Posted by: Kath Usitalo | August 10, 2010

A Sweet Memory

Gary serves sweets and Karen tempts with the coconut cream cake. The stenciled quote that wraps around the bakery is Galatians 5:22 and begins, "The Fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace..." (not pea)

I saw the sign but I wasn’t going to go in. It was late in the day and I hadn’t eaten lunch (as mentioned before, the meal schedule gets out of whack when I’m traveling about). The last thing I thought I needed was something from Sweet Traditions, a Pastry & Confection Shoppe in beautiful downtown Whitehall on the Lower Peninsula’s Lake Michigan shore.

But, I thought, duty calls. I had to investigate.

Now, I think about that little sweet shop at least once a week.

Okay, more.

Like today. And yesterday.

Not sure if it’s the great story behind the business, the warm and friendly owners behind the counter, or the coconut cream cake now resting stubbornly on my behind.

But I cannot forget that coconut cream cake.

I crave it. I would be willing to drive across state for another piece of it: A huge slab of fluffy yellow layer cake slathered with a melt-in-the-mouth, not-too-sweet icing and topped with fresh and tasty flakes of coconut. It reminded me of a deliciously similar cake my dear friend Tania baked for our Christmas gathering many years ago.

Karen Cihak, who owns the business with her husband Gary, said that the recipes for almost all of their sweets—including the coconut cream cake—have been handed down and shared by their families and friends. Thus the name: Sweet Traditions.

“We do sugar,” says Karen. “If it’s got sugar, we do it.” She points to her Mother-in-Law’s molasses cookies. A friend’s walnut cinnamon streusel. And Great Grandma’s kiefles, a Hungarian pastry in combination with walnuts and honey or apricot and pineapple: Karen is the fourth generation making them.

Gary makes the candied treats: caramel corn, toffee, cashew clusters and fudge. The pretzels dipped in caramel and chocolate are a favorite. “We dip everything in chocolate,” Karen laughs. “Even brownies.”

Only the best ingredients find their way to Sweet Traditions and their carrot cake, cake truffles, and cupcakes stuffed with a choice of 12 fillings and topped with their own butter cream icing. The couple even makes the peanut butter that goes into their chocolate peanut butter cups.

Karen catered events for three years before family, friends and clients convinced her to open her own shop, which she and Gary did three years ago. The self-taught baker and businesswoman says, “Everybody’s got a talent in life. I do believe God’s given me the gift of taking a recipe and just doing it.” Karen and Gary seemed so genuinely happy doing what they do.

As Gary tends to a steady stream of sweet-seekers, Karen says, “Putting smiles on peoples’ faces is the best part of my job.”

No, my slice of coconut cream cake was not the size of the missing wedge. But I wouldn't have complained if it had been.

It’s working, Karen. I succumbed to the call of the coconut cream cake in June, and I’m still smiling at the memory (how many calories does smiling burn, anyway?).

I guess there was a reason I decided to step into that bakery that day.

Call Sweet Traditions (231-894-4100) for info.

Or, take a drive to Whitehall and be tempted by the day’s specialities while you enjoy a chat with the ever-smiing Karen and Gary. (Shoppe closed Sunday-Monday.)

Visitor Info Click: White Lake Area



  1. “Duty calls…..” You do what you have to do, hey? Even if it means eating that delicious looking coconut cake. Good to know that you’re out there in our beautimous state doing your duty! 🙂

    • I try, Cindy Lou, I try. 😉

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