King cakes have been a long-standing tradition for generations. Originating in France during the 12th century, the circular cakes represent the journey of the three kings to Bethlehem to honor the Christ child. For Sherri Paul-Thigpen, owner of Paul’s Pastry Shop in Picayune, king cakes are a way of life. The second generation baker has been creating these colorful rings of sweet cake and cream cheese for almost 40 years.
Paul’s Pastry was founded by Thigpen’s parents, Harry and Shirley Paul, in 1970 when Thigpen was thirteen years old. “I spent many afternoons after school and weekends helping out,” she recalls. At the time, the Paul’s operated their bakery in an 855 square-foot facility. When Thigpen officially took over the bakery in 1989 she began making expansions. The bakery now operates in a 5,000 square foot facility and employs approximately 35 employees.
The season for king cake begins twelve days after Christmas and extends to Mardi Gras day, also known as Fat Tuesday. “Fifty-percent of our business is generated between December and February,” Thigpen explains. She estimates they sell 52,000 king cakes during those months through in-store sales, off premise wholesale, and shipping. Thigpen has shipped her cakes all across the United States, including a shipment every year to North Pole, Alaska. For the last six years, Paul’s Pastry has shipped a king cake to every state on Fat Tuesday.
“We have even gotten requests to ship internationally,” she says. “However, we like our cakes to reach their destination within 1-2 days to ensure freshness. By the time the cakes make it through customs, they are usually four to five days old and well past their prime.”
While original king cakes were very simple with little to no decoration, today a typical king cake is brightly decorated with traditional Mardi Gras colors – gold, representing power; green, which represents faith; and purple for justice. In 1972, Paul’s Pastry became the first bakery to fill their cakes with fruit and cream cheese. They now offer the largest selection of flavors in the United States, with over 30 different varieties of filling such as Reece’s, Pina Colada, Pecan Praline, and Mississippi Mud. Paul’s doesn’t just limit their king cakes to Mardi Gras. The bakery offers brightly colored cakes for every season and special event including 4th of July, Christmas, birthdays, Mother’s Day, graduations, and wedding or baby showers. Each cake includes the signature Mardi Gras “baby” hidden inside.
When asked what makes her cakes stand out from the rest, Thigpen credits a secret family recipe. “It’s not traditional pastry dough,” she explains. “It’s more like a sweet bread that really holds in the filling. When you cut into the cake and take a bite, you get fruit and cream cheese in the same bite.” Thigpen’s cream cheese filling is also a closely guarded secret recipe.
Attention to detail and a passion for quality have helped the family-owned bakery gain notoriety among the rich and famous. Well-known patrons include Reba McIntyre, both President Bushes, Garth Brooks, and the cast of the popular Discovery Channel show Mythbusters.
In addition to their nationally famous cakes, family is another long-standing tradition that has now touched three generations. Thigpen’s daughter works as the office manager and her son-in-law serves at the production manager. It is a tradition Thigpen hopes will continue for another 40 years.
Paul’s Pastry Shop
1 Sycamore Rd # A
Picayune, MS 39466-2666