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