How Johnny Jenkins overcame his distaste of sweet potatoes and co-founded Crème Détroipolis

Sweet dreams

About four years ago, Johnny Jenkins and his Crème Détroipolis business partner Frederick Douglas started experimenting with Jenkins's mother's sweet potato pie recipe. He says, "Once we started finding out that people actually liked it, we started thinking, 'How do we get it into stores? How do we maybe get it into cafes? Do we start up our own business?'" They needed access to a commercial kitchen, and inquired at local churches and other institutions and hit dead ends. Then, they found the good people at FoodLab and Detroit Kitchen Connect. Jenkins says, "They were instrumental in helping us navigate those spaces and make that happen. Detroit Kitchen Connect specifically gave us access to a commercial kitchen. It took a lot of frustration off of both of us because we were trying to work every angle to get into a kitchen. "The original product that we came up with was my mother's sweet potato pie recipe," Jenkins says. "It's based on a homemade Graham-cracker crust. All of our products are gluten-free, and in the middle of each of our pies, there's a thin layer of sweet cream — like a sweetened cream cheese. It's unique to our pies."

Next, the team moved on to make sweet potato truffles. Jenkins says, "They're dark chocolate and everyone considers it decadent, but it's supposed to be decadent: It's a truffle! We also do it in white chocolate. Most people are surprised that sweet potato and chocolate work so well together." From there, the product line just kept expanding. Jenkins says, "After this, we started working on some sweet potato cookies, so we've got a sweet potato chocolate chip and a sweet potato cinnamon chip cookie. I'm a chocolate chip lover, but the cinnamon chip has been outselling that by far."

Why the emphasis on the sweet potato? It makes more sense when you consider that Jenkins, 46, is originally from Ouachita Parish, in northern Louisiana. He moved to Detroit at the tail end of the Northern Migration when he was just 6 months old. So it's only natural that his mother, Ida Jenkins, bequeathed him with the culinary skills of the South. What's more, his aunt, Mary Lee Jenkins, is based in Ruston, La., and is widely known there for the pies she bakes.

Remarkably, despite this wealth of culinary knowledge, the humble sweet potato was an unlikely vegetable for him to hinge his fortunes on.

"I never liked sweet potato pie," Jenkins says, "because the texture would gross me out. My mom used to make it and I never ate it."

About four years ago, that changed. He says, "I asked her for the recipe because I wanted to experiment with it and really just kind of blend the meatiness of the sweet potato out of it. I just wanted it to be smooth and creamy, and I've never had a sweet potato pie that was smooth, creamy, and had the flavors right. So when I started playing with it, she really liked it — she thought it was better than hers. She gave me some advice on how to make it even more smooth. I talked to my aunt in Louisiana and she gave me some advice on how to make it even creamier and balance out the flavors. Then, my pastry chef and I decided that we don't want to do a regular pie crust, so we came up with the graham cracker crust."

At first, the crusts were made from processed Graham crackers, but then they met up with Michele Bezue from Detroit's own Sweet Artisan Marshmallows, who taught them a thing or two.

"We met her at during the holiday at Campus Martius last year, and she said, 'Y'all should make your own Graham crackers,' and I just looked at her all crazy. She kept saying it! So I went on Pinterest and looked up how to make a gluten-free graham cracker. We got it right, and we've really been experimenting with the gluten-free thing, and we realized that it didn't change the flavor of the pie. If anything, it just made it lighter but the flavors were still there. It's been a really good difference-maker for us, you know."

In fact, now all of Crème Détroipolis's products are gluten-free. Jenkins says the gluten substitutes include cornflower, soybean flower, and a mixture that includes xanthan gum to keep it together. "If we don't tell people," he says, "then they can't tell the difference, which is what we really like. Neither of us has celiac disease, but, when we initially got out there testing the product, there were a lot of people who wanted the gluten-free experience. It's been a hit so far. We've got so good at doing it, even with making our own graham-cracker crust, that we just decided to take everything gluten-free because it was virtually painless."

Accommodating dietary restrictions didn't stop there. Jenkins and Douglas then came up with a vegan, sugarless version of the pie. "And it's still gluten-free," Jenkins says, "so that's like the triple-decker: gluten-free, sugarless, and vegan. We sweeten it with dates and bananas to keep it together."

With several successful products under their belt, you'd think Jenkins and Douglas would focus on marketing, but they're still using some of their time in the kitchen to create new products, and using some space at their stands to test them. Take one item, a four-ounce jar that's basically a "brownie in a cup." "That's a gluten-free brownie with blueberry sauce and our original sweet cream mixed in," Jenkins says. "We introduced it at Grosse Pointe Village Fest and sold out of them like crazy. I didn't think it was going to sell."

The two bakers are also planning more sugarless products. "We're working on an ube truffle now, using purple yams. It has a different taste and texture and we're working on making that sugarless. So we're gonna work with the sugarless dark chocolate. We'll just sweeten it with agave."

Jenkins has come a long way from the Louisiana kid who turned up his nose at sweet potato pie. These days, he sounds like not just a convert, but a proselytizer.

"Sweet potatoes are one of the best vegetables you can have," he tells us. "It's great for your skin, it reduces stress, and it's the ultimate comfort food." — mt

To learn more about Crème Détroipolis, including where they sell their products and what farmers markets they vend at, see their Facebook page.