Carrot Cake Man

On the streets of West Philly, bringing joy and making a buck one cupcake at a time.

By Daniel Denvir
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 44 | Posted Jun. 1, 2009

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The Carrot Cake Man sees himself as a prophet for a new, more concrete economy.

Photo by Faye Murman

It’s just after 5 on a sunny Thursday afternoon, and the Carrot Cake Man is back at 52nd and Market. He stands on the northeast corner—wearing his trademark green felt hat, a tray raised in his right hand—calling, “Carrot cake! Carrot Cake Man!” He quickly makes a sale and, with a casual but determined stride, shoots down the sidewalk toward 51st, selling $1 cakes at a fast clip.

“I sell them for $2.50 on the Main Line, but here I sell them for a dollar,” he says, gazing down the many blocks of street vendors hawking clothing and music in front of stores selling fish, Obama T-shirts and halal food. “Everybody’s got a dollar.”

Chicago has tamale guys. Taco trucks bless a number of cities. Philadelphia—West Philadelphia in particular—savors the work of the Carrot Cake Man.

Born Vernon Wilkins, the Carrot Cake Man pops into a small food mart, satisfying customers along the way. Jamal, a Yemeni man who’s lived in Philly for the past few decades, holds a black and white iced carrot cake in hand, an emphatically joyful, sated expression on his face. As Wilkins walks away, Jamal yells, “I see you every day, trying to catch you. You be so fast.”

Jamal’s friend, meanwhile, has bought four carrot cakes today.

The much sought-after cakes are perfectly moist, individually baked, large and cupcake-ish, topped with a delicious cream frosting—usually vanilla, but sometimes chocolate or black and white. At the moment, Wilkins only makes plain carrot cakes since his baking is confined by the limits of his home oven.

But when he finds a new commercial kitchen to work out of, carrot cake fanatics will again be able to sample “every sort of nut or fruit combination you can imagine,” says Wilkins—from pecan and almond to coconut, banana and beyond.

Aside from the cakes and their potential variations, the Carrot Cake Man doesn’t cook. And he doesn’t bake anything aside from carrot cake. “I eat out all the time,” he says. “I like burgers, and I really eat a lot of chicken.”

In 1982, the Carrot Cake Man landed a job selling bluejeans after quitting work assembling display windows at a Center City store. He baked his first carrot cake that year for a church fundraiser. When he found himself out of work again, he decided to embrace self-employment.

“I was sitting there in that house with $15 and everything was due. I thought, ‘If I can sell jeans this well, all I need is a product,’” he says. So he started baking carrot cake, working from a recipe provided by his sister. And he began walking the streets of West Philly to sell it.

He was so successful, he was ultimately able to move into a storefront on 47th and Cedar. He stayed there for 17 years, with his sister as a business partner. But in 1996, he says, his sister “decided to do something else with the store.”

“I prayed and asked why,” he says. “And the answer was that I have more now than what I started with, so everything will be fine.”

The Carrot Cake Man sees himself as a prophet for a new, more concrete economy. “People have been buying stuff that’s just a distraction,” he says. Every time one store closes, a phone store opens up in its place. With people getting hungry, people are going to leave the technology behind”—and, he hopes, start buying more practical stuff, like carrot cake.

In March, Wilkins moved to Mt. Airy, out of the West Philly neighborhood where he has spent most of his life. These days, he spends three days selling on the street and another three making deliveries to local stores that carry his product. Sunday is a well-deserved moment of rest.

But it seems as though distance does indeed make the heart grow fonder, and the belly hungrier.

One afternoon he pops into the Major League Cuts barber shop on Market Street; Biggy Smalls blasts from the radio while hair and beards are trimmed and styled, razors abuzz. He sells nearly a dozen cakes to smiling customers and multitasking staff.

Heading down 52nd toward Baltimore Avenue, more customers close in on the sidewalk just outside Malcolm X Park. Ninety cakes later, he’s sold out.

The Carrot Cake Man’s new neighborhood should mean new business opportunities. He’s certainly not as well known in Mt. Airy, but he insists that he is known. After having coffee at Infusion, a cafe on Germantown Avenue, he deftly hands each of the two baristas a complimentary carrot cake, patiently wooing future clients. It’s his 55th birthday today, but he’s always been the giving sort. n

The Carrot Cake Man’s carrot cake can often be found at Lee’s Deli (4700 Baltimore Ave.), Satellite Cafe (701 S. 50th St. at Baltimore) and the Seafood Factory (5209 Market St.). If you’re lucky, you can also catch him walking down 52nd or Baltimore, between 5 and 6 p.m.

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 44 of 44
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1. Andrew said... on Jun 1, 2009 at 10:47PM

“This is a great profile of the Carrot Cake Man, but one point of correction. It hasn't been called Black Oak Park for years, despite what Google Maps says. It's Malcolm X Memorial Park!

http://www.malcolmxpark.org”

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2. Daniel Denvir said... on Jun 2, 2009 at 08:22AM

“Thanks for the correction. I am new to Philly and stand corrected.”

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3. Lorene said... on Jun 2, 2009 at 09:50AM

“that cinches it, I'm coming to Philly. Great story told. You know, Dan, I learned to organize in a carrot cake factory.

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4. Leah said... on Jun 2, 2009 at 10:20AM

“I love carrot cake! In fact, it's the only kind of cake I like. What an inspirational story. Thank you--I'll have it in mind all day.”

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5. BrownSuga said... on Jun 2, 2009 at 10:52AM

“I know the Carrot Cake Man and if he is in Mt.Airy he will definitely make some money. I sure hope that I run into him because delicious, delicious and moist, moist um um Good.”

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6. Rockhall said... on Jun 2, 2009 at 04:55PM

“I have been buying from him for fourteen years now and I'm telling you Whole Foods and other bakery, which I also patronize doesn't come close. His is perfect!”

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7. Anonymous said... on Jun 2, 2009 at 08:00PM

“fuck that racist malcolm, viva black oak! which three days is he on the street? I want to try this carrot cake. Although I doubt people will give up cell phones, certainly we'd all be better off with better carrot cake than more expensive houses.”

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8. carrol said... on Jun 3, 2009 at 02:00AM

“thank you for such wonderful recipes..il surely try them out...Please check out the blog mentioned below its really cool....!!!im sure you'll love it!!!

www.stay-sharp.in

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9. Anonymous said... on Jun 3, 2009 at 08:22AM

“Good to know where he is. I remember going with my mom to get carrot cake from his Cedar ave. shop, and when they closed we never knew where he went. We'll be sure to look him up and get those delicious cakes again. Yummmm!!”

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10. C. Hill said... on Jun 3, 2009 at 01:37PM

“When I got married 19 years ago, I wanted a totally unique wedding cake that would still be tasty, and after purchasing from the Carrot Cake Man on a regular basis at the 47th & Cedar Street store, I ordered a giant cake as my wedding cake! It fit the bill precisely; everyone LOVED it!! I've missed him greatly and am glad to know he is still around. Hopefully, I'll catch up with him one day soon.”

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11. Julia said... on Jun 3, 2009 at 01:45PM

“My family used to live around his store in West Philly and his carrot cakes were pretty much my birthday cakes every year. I'm so excited to see that he is still around. Now that he is in Mt. Airy, I'll have my parents try and find him so I can once again have a taste of his wonderful carrot cakes!”

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12. Steve Believe said... on Jun 4, 2009 at 09:13AM

“This is the type of person that makes Philadelphia a unique and wonderful place to live. It's great to have a face and story behind the ubiquitous carrot cake. Good stuff, keep 'em comin'.

www.lungerville.blogspot.com”

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13. Gemma said... on Jun 10, 2009 at 02:34PM

“Great story Dan. I love the tamale guys, but at the moment I'm wishing Chicago had a Carrot Cake Man.”

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14. ELRAHEEM said... on Nov 10, 2009 at 05:53PM

“To my understanding, the original "Carrot Cake Man" has passed away. His sister maintained the shop at 47th and Cedar for a while after his passing. I first met him when he got onto the #34 trolley hustling.”

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15. John Jay said... on Dec 31, 2009 at 06:46PM

“The carrot cake man is alive and well living in Mt. Airy, I have gotten cakes from him, and they are great, just found out about him and his cakes..”

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16. 18 bus rider said... on Jan 7, 2010 at 08:57AM

“Carrot cake man said I would be looking for him and I am! I hope to catch him on the 18 bus around the 4:00pm hour. Keep on making them good good cakes

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17. kiki said... on Apr 2, 2010 at 12:28PM

“I had recently saw the Carrot Cake Man on the 18 bus this past Tuesday. I must say I was delighted to finally meet him, for I was quite familiar with his cupcakes from back in days in college (an old mentor of mine use buy the delicious cakes for everyone at the Alumni Relations office at Lincoln University). I always wanted to know where he was located so I could purchase my own. Well, finally over a decade later, I caught him on the bus and purchased 3 cupcakes. I am a new fan of the vanilla/chocolate carrot cupcake. I was happy to buy them and hope to purchase more in the furture!”

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18. MJ said... on May 14, 2010 at 07:23PM

“Does anyone have a telephone number or e-mail address where he can be reached directly to place orders for cakes or larger orders of cupcakes for groups?”

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19. Anonymous said... on Aug 29, 2010 at 04:56PM

“Carrot Cake man lives around the corner from me. He is known as Mr. Carrot by my children! Even though he lives so close, it's hard trying to catch him. When I do, It's a lovely day. There's nothing more soothing after a long day's work than a mini carrot cake!”

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20. Anonymous said... on Sep 27, 2010 at 11:58AM

“I usually run into the Carrot Cake Man on the Route 18 bus as I head to work. Cannot help myself -- I MUST buy a carrot cake cupcake with cream cheese frosting. Now co-workers want me to buy them one whenever I see him! hummmmmmmmm!”

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21. Anonymous said... on Feb 7, 2011 at 02:03AM

“The carrot cake man told me that his carrot cakes was the best in philly.
He lied, his carrot cakes are the bestiest in the world ( :”

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22. CHRIS said... on Jul 9, 2011 at 06:41AM

“I saw the stores listed that sell the cakes but I would like to know where can I get them directly from him. Where in Mt Airy and are the other stores currently selling the cakes.”

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23. Anonymous said... on Jul 9, 2011 at 05:23PM

“One time, I came home from work i saw a carrot cake sitting on the table and i asked my mom who bought it and she said she got it from the carrot cake man.....OMG it was sooo delicious. I LOVE IT. It tastes so good and i mean soo good. I wish, i could find this man so i could buy the whole carrot cup cake. Hopefully I see him near cedar or baltimore on 47th st.”

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24. Rob from hazel st said... on Jul 16, 2011 at 09:00AM

“Vernon where are you? I need a number to get in contact. I have to have a few of your delicious carrot cakes no other can compare.”

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25. Celiena said... on Aug 11, 2011 at 04:20PM

“I was totally surprised to see a gentleman on the trolley with a tray of cakes. Many people were approaching him to buy, not just one but, a few treats. Sitting right behind him, I asked what was he selling. He introduced himself as the Carrot Cake man and began to tell me his story. I was so intrigued that I bought two cakes and told him what a pleasure it was to meet him. After tasting the carrot cake I'm totally hooked..Thank you Carrot Cake man for sharing such a wonderful gift!”

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26. Ralph said... on Aug 16, 2011 at 03:02PM

“I KNOW Vernon, " The Carrot Cake Man ", and let me tell you, he's an AWESOME guy! He's smart, funny, and has an AMAZING outlook on life! If you get a chance, talk with him!”

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27. Anonymous said... on Oct 9, 2011 at 10:33AM

“I met Vern, in 1986 when I was 9yrs old. My friends & I went to a Catholic School right up the block from his smaller store on 47th st. Walking home, everyday his store would be mobbed by a crowd of kids & we all had our hands out for "free samples" of his carrot cake. He & his sister saw me & my homies grow up & they were very nice to all of us over the years. At one point, a dude that was some years older than us, whom we knew from around the way even worked at the Carrot Cake Man store. I remember it like yesterday, when they moved into a much bigger store on the corner of the same block. To this day, I run into Vern several times a year. I always buy about 10 cakes to help support him. If you added up all the free samples we've had over the years as kids......we owe him lol lol. I put my girl-friends mom on....& hopefully for her mom & her mom's friends, I'll be calling Vern with many orders. lol lol”

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28. Dee said... on Mar 4, 2012 at 03:13PM

“I have been working in West Phila for over 20years and have never tasted his carrot cakes. Today, I walked to the corner store at 47th Chester ordered a sandwich and noticed the carrot cakes on the counter. The clerk stated they were the best around. I purchased one and OMG, I must say it was a piece of heaven. I live in Mt. Airy and can't wait to find stores in the neighborhood that sale his cakes. Believe me, from this point I will be looking for his cakes to eat and share with others to keep his business growing.”

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29. Mr. D said... on May 3, 2012 at 12:02PM

“I would travel down to the little store on 47th on a regular basis for Vern's cakes YEARS ago when he was still working with his sister Val (i think that was her name). It has been some time since i have had a taste of those delicious cakes. The loaves started to get REALLY exepensive, and at the time became too expensive to keep buying. I might just have to look Vern up and get some good cake. It IS the best. Now it will cost more for gas to get there than the darn cake. Can't win. :( If it is still Vern making the cakes, and you see him, BUY IT!!!! You'll be hooked!!!!”

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30. Carolyn said... on Aug 31, 2012 at 06:31PM

“Hey, today I wanted to purchase 2 carrot cup cake,Mr. Man I owe you a wold of thanks, in trusting a stranger. I hope to run into you soon on Upsal, because I quickly forgot you address. The cakes were delicious. Now I wish I had bought the 5 you suggested, but I would only eat them all myself, lol. May God bless your business. I will be looking for you in the neighborhood. Much respect to you.”

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31. Mich said... on Oct 14, 2012 at 02:23PM

“Where is the carrot cake man??? I want to get some cake for my son's birthday. He loves the carrot cake man!”

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32. Kim G said... on Nov 16, 2012 at 05:25PM

“Can someone tell me where he is. Tell him to post a schedule of where he will be and when. I come from MD looking for him because I need his cake.”

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33. Della said... on Dec 10, 2012 at 07:14AM

“I had the pleasure of running into the Carrot Cake Man fr West Philly and bought only 1 cake and shoulda bought 10 because they were still delious fr back in the 80's. I will find him and buy #4 Cakes from him for the holidays.. They are Must haves..”

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34. Anonymous said... on Apr 24, 2013 at 09:19AM

“Awesome! So glad I found him! I had heard that he was no longer on Cedar Ave., but didn't know where he located. I'm overdue for some of his scrumptuous carrot cake!”

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35. Anonymous said... on Jul 29, 2013 at 05:13PM

“Got mine for the first time today on the 18 bus in Mt. Airy and yes I like it.”

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36. Anonymous said... on Aug 27, 2013 at 11:48AM

“I ran into the carrot cake man on the subway he just said google about me he should have said find me here or there I bought two and wish I ad ten. I inhaled one after the first bite and u know the rest.”

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37. Anonymous said... on Oct 25, 2013 at 10:48PM

“I had been seeing this man in my neighborhood in my travels at the 18 bus stop (Mt Airy) with a tray of well presented baked goods. Recently while at a traffic light at Upsal Street, I spotted him and pulled over to inquire. He introduced himself as "The Carrot Cake Man" and I recalled hearing about his store in West Philly years ago. I purchased 4 cupcakes and the ones without icing were warm out of the oven. I began pinching off one of the warm cupcakes before I got home minutes away. Absolutely delicious and surprisingly inexpensive. His story is amazing, I'm glad he is in my neighborhood. God Bless”

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38. Catus said said... on Jan 3, 2014 at 09:23PM

“I visit your store on 47 Cedar, by luck Cab I was riding in made a stop that began my desire for carrot cake, the are BEST, I'm in Virginia, but I still try to find CARROT CAKE MAN when visiting PHILA. Hoping when you get back in circle I would like to do some mail order cake. hoping that will be soon, BE BLESS...”

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39. Catus said said... on Jan 3, 2014 at 09:23PM

“I visit your store on 47 Cedar, by luck Cab I was riding in made a stop that began my desire for carrot cake, the are BEST, I'm in Virginia, but I still try to find CARROT CAKE MAN when visiting PHILA. Hoping when you get back in circle I would like to do some mail order cake. hoping that will be soon, BE BLESS...”

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40. Catus said said... on Jan 3, 2014 at 09:23PM

“I visit your store on 47 Cedar, by luck Cab I was riding in made a stop that began my desire for carrot cake, the are BEST, I'm in Virginia, but I still try to find CARROT CAKE MAN when visiting PHILA. Hoping when you get back in circle I would like to do some mail order cake. hoping that will be soon, BE BLESS...”

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41. Gg said... on Jan 19, 2014 at 11:04AM

“Does anyone have a number for this guy? I am obsessed with his cakes!”

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42. DC said... on Jan 25, 2014 at 02:04PM

“In the 1980s I was living in West Philly and working at Bartram's Garden. I would bicycle to the Carrot Cake man at 47th & Cedar, choose one of the many carrot cakes on the shelf, still warm, and eat a quarter of it sitting on the curb outside. It is one of my favorite memories. The Carrot Cake man sometimes wore a bow tie, and he and his sister always had a big smile when I walked in, proud of their amazing cakes, eager to make people feel welcome. They had another little store before that, still in the neighborhood, but I can't remember where. When I got married in the 1990s, there was only one cake I wanted. They made two large sheets of carrot cake (I think with peaches and walnuts, an awesome combination) and a friend of ours drove to West Philly to pick it up.”

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43. The Phone Number Fairy said... on Mar 26, 2014 at 06:42PM

“I just met him on the Market-Frankford El today, and got his number after grabbing 3. So glad I got it, because I'm absolutely going to special order from him. He will bake to order, any type you can think of! If you'd like to contact Vernon for a special order, his number is 215-848-2228. I hope that helps many of you. Happy eating:o)”

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44. 29Teddy said... on Apr 11, 2014 at 06:12PM

“I am eating a Carrot Cake Man cupcake RIGHT NOW. He was just at the Bottom Dollar at Chew and Washington Lane (6:45 PM). Bet you are jealous and thinking "maybe I'll just run over there and see if I can catch Carrot Cake Man". Yum, hmmm, so good. And sooooo big.”

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