By Ann Cipperly
As the door opens at the new Tart and Tartan bakery in downtown Opelika, sweet tantalizing aromas provide a warm welcome. Freshly baked cookies, cupcakes, pies, tarts, cakes and other confections by owner Mary Kathryn Whatley bring back memories of scrumptious homemade desserts at family reunions and church dinners throughout the South.
Pimento cheese and favorite southern casseroles for completing a meal fill a refrigerated display case, while warm breads and cinnamon rolls offer other delectable treats.
The daughter of Debra and Alex Whatley of Opelika, Mary Kathryn grew up in a family known for being excellent cooks and offering hospitality going back for generations. It has been a tradition for the family to tailgate at Auburn games, with over 150 relatives graduating from Auburn University, the first in the family graduating from API in 1917 at age 19.
Alex’s father, uncles and grandfather owned Dairyland Farms, which was located where the Auburn Mall is now. Along with cows and a dairy, there were spacious barns where parties were held. Every fall during the football season in the 1950s, they hosted the entire Auburn team for a huge barbecue with Brunswick stew. This was the beginning of the Whatley tailgates and becoming known for offering hospitality.
When Mary Kathryn and each of her three siblings were seniors at Auburn, Alex would cook a whole pig all night in a pit dug by their home for the Arkansas game. The next morning, he took the pig in a pickup truck to the tailgate site where friends helped lift the rack holding the pig, placing it on concrete blocks. They would pull the meat off and serve it with barbecue sauce made from Debra’s great-grandfather’s recipe.
Mary Kathryn would help her mother bake cherished family recipes for these tailgates and other times when the family entertained in their home. To assure these favorite family recipes would not be lost, Mary Kathryn and Debra assembled them into a cookbook for family members.
After she graduated from Auburn and was working in Atlanta, Georgia, as a CPA, Mary Kathryn could hardly wait to get home at night to bake, as she found it relaxing. It was the most enjoyable part of her day.
She moved back home to Opelika to be closer to family, while working remotely as a CPA for the Atlanta firm. Mary Kathryn soon realized she wanted to change careers and open a bakery to continue her family’s tradition of gathering around delicious food.
She felt downtown Opelika would be the perfect location for the bakery, as it was walkable for shoppers to stop by for dessert. It would also be convenient for those having lunch downtown.
It took a year and a half to find the ideal location. Mary Kathryn’s father grew up about three blocks from downtown, as well as other family members. When she was born, her parents lived about three blocks away.
Mary Kathryn wanted her family’s legacy to be reflected in the name of the bakery. She remembered the plaid shirts her father wore to work at his construction company and the red tartan slacks he wore at Christmas. “The significance of the tartan plaid in both the name and other details in the bakery,” she said, “honors all the family and friends involved in making Christmas memories.”
Before the grand opening, several of Mary Kathryn’s college friends came to town for the weekend to help her prepare for the opening in March for Tart and Tartan. They took several of her father’s tartan shirts, cut a circle from the back of each and framed them. They hung them in a cluster display on one wall in the bakery.
Mary Kathryn saw a picture of a hotel in Portugal with a black and white floor when she and Debra visited the country. “I knew I wanted a European feeling for the bakery,” Mary Kathryn said. “When I saw that picture, it gave me a vision for what I wanted with blue, white and black.”
To achieve that look for the bakery, she hand-painted the floor in black and white squares. The paint bled requiring numerous touch ups with small brushes.
A friend told her that Target was changing the tables at Starbucks in the store. Mary Kathryn was able to get the tables for the bakery. On one side of the dining room, a sink is located for those who would like to wash their hands before dining.
Along with the space in the bakery, there is a courtyard with tables under black and white umbrellas. It is a lovely area to unwind with dessert and a cup of coffee or to host a birthday party.
A wide variety of desserts made from scratch are offered at the bakery. Assorted cookies, cakes, pecan pies and chocolate peanut butter pie will be offered, with some items rotated to offer a wider selection. At times she will bake lemon pies, her father’s favorite.
Chocolate chip cookies and “catch all cookies” are popular, made with oatmeal, rice crispies, pecans and coconut.
Mary Kathryn has experimented with some recipes and created a chocolate mint cake and cupcakes. After researching yummy brownies, she created her own.
She bakes beautiful cakes for birthdays or special occasions with basic decoration. She is focusing on making desserts that taste scrumptious.
During summer, she will offer blueberry cobblers, lemon cake with lemon curd filling, among others.
Assorted tarts are available in a tasty pastry. A couple of years ago, Mary Kathryn and her mother took a trip to Portugal and took a class on making pastry tarts called pastal de nata. Debra has been making cream cheese pastry tarts for many years to serve at showers and teas.
Debra helps at the bakery by making casseroles, including ones for breakfast. Casseroles include poppy seed chicken, a light chicken and rice, macaroni and cheese, Alfredo chicken and broccoli, sausage rotini, among others. A delicious pimento cheese is also offered.
All of these items are great for customers to pick up when heading to the lake or beach. To assure a favorite casserole is available, they can be reserved or ordered. Larger sizes are available.
Mary Kathryn also caters desserts for parties. For one party, her 91-year-old grandmother, who lives with Debra, helped by putting freshly baked cookies into containers.
In the fall, pumpkin bread and other autumn favorites will be added. Dips and spreads will be offered for tailgating.
On a sunny afternoon as customers sit in the dining area lingering over a yummy dessert, Mary Kathryn is putting the finishing touches on a cake. She is carrying on her family’s love of serving amazing food and gathering others together to savor every sweet morsel.
Tart and Tartan is located at 117 S 8th St., Suite 203, Opelika. For further information or to place an order call 334.748.9075. Check their Facebook page for weekly specials.