Mer Mer's Bakery, Five Flavor Pound Cake, 617 N. Gay St, August 2023
While walking Gay St. during Open Streets this June, I came across a shop I had never noticed before, Mer Mer’s Bakery. Naturally, I had to go in and meet the owner. Chanda Taylor sold me some pound cake and thumbprint cookies and told me she was celebrating her 25th anniversary in business this year! I was thrilled to have found her, and getting to know her and her business was just as uplifting as I thought it would be.
Chandra was learning to bake with her great-grandmother at eight years old. She was her grandmother’s little helper and would earn $5 a month to help in the garden and the kitchen. Chandra saved up her money and purchased baking supplies she kept in a bucket at home. Once she had all she needed, she would make and sell her creations in the neighborhood. The goal then was to buy grape soda.
While the goal has changed, the passion for baking and entrepreneurship has remained unchanged.
Chandra grew up in Knoxville. In 1979, she was the Girl of the Year with the Girls Club on Baxter Ave. She credits her skills in the kitchen in part to her time there. She graduated from Austin-East High School. While there, she took classes on drafting, thinking she would go into architecture of some kind. After graduating, she worked at a department store. Still, after having her two little girls, she knew she needed something more to support herself and them.
She decided to attend Pellissippi State in 1994. With her high school experience in drafting, she began her studies in architecture. However, after discovering there was only one architectural firm in East Tennessee at the time, and it was a family business, she felt she needed a different path. At the time, she was still baking and selling cakes to friends and family. This gave her an “ah-ha” moment, and she changed her major to business management, intending to start her bakery. She had some nay-sayers on her journey, but in her words, “I believe in the good Lord, and He says all things are possible, and I believe. I’m gonna show you what I can do!”
She graduated in 1998 on the Dean’s list at Pellissippi State. She worked from September to November of that year, putting together a business plan. At the time, Chandra’s mother worked at Levi Strauss as it closed, and the company offered a bonus to employees who could show a productive use for the money. Chandra wrote a proposal for her mother to present to the company. She was awarded $5,000 to help her get supplies to start the business. The next step was finding a location.
As she and her mother were scouting the city, they came across an empty storefront at 617 N Gay St. A woman who lived upstairs at the time approached her and told her the owner “didn’t rent to black people.” Chandra did not let this woman’s personal attempt to keep her out of the neighborhood to deter her. She went on to pursue Mr. Gene Monday of Monday Realty, who owned the building. After hearing her interest and seeing the business plan, Mr. Monday declared Chandra “spunky.” He handed her the keys that day, telling her to pay what she could until the business was on its feet, and they would settle the bills at that point.
Chandra took out a microloan of $7,500 to buy the additional materials she needed to fill the space and pay the first rent and the deposit for utilities. Two weeks later, she officially opened the doors of Mer Mer’s Bakery, named after a nickname for her oldest daughter, Mercedes. Chandra is proud to be the very first black-owned bakery in Knoxville.
Chandra’s daughters, Mercedes and Chrisma, were 8 and 5, respectively, at the time of opening. She said the girls grew up there. Chandra would take the girls to school in the morning and go straight to the bakery. At the end of the school day, she would pick the girls up and take them back to the bakery while she finished up for the evening. The table her father gave her for the girls to do their homework in the shop is still used today. Her father and mother have supported her since day one, not just with the initial start-up funds, but hands-on with baking and cleaning.
Chrisma, Chandra’s youngest daughter, loves to work with fondant. While she is a Clinical Psychologist by day, she still comes to help her mom regularly. She now brings in her two little girls, Remedy and Harmony, who love visiting their Grandma Chandra in the bakery. Remedy is motivated by chocolate. Harmony enjoys baking and working with fondant like her mom. It is a true family business.
She has experienced many ups and downs in 25 years of business but has persevered throughout them all. From times that she had to meet customers out on the street due to construction on the roads preventing access to the shop to Covid when everything shut down, she has continued to be supported by a solid customer base. She develops a relationship with her customers and knows what they like and what keeps them coming back. Chandra has also been a mentor to many other bakers in the community. One of her favorite success stories is mentoring and teaching the owners of Marble City Sweets before they opened their shop in West Knoxville.
Mer Mer’s offers a variety of cookies, cupcakes, banana pudding, and brownies. Her signature item is a five-flavor pound cake. Chandra got this recipe from her Great-Aunt and didn’t change a thing. It is now her best seller and the item people look for daily.
She also bakes cakes for special occasions and will be starting cookie classes for the community soon. Chandra and Chrisma love being part of their customers’ special moments and making those moments just a bit sweeter.
Mer Mer’s Bakery is planning a celebration for November around the official 25th anniversary. To stay up to date on classes, specials, and the anniversary celebration, like and follow their social media HERE and HERE. To place an order for a specialty cake, give them a call at 865-524-4007. You can drop in Wednesday through Friday 10-3 and Saturday 10-2. If the door is locked, just knock! Chandra is in there making her customer’s sweet dreams come true!