When Fu-Mei Lin and Tzy-Woei Wu came to the U.S. from Hong Kong, they operated a wholesale-food business and became the first bean-sprout manufacturers in the Washington, D.C., area.
The couple retired in 1984 and then opened a Chinese restaurant in Alexandria. "The idea was a restaurant with a little, in-house baking," explained their daughter, Victoria Wu. "Within a year, we were doing birthday and wedding cakes."
And that's how Cakes by Happy Eatery — a family-run bakery now in the Centreville Square Shopping Center — began. "In Alexandria, we started out doing birthday cakes, and many were for children," said Wu. "And my parents were in business long enough that they also did the high-school graduation cakes and even wedding cakes for some of these same children."
But after 17 years in Alexandria, the business had to relocate because the shopping plaza it was in was being torn down. After Centreville was suggested as a new location, Wu looked at the bakery's demographics and realized that half its customers were driving to Alexandria from Northern Virginia.
In March, they decided on Centreville. Said Wu: "We knew about the real-estate market up here and the growing population." The site was a former health-foods store, and the Wus spent until July renovating it.
Meanwhile, the original bakery still had lots of customers booked for cakes and catering, and they'd already paid in full. "We offered them a full refund and a referral, but they said no; they wanted to stay with us," said Wu. "It was the highest compliment they could have paid us." The Wus then carried out their baking in other Alexandria-area bakeries and restaurants until their new place was ready.
They opened here, the end of July, and held a grand opening, the end of September. Hours are Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-8 p.m.; and Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
"We knew we had a challenge, coming to Centreville, because we had to establish ourselves," said Wu. "It helped that we had a customer base, but we couldn't guarantee that people would drive the extra 20-30 minutes to come here."
As it turned out, both old and new customers are flocking to the bakery. "They'll come in and taste our pastry items, come back and order a birthday cake," said Wu. "And later, they'll ask about our catering services."
Wu's brother-in-law, Ray Rorrer, is the store's day manager, and he already knows the customers' favorites — like cheesecake, for example. "We have traditional, creamy cheesecakes with various toppings — fresh fruit or chocolate," he said. A whole, 10-inch cheesecake is $35; by the slice, it's $2.75, but Rorrer says people are more than willing to pay the price. "It's well worth it," he said. "It's so fresh and smooth, it melts in your mouth."
Also popular, he said, are the chocolate chip and ricotta-cheese filled cannoli, the almond puffs — puff pastry filled with vanilla-custard cream, and cookies — peanut butter, chocolate chip, white-chocolate macadamia nut, oatmeal raisin and, of course, traditional Chinese almond cookies.
Individual, Swiss cake rolls sell for $1.25-$1.75 a slice, or customers may purchase cakes whole. They range in price, according to size and type. An 8-inch cake, for example, starts at $15; an 18-inch cake that serves 45-50 begins at $65.
Cake fillings include: Chocolate, strawberry or raspberry mousse, whipped cream, fruit cocktail, Bavarian, chocolate ganache, Bavarian with fresh fruit, mocha truffle and tropical pineapple. The bakery's signature cake is a light, two-layer, Genoise cake with whipped-cream icing. Also offered are carrot and Black Forest cakes.
Individual, 3-inch fruit tarts filled with vanilla custard and topped with fresh fruit such as mandarin oranges, strawberries, kiwi and blueberries, are also hot items. "We can't keep them out here," said Rorrer, gesturing at the display case. "After 2-3 hours, they're gone."
Cakes by Happy Eatery also bakes seasonal pies, including pumpkin, cherry, apple, blueberry and chocolate mousse. It's noted, as well, for its bubble drinks.
"They're like iced tea or coffee latte with bubbles," said Rorrer. "They're made with coffee or tea, milk and tapioca." A 16-ounce drink is $3; and beginning this summer, the bakery will also serve frozen bubble drinks in fruit flavors such as mango, strawberry and passion fruit.
And there's more than dessert on the menu. The bakery also offers homemade soups, such as chicken noodle and lobster bisque, plus sandwiches (chicken salad on white, wheat or sundried-tomato bread is a big seller).
It also does catering for businesses and individuals, for light lunches, and takes special orders for birthday cakes, mini-pastry platters, etc. "We can do them with 24 hours' notice, but we prefer 72," said Rorrer. Most of all, the owners want to please their customers. Said Wu: "We want to be the local bakery."
She said lots of mothers drop off their children at the nearby dance studio, or film at the photo shop, and come to the bakery for dessert and coffee while they're waiting. "And we've gotten to know some of the neighbors here [in the shopping center], and they've all been very nice," said Wu.
Their philosophy of business, she said, is to provide a really good product — "I use the best ingredients, and you can taste the difference" — offer good customer service and participate in the community. Although it's a fun business, she said, there's also lots of hard work.
"We do all our baking here, and we get last-minute orders, all the time," said Wu. "Sometimes employees will come in around 5 or 6 in the morning and go home at midnight, depending on the production planned for that day."
She said the bakery will improvise and help do whatever the customer wants. "One day, someone walked in and — [on short notice] — wanted a cake for 80 people," said Wu. "So we gave him three different cakes and he loved it." And on request, the bakery will make cakes for those wanting them, for example, egg-free, or baked with non-gluten flour or sugar substitute.
"I always say, 'What's your craving?'" she said. "If customers want tiramisu, we'll do it. A lot of the ideas come from the customers, and we'll work with them."
She's also learning the residents' tastebuds in this new location. Said Wu: "Here, I'll go through 50 pounds of chocolate and 80 pounds of cream cheese in a week, for our chocolate mousse and chocolate ganache cakes and cheesecakes."
OK, so where'd they get their name? "In the '80s, eateries were popular, so my mother and sister Emily came up with the bakery's name, Happy Eatery," said Wu. "And we added a baker's hat, cake and coffee to our smiley-face logo. As silly as the name is, people remember it, and we're usually baking for happy occasions. This is fun for us — we enjoy what we do."