Owner of the Bakers Rack
Story by Lyda Kay Ferree, The Southern Lifestyles Lady. Photography by Woody Woodard.
Elaine West was born in Jackson and has never lived in any other city. She is the owner of the popular Bakers Rack in downtown Jackson. She has two children—Rachel, who lives in Jackson, and her son, Andy, who works with her at the Bakers Rack. Her husband, Larry, also runs business errands for her.
She has been in the restaurant business in Jackson since 1998, and she loves the business and her customers. The Bakers Rack has been the site of numerous breakfasts and other events for local non-profit organizations.
VIP: What do you enjoy about living in Jackson?
Elaine West: I enjoy the small town feel. I travel to Memphis and Nashville. (My sister lives in Nashville, and occasionally I go to Memphis). I love Jackson because you can get anywhere in 15 minutes, and I know so many people in Jackson.
VIP: Tell me about your background.
EW: I have had numerous jobs. My first job was at the Malco Theater when I was 14 years old and I worked for $1 an hour. That job caused me to be in love with downtown. I remember shopping at Albert’s, Kisber’s, Rosenbloom’s and Holland’s. When I got paid by Mr. Bill Steppe, owner of the Malco Theater where I worked. I also worked for a short period of time at the S&H Green Stamp store, which was downtown. For a while I was a secretary for my stepfather. Then my husband, Larry, bought Bill’s Mini Mart on Airways, and I decided to work for him. I have always enjoyed cooking and baking, and I used to bake pies and cakes at the Mini Mart.
One day I got tired of the greasy spoon restaurant where we served mostly hamburgers and fried chicken. I wanted to do something different. I told my husband that I would really like to open a bakery downtown. There was nothing like that in downtown Jackson. We talked about it for a long time, and we finally came to the conclusion that since I was not a cake decorator I would probably have to serve food as well. And my husband was right.
We talked to John Allen, whom Larry has known all of his life. I opened a little restaurant in John’s building on the corner of East Baltimore Street and Highland in February 1998. There were about 25 seats. It was very small, but I just loved it.
VIP: Tell me about your family’s role in your business.
EW: Larry, my husband, runs restaurant errands for me. Andy, my son, has worked with me for about 16 years. He graduated from the University of Tennessee Knoxville. When he lived in Knoxville he worked at a high-end restaurant and loved it. He learned a lot there about the restaurant business. When he came back to Jackson he did not intend to work for me forever, but he got into it and has been a huge help to me. He really runs The Bakers Rack as much as I do. He has brought so many items into our restaurant that are different and unique.
When we first opened, my employees would make suggestions. It was a learn as you go process. When you open a new business you think you know everything, but you really don’t. Sometimes you have to take a turn one way or the other. Your customers dictate that. I thought I would open about 7 am and leave about 3 pm. That lasted about a week!
We arrive at the restaurant about 4 am and we open at 6:30 am. We now close the restaurant at 3 pm. We are open Monday through Friday except for special events on Saturday.
VIP: You have hosted several local fundraising events for years. Tell me about these events.
EW: We host about 3 special events a year. We like to help out when we can. We host the annual Mardi Gras pancake breakfast in February, which the kids love, and Breakfast for Babies, which we have hosted for about 10 years for the March of Dimes. (We had a wonderful turnout in April.) Last December we hosted a fundraiser for the Madison County Fire Department. We collected money and items for people who had experienced a fire. We will probably hold this event again this year.
VIP: You were a pioneer in downtown Jackson. Tell me more about your first restaurant on East Baltimore Street in the Elks Building.
EW: We started with 24 seats. After a while we expanded to the back, which had about 50 seats. Ultimately we outgrew this space. The 2003 tornado that struck downtown Jackson was devastating. We lost everything! We were closed for three months.
VIP: When did you move to your present location?
EW: We have been at our Lafayette Street location since 2006. We have 100 seats. Now we have so much more parking. There was little parking at our East Baltimore Street location.
VIP: Tell me about your customers who are regulars.
EW: There is a table called Uncle Billy’s Breakfast Club. It is named for Billy Clemmons, who was an employee at Townsend Electric Company. They had been meeting at Steinley’s restaurant on Liberty Street and have been eating at The Bakers Rack since 2003 when we re-opened. If all are present, there are about 15 men in this group (Occasionally they will permit a woman to join their group.) The group consists of Mayor Jerry Gist, Judge Blake Anderson, Jimmy Exum, Steve Little, Tyreece Miller, Richard Beech, David Woolfork, Danny Wheeler, Dr. Kippy Miller, the late Jonas Kisber (He passed away last year.), Sam Dawson, Derrick Britt, Ron Pennel and Scott Conger, among others.
VIP: Describe your menu.
EW: It is home cooking. Our menus are on a two-week rotation. By far our most popular dish is Poppyseed Casserole. It’s crazy in here when we serve this dish! Our customers also love our Chicken Rotel and lasagna. We get a little countrified with chicken and dumplings, country fried steak and meatloaf. When I opened downtown, I didn’t want to cook what was already being served in downtown Jackson. We started preparing quiche, which nobody was doing downtown. We make our soups and chili every day. We have a blackened tilapia that is served with soup or salad or a sandwich, and we prepare a strawberry salad with homemade honey vinaigrette dressing and a Greek salad with homemade Caesar dressing. So you may eat lightly if desired.
VIP: What are your favorite dishes to prepare?
EW: I love to bake and try new dishes. If we run out of strawberry cake or Heath Bar cake, I’m in trouble! We prepare about 20 different desserts (pies and cakes) every day. Sometimes it’s hard for me to fit something new into the menu. Occasionally one of our employees will recommend a dessert. Sometimes it’s a hit and sometimes it’s not. I like to try new dishes. We even had a customer suggest making orange chess square and another recommended a glazed lemon cake with cream cheese lemon icing. The Strawberry Delight is very good and light and perfect for this time of year. We do not prepare sugar free or gluten free dishes.
I cook breakfast until about 10:30 am. Then we must prepare lunch, and then I bake after lunch. We do a lot of catering. It is hard for me to find the time to fit in something new. We don’t offer kids’ meals, but we serve items that kids like such as chicken tenders and fries, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and grilled cheese.
VIP: What are the most popular baked goods?
EW: Probably the strawberry cake and chess squares. We make the strawberry cake year round.
VIP: Tell our readers about your loyal staff.
EW: I have a total of 9 employees including my husband, Larry, and my son, Andy. We have
three waitresses, two cashiers and 1 dishwasher. One cashier has worked for me for 15 years, almost as long as I have been here. Another waitress has been with me about 10 years. Most stay a while. We work a lot of hours, but we also spend time with our families.
VIP: Does the Baker’s Rack cater events?
EW: We cater small events like lunch for 30-40 people. We can deliver the meal. We cater mostly to downtown businesses, but we also do some out of downtown. We do a tremendous amount of catering for the Jackson Chamber, nearby factories, and the Tennessee Technology Center.
VIP: What are the biggest challenges in your business?
EW: Finding time to do everything you would like to do in the restaurant business. I have to multi-task so much. I try to make sure everybody is in a good mood, which shows to the customers. I might write the employees’ check, but our customers pay them. If they don’t come through our door, we won’t be in business long. I encourage the staff to have a smile on their face and treat people like they would want to be treated.
VIP: What do you most enjoy about the restaurant business?
EW: I really love talking to our customers, but I dont’ get to do that as much as I would like. I love meeting people. A lot of our customers are from out of town and from other countries and that is always fun. If a customer asks, ‘What is chess pie?,’ I know they’re not from the South. I also enjoy the big groups, but without our regular customers we would not be in business. Recently a lady came in from Maplewood who had sampled our Peanut Butter Pie. ‘I had to have some more of that pie,” she told me. That excites me. It makes it worthwhile to know that you are pleasing somebody. A lot of people don’t cook or bake anymore, but that’s what I’m here for. That’s the fun part of this business for me.
VIP: What are your hobbies?
EW: I enjoy spending time with my grandchildren and family. In the spring and summer I love to garden. I built two raised beds for vegetables last year. I also enjoy planting flowers.
VIP: Have you thought about retiring?
EW: Right now I’m still in good health. I will be 62 in July, and I still feel good. As long as I feel good and my body will hold out, I will continue to work.
VIP: Are you a member of Jackson Downtown Development Corporation (JDDC)?
EW: I am.
VIP: What would you like to see downtown that is not here now?
EW: When I find the personal time, I love to visit the Farmers’ Market and I love The Vintage Market. I would like to see more local shops in downtown Jackson.
VIP: Why is downtown important to Jackson?
EW: I love the downtown area. I really, really do. I would not want to be anywhere else. It’s the people I love. I see them every day. They’re like family to me like the attorneys at Rainey-Kizer who are in The Bakers Rack almost every day as is Uncle Billy’s group. We share the sorrows and we celebrate the joys of our lives—new babies and marriages. We know so much about each other, and we feel the pain when we lose somebody like Jonas Kisber.