ST. LOUIS — In the words of Grammy award-winning rapper J. Cole, Chef Reine Keis and her ex-husband Cbabi Bayoc had “a dollar and a dream” when they opened SweetArt bakeshop and cafe.
The vision came from Bayoc’s love for his former wife's baking skills. Keis said he enjoyed her desserts so much that he believed they could earn money from them.
Bayoc, a visual artist and illustrator, said he would paint the business’ art while Keis cooks the food.
The couple didn’t know what they were signing themselves up for. Bayoc held an art show and sold every work he possibly could. He used what he made from the show to invest in the business.
With $230 in the bank and three small children at home, the ex-spouses officially opened SweetArt on December 26, 2008.
To Keis’ surprise, the grand opening was a great success.
“I remember being on the phone with my brother that first day saying people came. There’s a line to the door,” she said. “He was like, ‘Oh my God for real?’”
Its menu includes plant-based food options consisting of vegetarian and vegan eats, including unbelievable “you can’t believe it's not meat” sandwiches and burgers, cauliflower bites, mouth-watering pastries, and more.
Keis, who now owns and operates the restaurant solo, is currently featured on YouTuber and food critic Daymon ‘Daym Drops’ Patterson’s eight-episode Netflix series, “Fresh, Fried and Crispy.”
Keis, who describes herself as “shy,” was a little hesitant at first to guest star on the show. She jokingly said she wished she contracted coronavirus to back out of the show because she’s used to being behind the scenes.
“I was hoping that I tested positive for COVID-19 so they wouldn’t be able to film the show,” she said. “I couldn’t say no to the opportunity, but if I had COVID, it's like ‘oh well, sorry I got COVID I can’t do it.’ I didn’t have COVID.”
When she and Bayoc were running the business together, she became so used to him being front-and-center and having an outgoing personality. She eventually came to her senses and agreed to pursue the opportunity still.
“Daym Drops made me feel so comfortable,” she said. “However, I came across in that episode has to do a thousand percent to who he was and is as a host. He’s very good at what he does, and the whole crew was very kind.”
Overall doing the show was a great experience for Keis, and she said she’s grateful for the opportunity.
SweetArt is a staple to the southside Shaw neighborhood, adjacent to Tower Grove Park and the Missouri Botanical Gardens. It attracts people from all walks of life, no matter their age, sexual orientation, or any other classification. It is essential to the Black community as it is Black-owned and proudly has Black Lives Matter signage positioned in front of the brick-and-mortar.
The establishment teaches healthier eating and living habits for the community, which is significant since it's no secret that high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol runs rampant in the Black community.
One could say SweetArt is a pillar to the community for what it provides and stands for. Its longevity and continuous support brings indescribable joy to Keis, but it's not what she wants her legacy to be primarily built on.
Soon, she wants to close its doors and retire. When that day comes, however, she will have another business venture to lean on, and it's something she proudly wants to pass down to her children.
Introducing Love and Magic, her own cake mixes crafted with homemade ingredients and specialties like her recipes for SweetArt. The products will be available for purchase soon.
She started on working on its packaging last year when the COVID-19 pandemic first hit. The idea came after she kept receiving messages from people out of state interested in having cakes shipped to them. She chose not to ship the cakes because they wouldn’t be as fresh or delicious.
“That really got me working and a sign from God,” she said. “I was listening to T.D. Jakes and just being very prayerful in the shop one morning. As I was reaching for an all-purpose gluten-free flour, I heard you should be reaching for your own mix. I was like ‘what?!’ The room went dark for a second when I heard that, and I said, okay, Imma start working on that cause that seemed to be divine.”
Keis created Love and Magic to help anyone in her family that comes after her to be able to finance a business. She knows the struggles far too well of not being able to receive financing through institutions, not having proper public relations strategies and staffing in place.
She said she wants to stop the cycle early and prevent those challenges from happening to anyone else.
“Love and magic is my catalyst to create a legacy that helps not only my descendants coming after me, but also create a platform to help better educate Black entrepreneurs on what’s needed to grow a business,” she said.
Keis was born in McKenzie, Tennessee. She spent some of her upbringing there before her family relocated to Los Angeles and eventually settled in St. Louis. She graduated from Kirkwood High School and enrolled at Blackburn College shortly after that for a year.
She then transferred and graduated from Saint Louis University, where she majored in French and English. Her dream was to become a copyeditor. She interned with The St. Louis Post Dispatch and The St. Louis American.
Her first real job post-graduation was at Mosby Medical Publishing, which she dreaded going to, but she remained there for some time. She also did freelancing for St. Louis Magazine and At Home Magazine.
Although writing and editing brought her joy, cooking and baking were what she could do even when she was tired.
“I think the thing that you wanna do when you’re exhausted is your passion, your love,” she said. “It's relaxation. It’s meditative in many ways. I still look forward to it. I can work all day and say ‘ooo, I really wanna make that for dinner tonight.’”
Visit SweetArt’s website to place an order, https://sweetartstl.com/.