Recipe for success
K&J’s Elegant Pastries turns out distinctive, delicious confections with family at the center of it all
by Stephanie Gibson Lepore, content director
photos courtesy of Kristal Thomas
Even before you lay eyes on one of the over-the-top creative cakes, or catch a whiff of the cupcakes lining the display case, or even attempt to tackle one of the colossal milkshakes that put K&J’s Elegant Pastries on the culinary map, you catch the infectious joy in owner Kristal Thomas’s voice. She is exactly where she’s meant to be—but she didn’t always believe she could get here.
“Most people know us for the milkshakes,” she says with a laugh that punctuates every other sentence. “But we had a small store for four years before the shakes, and if it wasn’t for my husband telling me not to give up, that we could do it, I wouldn’t have made it. There were plenty of days I’d call him and say, ‘I’m going to shut it down.’ But his motivation kept me going.”
Long before that first small store, on Canterbury Road in Alabaster, Kristal knew she wanted to be a chef—by age 14, in fact. She spent her growing-up years helping her mom cook Sunday lunch and always felt at home in the kitchen. After hearing a lady from The Art Institute of Atlanta mention the culinary arts on a visit to her school, Kristal’s interest was piqued. “I said what does that mean? I love to cook, I love to draw, and this was a way to put it all together. That day I was like, oh my gosh—that’s what I want to do,” she says. So, upon graduation, she enrolled in the culinary arts program of the now-closed Virginia College.
“I didn’t study pastry, though,” she says. She had a little experience working with ice-cream cakes from stints at Baskin-Robbins and Häagen-Dazs at the Galleria, but, “I went to school for savory so I could cover both ends of the spectrum.” In fact, to this day, Kristal has never taken any cake courses, save for one required class in school that touched on French pastries and breads. “All of my cake knowledge is self-taught,” she explains.
Kristal’s completion of culinary school coincided with the opening of The Cheesecake Factory at The Summit, and she joined the restaurant’s opening team. “I worked there eight years, in the kitchen,” she says. “I was plating food and it was hot and intense and I loved it!” After awhile, she acknowledges that she started to feel boxed in. “I was making food for someone else. It was repetitive and I couldn’t change the menu,” she says. “So, I started baking for my nieces and nephews, playing around in the kitchen, icing cakes and oh! They looked awful! But I’m so thankful they allowed me to practice with them.” As she got better, her weekends moonlighting as a cake-maker turned in to a side gig. For a few years, Kristal worked at Cheesecake Factory all day, then made cakes at home on nights and weekends.
“At that point,” she recalls, “I had a one-and-a-half-year-old little girl at home. I left Cheesecake Factory, set up a little website, and made cakes. I had gotten up to about seven cakes a week.” It was about then, Kristal says, she had decided it was time for more growth. Her mom happened to be retiring at the same time, and she loaned her $15,000 to get started, with five years to pay back the loan.
Kristal and Jonathan used the money to open that first location of K&J’s—so named for Kristal and the three Js in her life: husband Jonathan and daughters Jakaiya (18) and Jaliyah, who turns 13 next month. “It was me, my husband, and the kids,” she says. “We did it all: We painted, we bought used equipment, we did everything on a budget. We were able to start the business without any debt. It was so humbling,” Kristal says, pausing. “And it was so much of a struggle.”
But despite the calls to Jonathan threatening to close shop, Kristal never quit, crediting her work ethic to watching her parents work hard their whole lives. After four years in the tiny shop—“It was just a small walk-in store with cakes and cupcakes, no seating”—Kristal and Jonathan took a chance on a larger storefront, where they are today in Alabaster.
“We moved to the new location, and someone I advertised with asked me if I’d seen this new trend, these wild shake-ice cream sundaes in Australia. Well, I went crazy,” Kristal says. “I had the ice cream experience from my old jobs, so I reached out to some of those vendors to see what we could do.” Working with Blue Bell, Kristal began crafting the colossal monster shakes that quickly but rather quietly made K&J’s popular.
“It was mostly word of mouth,” Kristal says of the milkshake trend. “I’m from Birmingham and didn’t know that many people in Alabaster, so it was a slow build. Thank God my husband kept his railroad job!” Then, unbeknownst to Kristal, a reporter from AL.com dropped in one day to try a shake.
“The article came out and I had no idea, none of us did,” says Kristal. “But that Saturday started out a lot busier than usual. And suddenly, it was insane! There was a line out the door, people were waiting hours for milkshakes. Toward the end of the day, some customers mentioned an article, and we had no clue what they were talking about. It was a really big surprise for us. That one article changed the entire concept and everything about our business.”
From that day on, it was nonstop. The lines of milkshake-seeking customers was too much for Kristal, her sister, and one other employee to handle. A Travel Channel feature, an article in Southern Living, and lots more press quickly followed. “It was so unexpected for all of us,” Kristal remembers. “We went from three employees to 16 almost instantly. There was no time to plan, so I just started calling all my nieces and nephews to come work for me.”
Of the three to four “crazy” years with the shakes, Kristal remains grateful, even as she turns more of her focus toward cakes again, which are her true love. “I love doing the shakes, because it’s an opportunity to be creative,” she says. But that creativity spills over onto cakes, too. “The cakes keep us busy. They are my passion! We are typically booked three weeks in advance, and we do about 50 to 60 cakes a week,” she says. “It’s me plus five other decorators.”
While acknowledging her favorite cake flavor is sweet potato iced with a brown sugar, cream cheese, and pecan frosting (“My birthday cake is always sweet potato,” she says), she just can’t choose a favorite a cake project. “That’s too hard! I love anything girly and pink and also the extravagant wedding cakes. You have all the components—baking, icing, creating fondant, stacking—so the part I like about that is seeing the final product. The largest cake we ever did was for a 500-person wedding. The bride and I consulted for over a year, and we didn’t take any other orders the week of the wedding. It was a nine-tier cake with 4,000 sugar flowers, gold paint, royal caps, just very regal. I had to use a ladder to stack it at The Club!” she says. “And then the birthday and baby shower cakes are fun, too, because they don’t have to be so sleek and I can get really into those.”
The nine-tier wedding cake was K&J’s largest order, up until Amazon called a few months ago, requesting 6,000 individually wrapped treats—2,000 cookies, 2,000 cupcakes, and 2,000 cake pops—for its employees in Bessemer. “We folded boxes for weeks before we started the treats,” says Kristal. “And we’ve been dipping, baking, and boxing for days!”
An order that large hints at even more growth, and luckily, Kristal already has plans in the works for a new storefront in downtown Birmingham, right near Eugene’s Hot Chicken in Uptown. “It got pushed back because of Covid, but we have the plans approved and the contractors are about to start the build-out. So many of my clients are in Birmingham, and they’ve traveled to Alabaster for eight years,” she says. She definitely wants more than one store, so the current location will remain intact for now, too. “We live in Alabaster and started the business here, so we always want to have a store here.”
Still today, almost everyone who works at K&J’s—save for three employees Kristal says she considers family—is family. Her nieces and nephews still work for her. As a show of support and a way to help out, her parents insist on cleaning K&J’s every night, and sister Gloria Smith remains by her side as the general manager. “I’m just so thankful that both sides of our families jumped in to help us,” says Kristal. “My sister organizes the cakes, makes sure our inventory is good, basically she’s me when I’m not there.” But it’s not often that she isn’t. “My girls are active. I don’t miss a school program, track meet, a football game [her youngest plays in the band], or a field trip,” she says, drawing on that same work ethic she learned so many years ago from her parents. “It’s the balance of doing work and making sure home is good and being a wife. A lot of people don’t see that part.”
Speaking of her girls, both Jakaiya and Jaliyah work in the shop, too, even though they want to do other things in the future. Jakaiya, who recently graduated as valedictorian of her class, is off to UAB on a presidential scholarship in the fall to begin her journey to become a brain surgeon. And even though Jaliyah has been making shakes since she was 7 years old—“She knows exactly how they’re supposed to look,” says Kristal. “We call her quality control!”—and knows everything about the baking business, she has her sights set on real estate. That’s okay with Kristal, though, she’s just thankful for the time they have together now. “The girls always want to be here helping out, even in the summertime, even with a pool at home,” says Kristal. “You don’t realize how much time you’re away from each other, so we’re very lucky to be able to work together and go home together.”