Since graduating from Lakewood High School 27 years ago, Ray Milton's career has bounced between his two passions, boxing and baking. These days he's leading with his pot holder instead of his glove and has recently opened Sugar Rays Bakery at 230 Fourth St. N.
"Sometimes I call it the boxing gym when I mean to say the bakery," Milton said laughing, as he rang up an order of freshly baked protein bars full of coconut, whey powder, flax seeds, wheat germ, organic brown sugar and honey.
Though he's a health-conscious vegetarian, his 700-square-foot store next to Orange Blossom Catering is full of many decadent creations including red velvet cupcakes, cinnamon whiskey cake, sweet potato pie, croissants, breads, muffins and rolls. He also sells Kahwa coffee, and in turn, Kahwa coffee shops sell his assorted scones.
During high school Milton bagged groceries at Albertson's on 54th Avenue S and was promoted to cleaning up the bakery when he was 16. He showed such an interest in baking that someone taught him to make doughnuts, then bread and pretty soon the works. After high school he worked at Publix and Grant's Bakery at Seminole Mall. From 1988 to 1995 he was a baker and pastry chef at the Hilton St. Petersburg Bayfront.
All the while he was training boxers from amateurs to one champion. In 1999 he opened South Side Boxing Gym on 16th Street S and ran that for four years, but still kept a hand in the mixing bowl by holding regular bake sales at a gas station on 18th Avenue S.
"About once a week I would go to the gas station, set up a table and load it with cakes and pies. I'd sell sweet potato pies, pound cake, carrot cake, coconut cake, apple pie, pecan pie. People would start piling up," he said. He plans to start bake sales in that same area this month.
Milton stays busy. He trades his apron for a suit and tie on weekends when he's a bouncer at Bishop's Tavern at 260 First Ave. N.
Milton is at the bakery by 5 a.m. most days so he can have a case full of fresh, hot food when it opens at 8. He expects he'll be coming in even earlier when he increases his production for the holidays and fills special orders for pies, cookies, breads and gluten-free creations.
He has photos of himself with numerous boxers including Joe Frazier. Although he has met the namesake of the bakery he doesn't have a photo of Sugar Ray Leonard.
"I met him in 2000 in Tampa when they had Olympic trials over there," said Milton, who couldn't decide if he likes boxing or baking more. "The business of boxing I don't like. But the art of boxing, I love. I love baking but the business of baking can be tough. But with any business, it's going to take time."
News researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report.