Photography by Amanda Duke
Sweet Kaki is serving up slices all over town, and the only thing sweeter than her pies is her giving nature.
Otherwise known as Caroline Bowen—at least, that’s the name her mama gave her—Kaki, a nickname given to her by her younger brother, is building an empire around sugar and spice.
Originally from Darlington, a sweet little town in South Carolina, Kaki grew up with her mother cooking every meal. “My mother was the best cook ever, and we didn’t go out to eat. We sat around the old oak table for a hot meal, and there was always a dessert. You didn’t want to miss her meals.”
Kaki, however, did not share her mother’s love for preparing food. “I hated anything related to the kitchen,” she laughs, “and it just worried her to death because she wanted me to be a good cook.”
When she graduated from college, Kaki’s first job moved her to Atlanta, and her mom worried she’d starve to death. She worked for a large packaging company and didn’t know anyone. She says, “I was a small town girl in the big city of Atlanta.”
Being young and nervous about going out alone, she tried her hand at cooking. She remembers calling her mom to ask her how to bake a potato in the microwave. “Needless to say, it took me a while to learn how to do things, and I called Mama probably about every day saying how do you cook this or that. Bless her sweet heart, she was always there with a nice patient ear on the other end and walked me through everything.”
Soon Kaki met her future husband, Curran, and they moved into and renovated the Newnan home that has been in his family since 1832 to get back to small town life after living in Atlanta. On their wedding day, her mother gave her a handwritten cookbook full of all the favorite family recipes—the best gift she’s ever gotten, she says. Having the cookbook prompted her to look through the recipes and try them.
One day, their son, Kirby, wanted a dessert, so Kaki started practicing her grandmother’s apple pie recipe from the cookbook. “It was a flop for a long time,” she says, “and then finally I kind of mastered it, and it was something my family started asking for.”
In September 2007, Kaki and Curran had a healthy baby boy who passed away unexpectedly at only nine days old. “As a mother, you can imagine it’s a nightmare. It’s the worst thing that can happen to you, and it’s kind of like a life sentence of just sadness that you have to live in this world without one of your children,” Kaki says. “Kirby, at the time, was three and I had to keep going for him, so I started cooking.”
Kaki would cook all day and all night, and it became therapy for her. “That’s when I really mastered the apple pie because I didn’t want to drown myself in my sorrow,” she admits. “We all have things that we do in life that help us get over things. For me, it was cooking. After that horrible loss, cooking was kind of like my ministry to help me not go absolutely crazy.”
Her church family at Central Baptist was a big help to her. “I was lifted up with love and prayers from my church family like you can’t imagine,” she recalls. “It’s all about being in the right community and being part of a loving church family that really helped me be a person again. And cooking an absurd amount of food every day. I had to buy an extra freezer just for all the casseroles and pies.”
People began to notice Kaki’s pies when she started giving food away to friends, neighbors, her kids’ teachers, and her church family. Her family and friends encouraged her to start selling her pies, but she felt like she was too busy. She was a wife, a mother, and had a full-time job. “I thought ‘I would love to do that. It would be a dream, but I can’t.’”
But then a couple of years ago, Kaki and her family were on a Memorial Day family vacation at Lake Rabun, and after lunch, Kaki began to feel unwell, as though her food was stuck in her chest. Her husband told her to take an aspirin, and they continued on with their day. But while she was cooking dinner, the feeling got worse. She became overheated and had horrible, paralyzing chest pain. Her son called 911, and paramedics arrived quickly to perform an EKG. Kaki was taken to the local hospital where another EKG was done, but there were no signs of a heart attack. Dr. Benz, who Kaki prays for every single night, asked to have an EKG run again on the right side of her heart and discovered that she was in active cardiac arrest. She was then life-flighted to Gainesville; but they weren’t sure she would make it since the episode had been going on all day.
“It was a 19-minute flight,” says Kaki, “and it was probably the most surreal moment of my entire life.” She remembers hearing the paramedics’ kind voices telling her to stay with them, and all she could think about was her children and her husband. She pictured both of her children, Kirby and Mary Martin, and kept looking for her angel baby, Burris.
“The next thing I knew, I was in a room and I was alive. I didn’t die, I was alive. And you know… God saved me, and he saved me for a reason. It was not my time. He spared me to do something,” she declares. But her recovery was difficult. She had no energy, and she struggled to get daily tasks accomplished.
In her exhaustion, she had a conversation with God, full of anger, thanks, and laying out her regrets. “We have regrets about things that we wish we had done in life and we didn’t do,” she says, “and my pie business was on the top of the list. And I said, ‘God, if you ever give me my strength back and I become Caroline again, I’m going to start my pie business.’”
Kaki jumped into it feet first a year after her heart attack with the encouragement of her friends and family. “I started and I never looked back, and Sweet Kaki’s was born right before Easter last year.”
She secured a cottage license so she could work from home and offered porch pickup for the first year. Kaki has six freezers in her house—she converted her children’s play room into a freezer room—to hold all the pies she bakes. “I was blessed with so much business as word spread. By that Easter, I had to make 247 pies, and it just kept going.”
People came from all over Georgia to pick up pies. And soon she was working with local businesses doing large pre-order “pie drops” in Newnan and Thomaston, Peachtree City and Athens. “It was just crazy all the pies!” she laughs.
She soon branched out from just making apple pie to making peach, blueberry and cherry pies, with each flavor having its own freezer in her home. And her expansion into local boutique stores wanting to sell her pies prompted her to get her commercial license and to rent a commercial cooking space in a shared kitchen in Newnan. Rescue Me Market in Thomaston was the first location that sold her pies
commercially. She also stocks freezers in Coweta County at both Cleaver & Cork locations, and her pie is served by the slice at The Cellar restaurant.
“Every bit of this pie business, I promise you, is a God thing. This is what God wants me to do, I just know it. It’s all just been a blessing.” And she feels honored to have her pies on people’s tables. “What’s really been great is how the community embraced me. Every business in downtown Newnan would host me for pie drops, and they would cheer me on; the churches would cheer me on; the people in Newnan would cheer me on. Even the community I was raised in, Darlington, they couldn’t even get my pies but were cheering me on, and being a part of the community means the world to me. I wish everybody in the world could experience the love of being in a community. It just makes my heart happy.”
Kaki still calls her mom, who is incredibly proud of her, at least once per week for cooking advice. They cook Thanksgiving meals together, and even though Kaki’s own daughter doesn’t care for the kitchen, Kaki is hopeful that she will turn around one day as she did.
If there’s one thing Kaki wants her story to teach people, it’s that “if you have a dream, go ahead and do it! Don’t wait until something happens to follow your dream.”
Contact Kaki for your holiday dessert on one of these platforms!
Facebook and Instagram @sweetkakis
Sweet Kaki’s Baking Tip: When using spices, be careful not to use too much. A little goes a long way! And I always mix spices with butter. It seems to disperse better in butter. In my opinion, fat is great in transferring flavor!
Kaki bakes pies every single day and is planning to make hundreds for the holiday season. She’s got a record of 572 pies—last year’s November tally—to beat!