NEW YORK — Betty Campbell-Adams has never made it to China, Nigeria or the Philippines — but her carrot cakes have.
From her storefront bakery in the Bronx, the dense, moist cakes have boarded planes bound for far-flung parts of the world, lugged by faithful customers who swear by them and want their family and friends to do so as well. Every couple of weeks, Campbell-Adams, who has traveled as far as Greece, hears about another journey. There have been too many to count.
“I’m going to hang up a map and put a pin in everywhere that someone tells me they’re going with my cake,” Campbell-Adams, 60, said as the sweet scent of sugar, cinnamon and baking carrots wafted through the air.
Campbell-Adams — or “the carrot cake lady,” as she is known to many of her fans — is the owner of Lloyd’s Carrot Cake, a family business that churns out about 1,000 cakes and dozens of cupcakes and muffins every week, all from a tiny kitchen just across from Van Cortlandt Park in the Riverdale neighborhood. Look for the light-up sign with the dancing carrot.
Carrot cakes are not the only items on the menu, though two of the eight cakes to choose from are carrot, one with raisins and nuts and one without, both smothered in cream-cheese frosting. Also popular are the red velvet, German chocolate and pineapple coconut cakes. Prices start at $2.75 for a single slice of plain carrot cake and go up to $24 for an entire fully loaded carrot cake with nuts and raisins. The most expensive item is the 10-inch red velvet cake, for $35.
Lines can wind down the block, with a three-hour wait last Thanksgiving. The regulars include neighborhood residents and students and staff from nearby private schools. At Riverdale Country School, which often orders from Lloyd’s, the small carrot cupcakes are a favorite in the cafeteria for the middle and upper schools.
This is also where runners treat themselves after tackling the grueling cross-country course in the park. Katie Couric and Kelly Ripa have stopped by after their children’s races. And the Van Cortlandt Track Club typically awards carrot cakes and carrot muffins in lieu of medals at the finish line. Losers must cross the street to buy their own.
Bette Clark, a past president of the track club, takes a carrot cake to Montreal whenever she goes to see her family there. Usually she drives with the cake, but once she took it on the train and dropped it. Not wanting to disappoint her relatives, she picked it up and pieced it back together.
“It’s become international,” said Clark, 60, a psychologist who gave up baking her own carrot cake after discovering Lloyd’s. “Anyone who eats her carrot cakes loves them, and wants them again and again, so I’m always having to bring them.”
Lloyd’s Carrot Cake was started by Campbell-Adams’ husband, Lloyd Adams, a hospital social worker whose favorite cake was carrot. His grandmother came up with the family recipe in St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The recipe was handed down to his mother, and then to Adams, who tweaked it (adding more cinnamon and extra eggs to make it fluffier).
Adams used to bake the carrot cake for his friends after they played basketball. They would request it. He decided he had something good and told Campbell-Adams,
“I’m thinking we’re going to get married and have a family and we’re going to be struggling,” Campbell-Adams recalled.
Her father owned a five-floor walk-up in East Harlem and allowed Adams to set up a makeshift kitchen in the basement. He installed an oven and started baking. He took a sample to Sylvia Woods at her soul food restaurant, Sylvia’s. By the time he returned home, she was calling for another cake. Soon she was ordering five a week.
The Adamses outgrew the basement and, in April 1986, moved to the Riverdale storefront, which had been a video and comic book store. At first, they baked on the premises only for their growing wholesale business to restaurants. But the smell of their cakes brought people to the door. A retail counter followed.
Campbell-Adams took over after her husband, who had health problems, died in 2007. The bakery closed for about six weeks while she regrouped, sending customers into despair. “I knew I wanted to keep it because that was his dream and I couldn’t just let it die with him,” she said.
Today, the business is thriving. Campbell-Adams opened a second, smaller bakery in Harlem in 2011 that now sells about 400 cakes a week. She also added a separate juice bar next door to the Harlem location, called Joosed by Lloyd’s, where the drinks include a carrot and red velvet shake.
This month, she is expanding the Riverdale bakery to meet the growing demand for her cakes. She is taking over the adjoining storefront, which will house the retail counter and another juice bar.
Paterson Payano, 40, an emergency room technician, comes in three times a week for a carrot cake fix after exercising in the park. “It’s the smell; it traps me whenever I come,” he said. “That’s the reason why I’m running.”
Lloyd’s sells mainly in New York City at the two bakeries and in food markets, including Zabar’s and Food Emporium. But Campbell-Adams has occasionally shipped cakes, by request, to other states.
The first time she heard of a cake going overseas was a couple of years ago when a firefighter who had been stationed in Iraq recounted opening a box carefully wrapped up in T-shirts to find her cake inside. It had been shipped over by his fellow firefighters in the Bronx. “I was just taken aback that our cake went so far,” she said.
Another time, two Filipino siblings came in to buy a cake to carry back on the plane to their mother. Other customers and destinations followed: China, Ecuador, Israel, London, Nigeria and Costa Rica, where Campbell-Adams was born.
Campbell-Adams, tall and elegant in a T-shirt emblazoned with a cartoon carrot, said one of the secrets to her family’s carrot cake is not to skimp on the star ingredient. The Riverdale bakery goes through 400 pounds of fresh carrots a week. The carrots are grated, not once but twice for a smoother texture. Then five cups go into every 10-inch cake, for maximum flavor and moisture.
There are other secrets, too, which she is not sharing.
Standing in front of the bakery the other day, Campbell-Adams said she still chokes up when she sees people lining up for her husband’s cake. His portrait hangs on the wall of the bakery. Campbell-Adams and their two children are carrying on what he started.
Lilka, 31, a marketing manager for a television station, helps run the bakery’s social media accounts. And Brandon, 28, who grew up delivering cakes with his father, is now the general manager.
“It’s been a part of my life for as far back as I can remember,” he said. “I know he’s happy just looking down and seeing we’re all pitching in.”