‘EAT DESSERT FIRST’

Sandra Austin and Kathy Leslie keep their mother’s memory, food, and philosophy alive at Shugga Hi Bakery & Café

  • Growing up in East Nashville in the ’60s and ’70s, Shugga Hi Bakery & Café owners Sandra Austin and Kathy Leslie recall that they often came home from school ravenous. As teenagers do, they searched the cupboards and fridge of their Hart Avenue home only to declare there to be nothing to eat. But when their mother Catherine returned each day from her full-time job as a nurse, the kitchen that had seemed so empty would become a smorgasbord of colors and scents. As if by magic, a roast chicken would appear on the table, with corn and green beans and cucumber and — always — a frosted cake.
          “We may not have had a dime to our name, but we ate like we were kings and queens every day,” says Leslie, the younger sibling by two years. “Every. Day. She prepared a full meal and always a dessert, which she would sometimes let us eat first. My mother’s cooking was about love. We started Shugga Hi because of our love for our mother and in memory of our mother.”
          The sisters went to Meigs and graduated from East High School. Austin became a mortgage lender and Leslie an attorney. In 1992, they lost their mother. Before she died, she asked her daughters to promise that they would always remember her. More than 25 years later, they’ve kept her memory alive and well by opening Shugga Hi Bakery & Café at the southern end of Dickerson Pike. Its grand opening last summer followed a full renovation of the building, which previously served as a Burger Boy.
          From the front door, the Nashville skyline looms large. “We wanted to be in the heart of the neighborhood where we grew up,” Austin says. “We remember when it was not so nice over here. But I’m glad to see that people are beginning to invest in Dickerson Pike and the surrounding neighborhoods. I never would have thought in my lifetime that I would be able to drive through my neighborhood and see a half-million-dollar house.”
          The two decided to open the business together after Austin retired in 2016. Leslie encouraged Austin to put her skills as a master baker to use by opening a bakery, a concept that later expanded into a bakery and café with a full bar.
          “What I contribute is I taste everything,” Leslie says with a laugh. “I’m a master eater.”
          The Shugga Hi menu reflects the sisters’ warmth and sentimentality. Their most popular dish: chicken and waffles, made from Austin’s cake batter, as is the bun of their cake-waffle burger. Austin also has a line of made-to-order alcoholic cakes called Sip of Cake, in flavors ranging from Jack and Coke, to gin and tonic, to rum cake to piña colada. A basic breakfast on the menu is named — what else? — The Catherine.
          “It’s named after our mother because our mother’s favorite meal of the day was breakfast,” says Austin. “It’s heartwarming when we hear a server say, ‘We need two Catherines,’ because that keeps her name alive.”
          Shugga Hi’s calendar of events is as rich as its menu. Sundays are for Jazz-N-Eggs Brunch. Thursdays are for Wine, Women and Wings — a ladies’ night where karaoke provides the entertainment, and the sisters often participate.
          “We all think we’re Whitney Houston or something,” says Leslie.
          “Of course, you know I think I’m Bonnie Raitt,” corrects Austin, pursing her lips.
          “We believe in music,” says Leslie, an ordained minister. “Music’s next to God. And when you sit down and eat with people, that’s intimacy. So we tried to create an intimate atmosphere with house concerts, and we sit down and sup with each other.
          “We always talk about some of the things that our mother taught us and instilled in us. When you enter here, there’s no judgement. You’re at home. You’re with family. It’s all about the love of people.”
          Austin adds, “She always wanted us to know that her girls could sup with anyone, from the lowest of the low to the president of the United States. She raised us that way. You don’t have to be a millionaire to show decency and respect to other people. I try to smile at everybody because you never know what that smile may mean to somebody who’s going through a rough time.”
          What do the sisters want East Nashvillians to know?
          “Tell them we appreciate their business,” says Austin. “Tell them to come on. And tell them to bring their people. And to bring their people’s people.”