Walk into the small space in front of Catery On Broad in TenEleven Galleria and you may well be greeted by the Mona Lisa, impishly suggesting you’re about to find out why she’s smiling.
The reason is Isom’s Delights, a small but bustling bake shop specializing in such made-from-scratch treats as cakes, pies and especially cookies.
Owner/operator Lori Starnes Isom, who has skillfully rendered a likeness of the Mona Lisa on a chalkboard behind the counter, is currently feeding her muses -- as a baker who specializes in cookies and as an artist, which she has done in some way, shape or form nearly all of her life.
Isom, who grew up in New York City and currently lives in Columbia, has strong ties to Camden. Her mother, Daisy Williams grew up in Camden in the Knights Hill Community before moving to New York City in the 1940s.
“She was only 12 years old when she went,” Isom said. “Her brother went to New York to find a job and later sent for her -- she rode the train, by herself, to live with him.”
Her mother would meet her husband in New York; they would marry and have two children, Lori and her brother, Isom said.
“We grew up in New York, but we have always had the connection here,” she said.
Isom has been drawn to art almost as long as she can remember, she said.
“I started drawing when I was 5 or 6 years old,” she said. “I went to an arts high school and then an arts college. I was always interested in art -- but I was also very interested in cooking. I would watch television shows like Julia Child and The Galloping Gourmet all the time. I was totally hooked on them, and remember, too, they were about the only cooking shows on TV back in the day.”
Isom especially enjoyed baking cookies and became fairly skilled at it, she said. Her brother particularly liked her cookies, she said.
“I was a working artist for years,” she noted. “Back when I first started, my brother would tell me, ‘why don’t you bake some of your cookies and sell them, too?’”
She chuckled at the memory.
“I told him, ‘I’m selling paintings, not cookies,” she said with a laugh.
But while she made her living with her art, her interest in baking never left. She would explore this more and more over time, eventually working in a couple of bakeries to gain a better understanding of the business, she said.
Finally, Isom decided to give her culinary calling her undivided attention.
“I stopped doing any art for a year or so,” she said. “Instead, I devoted all my time to research, planning, experimenting with recipes, finding the best ingredients. I really got into trying to figure out what makes a good cookie, what works and what doesn’t, what makes one spread or not spread when you put it in the oven. There was a lot of trial and error. Fortunately, I didn’t have too much trouble finding people to help test recipes.”
Finally, she started making the rounds of various farmers markets, including the Kershaw County Farmers Market, she said. The experience helped her not only get her bearings business-wise, but cemented her feeling this was what she needed to do.
“I loved doing the farmers markets,” Isom said. “Everyone is so supportive, and the people, once they buy from you, tend to keep coming back. They look for you every week.”
Nonetheless, her ultimate dream was to have her own bake shop. One day, intrigued by Camden and aware of her connection to the community, she decided to poke around and see what, if any, retail spaces might be available downtown. At the Galleria, Isom and her husband met Tripp Guinn, owner of Catery on Broad, who happened to be working in his kitchen when they stopped by.
“We talked for quite awhile,” she said. “He told me this particular space had just become available and that the previous occupants had run a small bakery, and that he would love to have someone else there doing baking.”
Guinn agreed to hold the space to give her time to decide; she officially opened Sept. 15.
The space, while small, is exactly what Isom envisioned for herself.
“For me, it was going to be either a very small space or perhaps a mobile unit,” she said.
As it turns out, Isom was even able to share the space with another small business, the Palmetto Coffee Shoppe and Tea Room, which recently moved from a larger space on Broad Street. The two businesses complement each other well, she said.
Isom bakes a wide variety of treats, all from scratch, including cakes, pies, and pastries, but her love -- and her specialty -- is cookies, she said.
“Cookies are a great vehicle,” Isom said. “There are so many variations -- there are cookie sandwiches, cookie bars, blondies and brownies -- it’s really an unlimited platform.”
Isom said she did quite a bit of experimenting but has hit on several recipes that seem to really work well.
“My oatmeal everything cookie is probably my favorite, and the one I’m most proud of,” she said.
Isom’s Delights is inside TenEleven Galleria, 1011 Broad St., Camden. Hours are Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Saturday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, call (843) 323-8001; visit the store’s website at www.Isomsdelights.com or Facebook page at Lori Isom/Isom’s Delights; or follow Starnes on Twitter, @lorstarnes.