Ruth “Chugga” Bell has done her best to avoid her calling, but it keeps catching up with her. After several false starts, a foray into the real estate industry, and a career in retail, the Detroit entrepreneur is finally embracing her passion, and talent, for baking — something that has followed her doggedly throughout her journey.
“I think I was always destined to be a baker,” Bell says.
The owner of Chugga’s Bakery
is presently filling the kitchens of Detroit's Marygrove College with the smell of her famous bread. It’s here that Bell is riding out the challenges COVID-19 is presenting her bakery business, using the currently unoccupied kitchen space to keep up with her creative line of baked goods.
Chugga's Bakery doesn’t use preservatives, GMO ingredients, or nuts in their recipes, which might be one of the reasons the baked goods are so sought-after around Metro Detroit. Known for their “Monkey Bread,” Bell and her son, Robert Mitchell, create over 12 flavors of the pull-apart specialty, including sun-dried tomato, cinnamon, lemon zest, and even alcohol-infused styles such as rum raisin and vodka cranberry. Their recipes, however, have been hard fought and won.
Bell grew up in Detroit, graduating from Highland Park High School, and some of her earliest memories are of sneaking tastes of her grandmother Loretta’s sugar cookies. But when her grandmother moved to California, prompted by disruptions from the implementation of the I-94 freeway, Bell missed her culinary skills.
Bell started baking herself though when she was 9 years old, after a retired school teacher neighbor noticed her sitting on the porch steps, enjoying the aroma of fresh bread coming from the neighbor’s kitchen and feeling nostalgic for her grandmother’s creations.
“Ms. Green stuck her head out and asked if I wanted to learn how to bake,” Bell says. “She said to show up the next day at 8 a.m. — I was there at 7:30 a.m.”
Bell learned at her neighbor's elbow, who refused to write anything down, instead asking her to recite recipes back to her as she baked. Bell’s mother started taking the fresh rolls she made to their local church, where people quickly started ordering them.
“I didn’t know what I was doing,” says Bell, “but I was getting plenty of practice.”
Later in life, as a young employee at the oil company Atlantic Richfield in California, Bell was still baking for friends and colleagues, who wanted to encourage her gift and were placing orders with her. But the situation got out of hand.
“There was 20 floors on that building,” Bell says. “I was coming in late for work, I was so embarrassed, I was using the freight elevator to unload the baked goods on the dolly and we would stop on each floor. I couldn't keep up.”
After a frank work review with her boss, she realized she needed to make a decision, which was helped by her grandmother’s suggestion that they team up to start their own bakery line in Los Angeles.
“I quit,” says Bell. “And have been baking ever since.”
Bell and her grandmother started selling cakes, pies, cobblers, and cookies at the restaurant located at the Atlantic Richfield building, under the business name Country Bake Shop. But the endeavor was short-lived. Bell’s grandmother passed away, leaving her feeling lost and reluctant to continue the business.
“It was very hard on me,” says Bell. “We thought about closing but my mother said ‘you know Chuggas, you are never going to grow this bakery if you do all the baking — you can hire people, or I can do the bakery.’”
So Bell tried again, spending six months writing out recipes and working with her mother to build their inventory. They were just starting to supply companies like Paramount Studios when life handed Bell another blow.
“My mother passed of cancer in 1986, and I had three small kids — it was overwhelming and we closed, packed up everything and moved back to Detroit,” she says.
But baking followed her.
“I said I was never going to bake again but my kids were so used to having bread straight out of the oven they wouldn’t eat store-bought bread.”
After a postal worker smelled her baking, and insisted on buying her bread, the whole cycle started again, with neighbors and friends quickly requesting to trade goods in return for her products. Bell took entrepreneurial classes and started baking out of her basement kitchen, selling to places like Harbortown Market, which remains one of her main customers today.
“Then my husband passed and I told the kids ‘what are we going to do?’ I was grieving and I closed again.”
Bell tried to go into the real estate industry with her son after that, going as far as developing a business plan for a small mall on Woodward Avenue, which of course included a bakery. They took the plan to experienced entrepreneur, and CEO of Metro Business Connect, Donald Snider. He took one look at their designs, asked them about what they wanted to get out of it, and promptly declared that Bell needed to be in the bakery business.
“People told me to get to back up on the horse,” says Bell. “And so I did.”
Snider helped Bell establish herself in a shared kitchen in Ferndale, connecting her with Whole Foods and garnering advertising and media attention. But with limited space and time in the kitchen, the mother-and-son team quickly outgrew the shared space, and Bell decided to start looking for their own facility. Finding the funding to do so is still something she is grappling with, especially as she tries to navigate COVID-19 setbacks.
Bell was the recipient of a LISC Detroit grant, which helped her meet payroll needs for her son and her brother, Arthur Webb, who also works for the bakery, during the crisis. The funding also meant she could purchase a 30-quart mixer to install at Marygrove, a necessity to keep up with production. Being able to meet licensing costs and promptly pay suppliers has meant a lot to the business owner.
“I can look them in the face and say ‘I can pay you’,” she says. “It's not just about us, people need to pay rent, pay phone bills.”
Now, Bell wants to get back into supplying wholesale, as restaurants start opening again, and increasing their presence in grocery stores. Exploring online sales options and hiring personnel to oversee social media and website design is also on her wish-list. She’s determined.
“My brother says ‘you’ve been at this so long, you have to make it’.”
This is part of a series supported by LISC Detroit that chronicles Detroit small businesses’ journey in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Arthur Mitchell (left) assists his sister Ruth Bell, and her son Robert Mitchell bake goods for Bell's business, Chugga's Bakery.