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USA TODAY

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Sep 04, 2020
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The family-owned business, based in Detroit, has been around since 1987 when it started selling sweet potato cookies at a neighborhood garage sale. It has since become a hallmark destination – visited by the likes of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, and by actresses Tippi Hedren, Shirley Jones, Pam Grier and Detroit’s mayors.

The black-owned business continues to roll mightily along even during the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Yelp Economic Average Report, over 132,000 businesses closed from March to July, with the greatest closures hitting restaurants.

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“We have a tremendous following and I think that's the only reason we have survived this pandemic,” says Cassandra Thomas, founder of Sweet Potato Sensations.

Sweet Potato Sensations husband-wife duo Jeffery Thomas and Cassandra Thomas started Sweet Potato Sensations in Detroit in 1987.
Sweet Potato Sensations husband-wife duo Jeffery Thomas and Cassandra Thomas started Sweet Potato Sensations in Detroit in 1987.
USA TODAY
The business functions as a bakery, café, store and ice cream parlor all-in-one. It serves almost anything made from fresh sweet potatoes from North Carolina including pies, cookies, cobbler, pancakes, waffles, ice cream and grits.

“The sweet potato pie is the most popular,” Thomas says, “but we’re trying to get people to be adventurous and try other things sweet potato.”

Thomas runs the business alongside her husband, Jeffery and their two daughters, Charisse, 39, and Jennifer 38.

Sweet Potato Sensations serves sweet potato cookies, pies, cheesecake, cobblers, ice cream, pancakes, waffles, and grits.
Sweet Potato Sensations serves sweet potato cookies, pies, cheesecake, cobblers, ice cream, pancakes, waffles, and grits.
USA TODAY
Since 2014, the shop has been serving other savory foods like salmon croquette sandwiches, Amish chicken wings, and black-eyed peas and collard green soup. The menu additions helped the business grow by approximately 50%, Jeffrey estimates. The Thomas family supports other Detroit-based black-owned businesses by selling items like t-shirts, popcorn, soaps and salsa.

“We’re kind of like the Cracker Barrel in the ‘hood,” says Cassandra. “For a black child to see a family run business in his community speaks volumes to that child.”

When the pandemic hit hard in the U.S. in mid-March, the company closed for six weeks and laid off all it’s 15 employees. Since then, the family has been left running the business by itself, with just one cook coming in on the weekends. Open days have been reduced from six days a week to just three, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

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“My typical day is about 16 hours,” Cassandra says. “The biggest challenge is doing everything ourselves.” Cassandra and daughter Jennifer run the back of the house, cooking, chopping and doing the dishes, while Charisse runs the front of the house and Jeffrey stays on track of the accounting.
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