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Cheryl Day: I Am Not Built To Fail

Not giving in to the pandemic, and taking a stand for Black representation and opportunity.

Zagat Stories makes coverage of Black subjects a priority year round, along with people and subjects underrepresented in media generally. In recognition of Black History Month 2021, all Zagat Stories in February will focus exclusively on interviews with Black chefs, restaurateurs, bartenders, brewers, bakers, and others in and around hospitality.

Cheryl Day is co-owner of the James Beard Award-nominated Back in the Day Bakery in Savannah, Georgia, which she runs with her husband, Griff. Day was recently featured as one of the Black culinary professionals in Marcus Samuelsson’s The Rise, and is currently working on her third cookbook debuting this fall, along with a product line.

It’s been almost a year since the rug was pulled underneath what was known as my life. I had a very busy, bustling business that my husband and I built over 20 years, creating an experience with people coming to visit the bakery—a lot of times with their cookbook in tow—and even just to come and to be in the space. They wanted to take a picture of the wall they saw on Instagram.

We had hundreds and hundreds of people standing in line every day, then all of a sudden, we had to make the decision in March that we were going to close the dining room. And so we did that and went home. We had to lay off all of our staff, which was very upsetting. We went home, not knowing what the heck we were going to do, and reflected for months. Finally, we came back in June, and we were able to hire a few people back and started doing pop-ups at Back in the Day.

It was definitely rough, but being the serial optimist that I am, it also gave me that time I never would have had to finish the cookbook. I also started thinking about what else I could do outside of the bakery-restaurant scenario, and how to add value to a business and potentially step away and have more time to do creative projects that I’m really interested in.

I’m not a spring chicken, so I started thinking about that before COVID even hit. Then, we had the summer of 2020, where all these racial injustice issues were happening. We couldn’t go anywhere. We were staring at the TV, watching all of it unfold from George Floyd to everyone else. And then I decided that I wanted to speak out and try to do something to make a change. That’s when a couple of friends approached me—two other pastry chefs, Lisa Donovan and Sarah O’Brien—about what we could do. To be honest, at first, I was like, “I can’t even think about it because it’s too stressful.” Just being a Black person and having seen this my entire life—it just felt like “Okay, here we go again.”

They were very persistent, and we decided to join forces and start Southern Restaurants for Racial Justice, and we gave a lot of money to Color to Change. But now we’ve transitioned into raising money for Black-owned businesses. I’m also on the leadership board for the James Beard Foundation’s new initiative for Black and Indigenous business, and I worked with Discover cards as part of their campaign to give $25,000 grants to Black-owned businesses. We’re raising money for Black-owned businesses because I have learned firsthand how hard it is. Yes, I’ve been in business for 20 years, but it’s not lost on me that my husband is white. And if he wasn’t able to walk into a bank, I would not have been able to get the money. It’s a fact.

Cheryl Day. Photo: Courtesy Back in the Day Bakery.

Griff is actually my second husband. I’m a serial entrepreneur—I had another business, a children’s store years ago with my first husband—and I couldn’t get a dime. We did little things like use credit cards and all the things I would never tell anybody to do, and then ended up getting into all types of debt. But at the same time, he was smart enough to get us out of debt at the right time to where we didn’t get too far.

When we were looking to get money for Back in the Day, Griff was able to get funding for it to get started. But we still had our challenges. About five years ago, we got a small business award from the city of Savannah. We had been nominated for the James Beard Award and all of these accolades, but it wasn’t lost on us that we walked into the SBA offices and they didn’t give us a dime, and 15 years later we’re getting an award.

And the man that didn’t give us a dime knew he had made a huge mistake. He came up to us at the end of this ceremony with hundreds of people giving us this award, and he told us he was wrong. I thought that really took a lot of him to tell us obviously about getting this one wrong. That’s the thing—once you’re doing well, sure. You can start to get money. But when we were a startup, he said that we just didn’t have the skillset, we were in the wrong location. Everything was wrong. That’s why my heart is really dedicated to making sure that Black-owned businesses can receive grants. Sometimes we’re in this situation where you really just don’t have the opportunity to start, or maybe you’ve had a tough time and you don’t have perfect credit—there are so many things that really could hold us back, and they do.

I grew up in Los Angeles, but my mom was from the South, and I would go back and forth. I grew up going to political rallies as a very young child, and my mom also raised me to understand what it was like where she grew up—and to have the privilege of growing up with a mom as a social worker and a father that worked at a movie and television studio. So there was always kind of this juxtaposition of raising me and letting me understand from a very young age that I had privileges that a lot of folks didn’t have.

I remember my mom taking me out and letting me know before I went somewhere not to turn my nose up if somebody handed me a glass of water in a Mason jar, or just different things that I normally wouldn’t have been aware of because I grew up in the 60s. There were a lot of social justice issues going on then as well. I’ve always been unafraid to speak my mind, but I always did try to keep business separate from anything I considered political.

When it came down to racial justice issues, we just decided that it was more of a human issue for us. It wasn’t a political issue for us to speak out about certain things. We did not go on unchecked, though, and we did get a lot of nasty comments from people. But frankly, I’m perfectly fine if the people that are racist don’t want to support my business. We’ve created a culture in our business, and people that know us know that we’ll always speak out for causes that we believe in. There are some things that are just purely human issues that can’t be overlooked.

I’ve lived through a lot, and I have persevered. I have grit. Sometimes, I don’t even know how I got through some of these situations that I’ve been through. I lost my mom at a young age, relatively. I was 22 when my mom passed away. She had me late in life at 42, and she taught me so many valuable lessons. I held on to that, and it has really gotten me through.

Joy is so important to me because I have been at the lowest of low, and I know what that feels like. And I also know that for some reason, I have resilience, and I can get up every time. When you’ve been through most situations, like a lot of Black folks I think can relate to, you know you can get up from that. People have said to me, “How do you bounce back from this, that, and the other?” It’s almost ingrained in us because we’ve had to bounce back from so much that I think we’re kind of made this way.

I am not built to fail. I refuse to fail. I’m not saying that every Black person is like that. But a lot of women that I’ve talked to—especially a lot of Black women—were taught that you have to be better than the white girl sitting next to you. You can’t just bring “okay.” You know, you gotta bring it, and bring more to the table. You really can’t be average. And sometimes it would be frustrating to continue—you’re working hard and doing the work, and sometimes you just wouldn’t get the recognition.

Now, I don’t live off of the accolades and the recognition. I’m always thankful, but at the same time, I know those things don’t bring me joy. I just want to feel joy for myself—as long as I feel that joy myself, that’s enough for me. I know where my joy comes from.

The joy I’m bringing for myself this year is continuing to create new food projects. I’m working on a jam and biscuits line. It’s something that can go into the homes of folks all over the country. I’m just trying to think of ways that in my older years I won’t be necessarily working in a restaurant day-to-day. I want to do other things that bring me joy and bring more of an experience to folks that find my cookbook, and my new cookbook coming out this fall, which I’m super excited about. So yeah, I want to move forward with my cookbook, and jam, and other products that I am working on and continue to create joy for myself. And hopefully, that means that I make joy for other people as well.