Annie Smith pushed a foil carton containing two moist, fluffy cupcakes — one vanilla bean, one brownie cupcake — across the wooden table at a coffee shop in Arroyo Grande and apologized for their unfrosted state.
A few days later, though, she topped the cupcakes with homemade frosting, placed them into cupcake carriers and loaded them into several large boxes for a trip to South County People’s Kitchen in Grover Beach.
Once a month for the past four years, Smith, an 18-year-old Arroyo Grande High School grad, has baked and served dessert to the homeless and other people in need.
“I have a huge love for baking and serving others, and it just kind of came together,” said Smith, who heads to Portland State University to study community health education in the fall.
Baking has been a part of Smith’s life for years. She remembered being about 8 years old, perched on a counter, listening to Celine Dion and making apple crisp with her father — now an annual tradition.
“Baking is one thing I’m good at — it’s rewarding,” said Smith, 18. “And I have a huge sweet tooth.”
In the meantime, Smith’s passion for helping those in need grew as she traveled on mission trips through New Life Community Church, including to Skid Row in Los Angeles. She first visited People’s Kitchen — a nonprofit organization that provides a hot noontime meal every day of the year — as an elementary school student.
“Before that first trip, I hadn’t thought about people ever not having a home,” Smith recalled.
Later, she watched her parents prepare meatloaf to serve at People’s Kitchen every fourth Saturday of the month through St. Patrick’s Catholic Church. After she started high school, Smith and her parents decided to switch from helping cook the main portion of the meal to handling dessert — and her parents’ role took a backseat.
Almost always on her own, Smith plans, prepares and bakes 200 individual desserts every month, from cupcakes to cookies to banana bread. Her first effort was homemade strawberry shortcake, with homemade pound cake, strawberries and — you guessed it — homemade whipped cream.
“Every month I try to make at least 200 of whatever I’m making,” Smith said. “There are at least 100 people there, and everyone wants more than one. With cookies, you want to give two; it looks better and people like it.”
During the school year, Smith’s baking efforts start on Thursday afternoons. She’ll freeze the cooked goodies and then thaw and finish them on Saturday mornings.
Smith guesses she’s used at least 960 cups of sugar over the years. Her family’s pantry is always stocked with basic baking ingredients, and her parents invested in a second fridge so they’d have more room to store the desserts.
Smith samples everything she bakes (“I’m too self-conscious” not to, she says), but her family has learned to ask before taking a cookie or cupcake meant for People’s Kitchen. The same goes for the other servers on Saturdays.
“I think one of the best things about it — this might sound selfish — is that People’s Kitchen gives me a chance once a month to step back from my crazy life and do something relaxing,” she said. “They’re giving me a chance to do something that I love.”
Meanwhile, Smith’s parents haven’t cooked meatloaf for People’s Kitchen in four years. Annie’s dad, John Smith, paused a moment when that point was raised during a recent interview.
“Two to three months from now we’ll be back into meatloaf and mashed potatoes and peas,” he said.