When Brittany McGee started baking pastries for the now-closed Honey Pot, she admits she didn’t really know what she was doing.
“I had never made a scone before in my life,” McGee says.
But during a tryout for a popular downtown restaurant, she went for it, and the scone won them over.
Working multiple service-industry jobs and commuting to school at UNCG, McGee still made time for baking at home. She used it as a way to take a break from homework, “and almost center myself in a way,” she says, adding that it helped her anxiety to step away and focus on baking. She’d bake enough to bring to touring bands at shows she attended, using her creations as a way to express gratitude. McGee didn’t consider it as a potential career path, though — she wanted to put her double majors to work.
After graduating, she found an office job in Raleigh, but work consumed her time. After several months, she realized that she’d stopped baking.
“I wasn’t being creative in really any way, especially using my hands,” McGee says. As someone who’s long been drawn to sculpting and other art forms, including baking, McGee realized her corporate gig wasn’t going to cut it. With encouragement from her family, she moved back to Winston-Salem, determined to open her own business.
“I come from a family of entrepreneurs,” she says. “My family definitely pushed me to do this. They had my back.”
Two years ago, in June 2017, she opened the Humble Bee Shoppe on Brookstown Avenue, right behind Mozelle’s. McGee didn’t intend to operate a storefront — she planned to focus on custom orders — but when she couldn’t find the right space, she improvised.
“I really just fell face first into this with blind faith,” she says. “I’ve learned that you can prepare yourself for something and have all these scenarios, but when your back is against the wall, you always find a way to perform if you have that drive in you.”
In some ways, hers is a typical story of a small business owner, especially one with the “hustling” millennial mentality. Work hard. Keep grinding. Give everything you have to the dream. Rely on grit and determination. Sleep when you’re dead. But while some may find her story relatable, there’s nothing pedestrian or predictable about her creations.
They’re visual masterpieces, especially her cakes. No two are the same, ranging from a terrestrial and gold-splattered mirror cake that glistens like the Caribbean to a towering geode cake revealing a jagged crystal-like purple inside. A mermaid-themed birthday cake complete with pink and blue waves rising from its surface is just as magnificent as a J-shaped lush crème tart cake with pistachio, edible gold, glitter, and other extravagances that demonstrate a level of mastery fit for a museum showcase.
McGee’s resplendent designs extend to her more everyday creations too, including her wildly popular macarons. Some feature hand-painted designs on top while others don sprinkles or script. Her creativity would be more at home on an episode of Netflix’s popular “Chef’s Table” series than a side street in North Carolina’s fifth largest city.
But Winston-Salem is home.
“I wouldn’t want to do this anywhere else,” McGee says. “There’s just something about Winston and our community and the amount of support that I’ve never quite encountered anywhere else in the world. I know that I wouldn’t be who I am today, and Humble Bee wouldn’t be what it is today, if it wasn’t for Winston.”
Despite her unbridled and rare creativity, almost all of McGee’s customers are local. Some come in for her flourless or vegan products, drawn to her brownies or other baked goods they can’t find elsewhere. Others ask for custom cakes — at least a month in advance — trusting McGee to take their general ideas and bring them to life. While there’s some consistency for her in-store offerings, McGee’s creative process is more like that of a painter. She’s happy to incorporate themes, flavors, colors, or other specific client directions. But no two cakes will come out identical, and her customers trust her enough to develop something incredible.
Unlike starting her business, it doesn’t take a leap of faith on their part. Her past creations —showcased beautifully on the Humble Bee’s popular Instagram account — adeptly portray her capable handiwork, which taste just as good as they look.