In a brick building set back behind a short strip mall on Washington Road, a small staff wearing hairnets and plastic gloves is hard at work.
There are large quantities of soup to be made, salads to be mixed, casseroles to be cooked, sandwiches to be assembled and cakes to be baked in the large catering kitchen gleaming with stainless steel.
If not for a small diamond-shaped sign hanging outside the door that says “Very Vera, est. 1984,” you might not realize right away that this is where one of Augusta’s household names has set up shop. But when you step inside, you can’t miss the evidence that Vera Stewart is kind of a big deal.
The walls are covered with rows and rows of framed articles from newspapers including The New York Times to clippings from magazines such as Bon Appetit, Southern Living, Sports Illustrated and more that feature the home-cooked sweets and snacks that Stewart has become known for in Augusta and all over the world.
It’s a shrine to the enterprise that began with Stewart selling cakes out of her home. It has grown into a far-reaching mail-order business and further expanded to making savory take-home meals. Her ventures also include catering, philanthropy and a cooking school for kids. And you can stop in for lunch.
Before I even had a taste, I knew her cakes were legendary, and that’s not just my opinion. Oprah Winfrey included Stewart’s strawberry layer cake on her coveted list of favorite things.
If Stewart didn’t already know that her creations were a hot commodity, Oprah said so.
Her carrot cake is no slouch, either. Stewart used that recipe to slay celebrity chef Bobby Flay’s recipe on Food Network’s Throwdown last year.
Eating dessert was part of my plan when I went to the cafe, but that’s not what I went for specifically. Almost everything looked good while I was perusing the menu online, but the tomato pie really caught my eye.
With all items less than $9, the one-page menu features classic Southern favorites including Vera’s signature chicken salad, egg salad, pimento cheese and meatloaf sandwiches and a daily soup.
The café also offers a quiche of the day, which just screams fancy lunch fare.
I sat at a table that offered a full view into the catering kitchen, where employees were packaging salads in containers large and small to be sold to to-go customers.
This was my kind of entertainment. To go with my view, I ordered the tomato pie with a cup of the potato herb soup.
The soup was a knockout – creamy and thick with bite-size chunks of skin-on potatoes flecked with flavorful green herbs. It was silky and filling but not so heavy that it would lay you out after a few bites. The longer it lingered, the more intricate and deep the flavors became, with a little taste of sherry that reminded me of a delicate bisque.
I was expecting the tomato pie to be a slice, but to my delight, it was its own individual pie. And it was pretty. Thick red slices of a medium-sized tomato peeked through golden brown mounds of sharp cheddar cheese and scallions.
This pie was cheesy, creamy and deliciously messy. But it was also dense. It proved quite a feat to push the fork through the layers and into the crust.
The tomatoes sliced through the richness of the mayonnaise and other creamy elements with the help of the subtle onion bite from the scallions. I had to throw in the towel about halfway through to save room for dessert.
The sweets are arranged on an unassuming little side table against the wall. Dessert bars are lined up next to a cake stand with tiers of individually-wrapped inch-thick slices. For $2.50, you can sample the aforementioned varieties or you can do as I did and scan the collection for chocolate.
One employee told us the double chocolate cake – chocolate cake with chocolate icing – was her favorite, but it should be called triple chocolate because of the white chocolate shavings on top.
The cake was so simple and scrumptious – the way homemade cake should taste. The icing was tooth-achingly sweet with powdered sugar, but it was the perfect amount so as not to overpower the double-layer slice. The cake itself was light and airy; no chewing necessary.
Stewart is not only a champion in cake-baking, she also champions for our city. Every time the national spotlight shines on her business, it shines on Augusta – reasons to be proud and hungry for more Very Vera.