If you’ve had a deliciously flaky homemade Pop-Tart from a local independent coffee shop, there’s a good chance Ashley Cherrington is behind the experience. The 28-year-old Navy veteran and mother of three runs Sweet Indulgence Bakery out of her Leesburg home, creating gorgeous wedding and specialty cakes along with a range of unique pastries. Cherrington moved to Loudoun last year and is looking for a commercial space in Leesburg with plans for a storefront bakery down the road. Cherrington is also a domestic violence survivor who loves giving back to her new community and will be hosting a fundraiser for a nonprofit that supports child abuse survivors this August.
Loudoun Now: How did you get started as a pastry chef?
Ashley Cherrington: I have no formal training. I’m all self-taught. It started in my grandma’s kitchen. My grandparents and my dad raised me, and my grandparents are an integral part of who I am. My grandmother kind of nurtured this passion that was in me, and I stuck with it. I went off to the military and when I got out, I got the first job that I could, and it was a Walmart cake decorator. I realized I was really good at it…
I’m from Ohio—a little town. I just had such a passion for [baking] and was always among friends and family the baker—it’s just what I did. As I grew older it became so much of who I am. … I think that’s what makes my bakery unique—there’s a lot of passion that’s poured into it. I love getting up every day and doing what I love.
My ex-husband was in the military and we moved to Guam. I was a manager there at a bakery for a while, and I quit and started my own bakery. Then we moved to Maryland and I continued the bakery in my home. I did a lot of couture cakes. Then with my divorce, I made the decision to close my business. I trained under an incredible chef in Baltimore, Glenn Lynch. He’s a very talented, very knowledgeable chef at a catering company. I trained under him for a year and a half as his sous [chef] and learned so much—wedding cakes and pastries. That’s where I started the transition from cake artist to the pastry side. Then I got a job offer from Amphora in Herndon as their executive [pastry] sous chef. They do a lot of Greek and a lot of traditional American and French pastry as well. I did that for around five months before I decided I was going to try [an independent bakery] again. God opened a door and we followed through and ever since he’s just blessed us incredibly.
LN: How have you built up your business in Loudoun and who are your clients?
AC: I believe in face-to-face communication and interaction. When I walk into a business, I tell them my name’s Ashley and I own Sweet Indulgence. I tell them who my current clients are and I offer them a complementary tasting box with 12 full size pastries. We have a set menu but we do special things for each client. So at King Street [Coffee], it’s the only place you can get an Italian cream muffin. It’s a coconut and pecan muffin. It’s really light and airy and sweet—it’s yummy. I have Bean Bar [in Village At Leesburg], which is the only place you can get my flourless chocolate cake. Brew LoCo [in Lansdowne] is the only place you can get my raspberry brownies. That’s a raspberry tea-infused chocolate brownie. It’s very good and it was actually their idea. We have Ridgetop Coffee [in Sterling] and we do Rice Krispies treats for them. And for Pollo Asado [in Sterling], I do their pan dulce cake and their tres leches cake. Some of our staples are Pop Tarts, muffins, cookies and croissants. We sell a lot of croissants.
LN: Where do you get your inspiration for some of the more unusual items?
AC:I love to tinker and I get all these great ideas. For me as a business, I can have all the passion in the world but that doesn’t make it a business. You have to be smart about what you do. I look at my ingredients and what I have on hand and what I can create with that. We’re in the works of creating a new croissant—a bacon, egg and cheddar croissant—it’s looking at my ingredients and seeing what’s selling, what’s trending, what are people going to like and then I’ll go to Pinterest and see what’s trending too as far as cake designs go and what flavors are trending and try to put my own twist and play on it. There are so many bakeries you have to think about what can set you apart and that’s what drives me is having those unique creations.
LN: You’ve been through a lot in your life. Is baking a healing process for you?
AC: Absolutely. For me, it’s therapy for any emotion—when I’m happy, when I’m sad, when I’m angry, I bake. It’s also how I express myself. Instead of sending somebody a condolence card, I’ll bake something. To say thank you, I bake. It’s just how I express myself. God has blessed my career immensely. In addition to all of this I’m contracted with the Augusta National Golf Club. Every year I’m part of the culinary team down there. They fly me down every spring. I lead and mentor a team of up and coming pastry chefs from Johnson and Wales and we teach them tips and tricks and how to do certain things with pastry. We do some pretty upscale things with pastry.
LN: What are some of the things that are trending in pastry right now?
AC:Mirror glazed cakes are big. It’s basically a very shiny glaze you can see yourself in. It’s made with color, gelatin, water and whatever flavor you’d like to add…Unique pastries seem to be getting the eye of everybody. Something out of the norm like different croissants. I created a caprese croissant. It’s basil tomato and mozzarella. A lot of savory pastries. At Brew LoCo, they take our Danish shells and bake them with an egg in the center. It’s an over easy egg, kind of like a modern bird’s nest, and it’s so good. Taking simple things and making it different and making it new. That’s the fun thing in this industry—it’s always changing.
LN: What did you do in the military and has it affected how you run your business?
AC:I grew up as a military brat. My dad was in the military. I grew up in that very strict, very regimented household, and we run our household the same. My boyfriend is still in the military. He serves in the U.S. Navy. I served in the U.S. Navy. I was a DC [Damage Controlman], which is a firefighter….I joined the military for that family legacy thing and got out and started the business. I’m ServSafe-certified which is a national food safety program. It’s following those guidelines, but I think it’s also that military background that keeps everything clean and organized. Everything is so exact in pastry. You have to have a knowledge and understanding of how the ingredients interact with each other. Right now I’m a one-man operation and I’m cranking out over a thousand pastries a week and doing it on my own in eight hours a day. You have to be organized and clean.
LN: Do you see yourself bringing [staff] on?
AC: Our goal is to be big enough at the two-year mark to start hiring people. My boyfriend says there’s something to be said for a business that will grow small and grow slow. And he’s right. How many businesses do you see tank because they’re growing too fast? It’s taking that step back and finding that threshold because I want to be bigger to make that difference but I don’t want to lose that customer service quality and the quality of the product.
LN: What do you like to make at home for your kids?
AC: My daughter doesn’t really have a sweet tooth, but my [older] son will eat anything. But their focus isn’t on the eating, it’s on the making. They want to know what I’m making. They ask why do we do it this way and how do we do it. They’re very inquisitive with it. They have little aprons and little hairnets. They go on deliveries with me. I’m very family-oriented and my focus is on my family and my faith first. I work with a lot of small businesses who also have a focus on family and it just reminds the businesses that we’re all real people and kind of emphasizes the focus. One reason we made the decision to leave Amphora was because I was missing time with my family. Having the business, there’s still a lot of work and there are still a lot of late nights but it allows me to stop when the children are home and then when they go to bed do what I need to do for the business. It allows me to work my business around my family instead of my family around my business.
LN: Do you have tips for home bakers?
AC:My biggest advice would be educate yourself. Don’t put so much weight on that piece of paper that says you graduated from a culinary school. None of that matters. Educate yourself and practice. I don’t have a culinary degree and I’m a fairly successful chef and what I’ve done is educate myself. I get on YouTube and watch the videos and I try it. I use my family and friends as guinea pigs. There are different opportunities to do that. If you’re part of a church, donate stuff to your church. It gives you an opportunity to do the trial and error and test recipes. One of the shows I watched when I was younger was Alton Brown’s “Good Eats.” Alton Brown explains how these ingredients interact with each other and why they do it. You need to know the science. Educate yourself on the techniques. And the biggest tip I tell every up and coming pastry chef: you need to realize you’re not the best. You have to humble yourself. I know that my stuff is good. I know that I’m good but I also recognize that I’m not the best. That constantly feeds and encourages you and drives you to learn more and practice and get better.
Sweet Indulgence Bakery hosts a family block party fundraiser for the Northern Virginia chapter of non-profit Bikers Against Child Abuse International Saturday, Aug. 4 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Ridgetop Coffee & Tea, 21632 Ridgetop Circle, Sterling. The event includes food and drink, crafts, games, live music and a cupcake eating contest, with all proceeds going to BACA.