By JENNIFER BIGGS, The Daily Memphian undefined
MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Smart young woman suffers existential crisis and Memphis gains a beloved bakery: That's the Kat Gordon story in a dozen words, but we're not, of course, going to stop there.
Instead, let's go back a dozen years, or a baker's dozen, just before she opened Muddy's Bake Shop. Gordon, 38, was in her mid-20s, working in real estate. She had a side hustle baking in her home, but as driven then as she is now, she longed for purpose.
"My prayer to God constantly was 'Please, just show me what I am supposed to be doing,'" she said. "People talk about a crisis of faith; I refer to this period of my life as a crisis of certainty. I was in a spiral, craving certainty, feeling very out of control.
"Meanwhile, I had this side job of baking that I couldn't keep up with. Anyone watching the movie of my life would be like, 'Hey! Lady!'"
After introspection, prayer and knowing that moving forward was better than staying still, it was time to take a leap of faith. She found herself wondering if it would be metaphorical or literal — she truly considered skydiving, a great fear, as a possibility. This was the bottom line: She had to do something.
Lucky for Memphis, she chose pastry over parachutes. At 26, Gordon opened Muddy's, named after her grandmother, in 2008. She didn't plan it that way, but she opened on Feb. 29 and on Saturday, she'll celebrate her third anniversary by giving away gifts to customers who submit "passports" showing they visited all three sites that day.
While it's true to say that no small business would succeed without good customers, in Gordon's case, they did more than buy cupcakes to keep the bakery going in the early days.
"Customers would come in for a cookie or a cupcake and half the time we'd be out, but they were always so nice about it," she said. "And there were those who would start busing tables or grab a broom and sweep.
"Maybe it was the place, the time, I don't know. I just know something so special happened then. I don't know if that could happen today."
Gordon grew up in Memphis, attended 14 years at St. Mary's Episcopal School for girls ("I took a victory lap of kindergarten") and moved on to Southern Methodist University for college. In her sophomore year, she was walking when she was hit by a drunk driver estimated to be driving up to 70 miles per hour.
"I got a call at 3 a.m. from the dean of students, who wouldn't get to the point," said Jan Gordon, Kat's mother. "I'd been sound asleep and was so confused. I finally said 'Is my child alive?' and he said 'I don't know.'"
The numbers were grim, the statistics for simply surviving the impact that threw her about 60 feet stacked heavily against her. But she was 20 and healthy, a marginal advantage. She spent two weeks in a Dallas hospital undergoing surgeries then came home, thanks to the late Phil Trenary, who was then president of Pinnacle Airlines. He knew her father, who was on the other side of labor negotiations with him.
"They kept trying to think of a way to get me home and it just didn't seem feasible," Gordon said. "Phil heard about it, stepped in and said, 'Don't worry about it.' He sent a private plane to get me."
There was nerve damage to heal, months of physical therapy, and Gordon's first three months back in Memphis were spent in a wheelchair. She was well enough to return to college, this time closer to home at the University of Mississippi, where she started working in retail and caught the merchandising bug that would define her bakery in a few years.
But she was fundamentally changed.
"I live every day knowing that I dodged a bullet, and in recent years have felt like I dodged two, knowing what we know today about opioid addiction. I was on so much pain medication and am so lucky.
"Everything would've been different if it hadn't been for the accident, but I don't know how. I know that I didn't enjoy college, period. I'm like an 80-year-old in a young person's body. I wanted to be home watching 'Singing in the Rain,' not out where some drunk person might throw up on you," she said.
"Having it so dramatically derailed made it a different experience. I ended up taking a lot of summer courses to catch up, and found I liked learning like that, four hours a day for six weeks instead of a few times a week for months."
In 2004, she was back in Memphis but found herself at loose ends.
THE PEOPLE KEPT COMING
"In the absence of a true calling, I thought I'd try real estate because my mom has such a dedication and a passion for it," Gordon said. "And I learned a ton. You work for a company, but you're really working for yourself."
She'd always cooked, and her love for baking found a small audience with family and friends. By the time she had her "crisis of certainty," it was larger.
"At that point I had actual customers who weren't related to me or people I knew," she said.
Gordon surprised everyone with her decision.
"I didn't know she was thinking about anything like this," her mother said. "But unbeknownst to me, she was dreaming and scheming and plotting and planning."
She started looking for a shop in 2007. She stopped to pick up coffee for her boyfriend, Thomas Robinson (now her husband), and took a moment in the car for a quick prayer for guidance.
"She asked God for a sign is what happened," her mother said.
When she walked in the coffee shop, it was just in time to overhear the clerk tell someone on the telephone that she had to find a new job, because the store was going to close.
Then the Memphis part kicked in, where everyone knows everyone. It turned out the landlord of the place in Sanderlin Centre in East Memphis was someone the family knew, someone who was willing to work with an inexperienced 25-year-old ready to open a business.
It was coincidental that her leap of faith culminated on Leap Day. Her plan was that she would open two days after she got the go-ahead from the Health Department, and that's how it happened.
"I didn't have a soft opening. I guess I was vaguely aware of what one was, but I didn't do it. We just opened, and it was a madhouse. We sold out within hours and it was pretty much like that for our first year," she said.
Her mother remembers working the cash register — which broke — that first day. Gordon's brother ran to Office Depot to get a new one. Robinson's mother, the artist Nancy Cheairs, went next door to Timna, purchased a white shirt, ("her pastry whites," Gordon called them) and got behind the counter.
She had residential ovens tucked in the corner of the bakery. She'd never used a KitchenAid. And 2008 wasn't such a good year for businesses.
"I think flour prices doubled just before we opened. I know they went up a lot. And it wasn't like there were all these other businesses just waiting to take over my space if I failed. It was one of the worst times to start a business and I gave it like four months."
Yet the people kept coming. If she was sold out, they came back. People kept helping, and Gordon persisted.
"During that first year, there were several times when I worked three days straight with no more than a one-hour nap before just crashing," she said. "I was so aware that there was so much I didn't know, but out of sheer desperation, I was just like 'go for it.'"
She quickly outgrew the baking space in her East Memphis shop and rented a kitchen in Cooper-Young, which was too small to last long. In 2012, she opened her commercial bakery on Broad Avenue, and in 2014, Muddy's Midtown, which started as a coffee shop with a bakery but has taken on the same whimsical nature as the original store.
The bakery's accolades range from inclusion on numerous local favorite lists and Southern Living's "South's Best Bakeries," to listing on The New York Post's "Top Bakeries in America," "America's Top Bakeries" in Travel + Leisure and many more.
Gordon has adopted a practice of "visioning," a process she learned then adapted from ZingTrain, planning creative growth by jumping forward in time to take a look around, something that sounds a little loosey-goosey but results in Venn diagrams, a thesis and who knows, maybe even flow charts.
Last week she hosted a series of small groups — about six people plus her — around a table at the bakery on Broad. The mission was to transport yourself to Dec. 1, 2025, and take a look at Muddy's.
The question is: What do you see? It's not: How do we get there?
"With visioning there's a great danger of writing a to-do list," Gordon said. "You don't want to get bogged down doing that, which is what we naturally do."
Mary Henry Thompson and her 10-year-old daughter, Neely, were part of one group. Thompson grew up in Memphis but lived away for years before moving back when her daughter was a baby.
"I'd already heard of Muddy's when we lived in North Carolina," she said. "It was one of the first places we went when we moved here and we became Muddy's regulars.
"We didn't have family here, and Muddy's, for us, was like going to your mother's kitchen. We loved the goodies, the people we met and even standing in line, because we'd meet more people."
At the visioning session, both Thompson and her daughter saw Muddy's 2025 out in the community.
"My daughter saw a food truck. She said 'How cool would it be if you had a birthday party and a Muddy's food truck showed up?' And I felt the same way, that I wanted some way to take the intangible part of Muddy's into the community."
She's talking about the camaraderie, not the cupcakes. It was the feeling Gordon set out to establish from Day 1.
"The whole idea was that when you came in my shop, you were coming in my home," she said. "And it was so not Instagram ready, but Instagram wasn't a thing then. That wouldn't fly today."
But that's not really true. She wore bright blue, pink and purple wigs, 1950s aprons and hats shaped like pie. The brightly painted tables and fanciful streamers and knick-knacks hanging from the ceiling stopped just shy of Pee-wee's Playhouse, in the best way. She called — and still calls — her workers gnomies and offers them a career, health care and other benefits. They're part of her visioning.
Tirzah Rhodes was at another vision party this week. She was an early Muddy's customer, one who often visited with her friend and pitched in to help.
"We helped because we were just so thrilled that an independent businesswoman from Memphis not only was there, but had a great product and place that we loved. We never thought of it as work."
For Gordon, gestures like that made all the difference to that 26-year-old businesswoman.
"God bless her," she said of the younger Kat. "Do you ever think of your past self and just want to go give her a great big hug? Of course, if I did that, she'd be like 'Ugh. Get off me.'"