bakery and restaurant, and she has even launched a line of plant-based cake mixes, sauces and dressings called Love + Magic. As these new efforts inspire her, she finds the energy to keep going.

People feel that energy when they come into SweetArt. They always have. Though Keis understands she would not have customers were it not for the good food, she believes that there is something more that makes her bakeshop and café occupy such a special place in people's hearts. Part of this is making sure everyone who walks through the door understands that she and her staff genuinely care. She's worked hard to create a warm, welcoming environment that stirs something within everyone who experiences it, and she is proud that, thirteen years into a business she hoped would make it to year five, she is still able to do what she loves on her own terms.

"My constant prayer up until year seven or eight was, 'Please don't let anyone's payroll bounce,'" Keis says. "It's been hard, but since then, my prayer is that I am able to continue to do this the way I want to and to let me stop doing it when and because I want to and not because I have to."

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