NEW TAMPA — Alexandra Auguste has been mixing dessert recipes for more than 20 years, but it took some nudging to get the Baker's Gallery started.
Auguste opened the bakery just three months ago, in late November, so she was surprised to learn this week that the shop was a winner in the Taste of New Tampa food contest. Her "heavenly strawberry" cupcakes took first place in the best dessert category.
"Shocked is the word," said Auguste, 53, a retired technician for Verizon turned professional baker. In fact, she said, she had no idea the food samples were part of the contest until receiving a call this week announcing the win.
Auguste, who co-owns the bakery, is originally from Haiti and spent much of her life in New York. She now resides in New Tampa, having moved to the area about nine years ago. Over the years, she said, she perfected recipes from her mother and from "here and there."
She was always baking and one day a cousin had an idea: Why not open a storefront?
The business at 19651 Bruce B. Downs Blvd. has gone well, so far, and Auguste hoped that recognition from the contest would give the fledgling bakery a further boost.
The competition was a first for Taste of New Tampa organizers trying to drum up enthusiasm for the event in its 19th year. The hope is that it will gain prestige and credibility over time, similar to the "diamond" ratings given to hotels, said Neil Heird, a board member of the New Tampa Chamber of Commerce, which hosts the festival.
"We want to provide a variety of experiences, not just for the public, but also for the people who spend money or pay money to participate there," Heird said.
Contest winners weren't announced Sunday during the three-hour festival, and the chamber planned to notify participants of the results this week. The judges were Tampa Bay Times columnist Ernest Hooper and Art Institute of Tampa chef Ricardo Castro.
"We sampled — well, he sampled, I ate — the various offerings and then drew conclusions based on taste, presentation and the expectations of the event," says Hooper.
Marco's Pizza, 20305 Bruce B. Downs Blvd., took honors in the appetizer category, as well as "best in show" for the chain's white cheese pizza, topped with tomato slices and sprinkled with feta and bacon bits. Also, La Cubanita Cafe, at 19040 Bruce B Downs Blvd., placed first in the top entree category for its masitas, seasoned pork marinated in lime and sour orange juices.
The chamber will plan visits to present each winner with a plaque, Heird said.
In the coming weeks, chamber members also will evaluate the overall Taste of New Tampa event, looking for ways to improve. About 85 vendors, including 17 local restaurants, spread across the football field at Wharton High. But early counts put the crowd at just 800 to 900 people, Heird said.
The event had been scheduled to take place at the Shops at Wiregrass in Wesley Chapel, and organizers hoped 5,000 or more would attend. But the location changed just two to three weeks prior to the festival because mall restrictions would have excluded some chamber members from participating, Heird said.
Still, Heird said, "it was a nice steady pace for all the vendors, and the public was there early trying to get in."
The crowd — and their love of sweets — was, indeed, more than Auguste expected. Her booth quickly ran out of samples and she rushed to the shop nearby to start baking. The strawberry cupcakes that judges sampled are a favorite, but in this case were simply what was left.
The Baker's Gallery is actually more known for its four-flavored rum cake.
Times columnist Ernest Hooper contributed to this report. Sharon Tubbs can be reached at (813) 226-3394 or at [email protected]