by Lou Mancinelli and Len Lear
Every day Vernon Wilkins, 60, bakes 144 large carrot cupcakes from scratch during six or seven hours in his Mt. Airy kitchen, using 12 pounds of carrots and large quantities of flour, sugar, eggs and oil. When he’s finished, he takes SEPTA downtown to City Hall, then hops on the El and heads out to West Philly. He carries a huge tray with three layers of cupcakes.
He sells his individually wrapped cupcakes with cream cheese icing to SEPTA riders who request them (he does not solicit them) and to pedestrians on the street for one dollar apiece. He also sells them to store owners in West Philly.
“I may never get off the corner because so many people come up to me who want the carrot cakes,” said the man who has won “Best of Philly” honors five times. Vernon has definitely earned the sobriquet “Carrot Cake Man” because for 35 years, he has been making a living by cooking nothing but carrot cakes and cupcakes.
He buys the fresh ingredients almost every day. Before he began spending his mornings and afternoons for the last 19 years selling his 12 dozen (at least) carrot cupcakes a day, Wilkins ran a store for 17 years in University City at 47th and Cedar until 1996.
He then sold his cakes for 10 years in the Lancaster County Farmers Market in Wayne. The cupcakes he now sells for one dollar sold for $2.50 apiece in Wayne, and “they always sold out.” But one day he was abruptly told, “You gotta go,” and “was not given a reason.”
Wilkins, who is kneady but not needy, moved to Mt. Airy five years ago from 50th and Walton Streets on the block where he was raised in West Philly. “Maybe one day I’ll write a book about attitude; that’s the main thing,” Wilkins said.
Each afternoon he sells his carrot cupcakes, made from a recipe his sister gave him, while walking along 52nd Street from Market Street, mixing with sidewalk vendors and passersby. Or Wilkins travels down Baltimore Avenue, where for years Lee’s Deli at 47th Street has sold Wilkins’ carrot cupcakes, usually about 400 a week. Sometimes the trolley driver buys a cupcake.
“I love the cake, especially the icing,” said Scott Lee, owner of Lee’s Deli, to a Daily News reporter recently. “I’ve been buying his carrot cakes for . . . a very long time … When [his] shop closed, I kept on buying [the carrot cake]. People kept on demanding it.”
When asked by this reporter what he does NOT like about making the carrot cupcakes every day, he replied, “After 35 years — nothing.” Of course, Wilkins gets tired of something like grating carrots, but he doesn’t get tired of working. He likened it to an NFL player who “might get tired, but you’re not tired of playing football. If you love what you do, you don’t get tired of it.”
As a younger man, Wilkins aspired to be a fashion model. In his 20s he worked in fashion, arranging windows in the Ritz-Carlton shops in Center City. He was part of The Models Workshop of Philadelphia, a group that worked on elements of a fashion show like poise and how to walk a runway.
But times changed, and Wilkins found himself opening his own bakery in University City. He’s been working since he was nine. His first job was at a water ice stand, and as a teenager, at different times he worked at all three stores on one corner in his neighborhood.
A hard work ethic was something Wilkins learned from his father. Wilkins is one of 12 siblings. His father didn’t make much money, but he was always working, picking up extra jobs.
Although he isn’t on a runway, Wilkins has found a way to keep fashion involved in his business vision. “Originally, my image was a bow tie,” Wilkins said about his early days as a traveling baker. But people used to mistake him for a Muslim “because one branch of Islam wore bow ties,” he joked.
He used to wear a suit and tie and ride a bike, selling the carrot cakes. Later, the hat became his image and still is. “When I was a little boy, all the men in my family wore hats.”
Wilkins has considered using a commercial kitchen, of course, but he said it’s more cost-effective to work from home. And the upkeep on a car is just too expensive. He often fills private orders for 200 cupcakes. Before, when he worked with a large convection oven, it would take only 45 minutes to bake what he does now at home in four hours.
In addition to his large cupcakes, Wilkins gets special orders for baby loafs ($5), big loafs ($10), nine-inch round cakes ($20), lasagne pan-sized cakes ($30) and three-tiered wedding cakes ($200). Every cake has the carrots, but one can order any combination of fruits and nuts included also.
“It’s about attitude and passion,” Wilkins said. “Once you have those two things, the money doesn’t matter. The point is to be happy. Happiness is a present state, not a future condition.”
This reporter bought some cupcakes and devoured them. They are indeed awesome. Wilkins does not have a website because there is no way he could fill the orders that would come in. But he gave permission for his phone number to be included: 215-848-2228.