Notable Edibles

Sweet Potato Sensations is a Detroit Staple

By / Photography By Jo Price | December 01, 2016
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sweet potato pies

In 2017, Sweet Potato Sensations will celebrate 30 years of bringing Detroit all kinds of treats based on the sweet potato. It has garnered the attention of ABC’s “The Chew,” the Food Network and Hillary Clinton. But in its bright orange storefront on the west side of Detroit, it has come to symbolize more than a bakery dedicated to all things sweet based on the tuber.

It began as a way to avoid making candied yams for the holidays.

Matriarch Cassandra Thomas created a recipe for sweet potato cookies for her husband, Jeffrey, a lover of sweet potatoes, even though she thought otherwise.

Cassandra, Espy and Jennifer Thomas
Espy, Casandra and Jennifer Thomas

It was the summer of 1987, when malls were home to cookie mainstays such as Mrs. Fields® and Famous Amos®. The Thomases decided to try their hand at their own cookie business, starting with a 30-block garage sale in the Rosedale Park neighborhood of Detroit. Three hours and 125 bags of cookies later, the cookies were gone—and the family began thinking bigger.

The next spring they started doing business, with Rocky Peanut Co. as their first customer. From those humble beginnings of making cookies in their basement, they moved on to the kitchen at the North Rosedale Community House, then eventually to their first storefront, which they outgrew. They bought a former microfilm processing lab across the street, but the timing might have not been ideal for most businesses: It was right smack in the middle of the Great Recession.

Nevertheless they stuck it out, and today, with daughters Espy and Jennifer at the helm, Sweet Potato Sensations is a vital member of the vibrant and active food scene in Detroit. Espy manages the front of the house. She says a culmination of factors brought Sweet Potato Sensations to its status as a beloved Detroit brand, and even though they have been around since the late ’80s they’ve gained more traction in the past five or six years.

Today the store is more than just a bakery; it’s a community hub of sorts. On one wall is the Visionary Voices rotating exhibit featuring local artists. Espy and Jennifer host Naturally Flyy Detroit, a Detroit-based meetup in which the duo “encourage and inspire women to be their true authentic selves starting with their hair.” Espy has also spearheaded an effort to get local food entrepreneurs and fellow minority-owned businesses the opportunity to sell their products at the store.

For these two sisters, Sweet Potato Sensations is more than just a business; it’s about carrying on a tradition. With her creative and artistic background, Espy is a natural at public relations and design, while Jennifer is organized and meticulous, making her the go-to baker who makes the batter on which everything is based.

“My sister and I want to do our part, just to make sure we continue that legacy and at least be able to own it and manage it,” Espy says. “It’s our family. It’s a Detroit staple.” 

Learn more at Sweet Potato Sensations

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