Cheesecake with a (Healthy) Twist
April Harris-Holmes is Keeping You Sweet
As part of the platinum-selling girl-group Seduction, April Harris-Holmes filled dance floors the world over. On R&B-inflected tracks such as “Heartbeat,” circa 1989, her voice was pure honey, belting lyrics like: “Our love is so sweet, sweet enough to eat.”
Perhaps those lyrics were a form of foreshadowing. These days, Harris-Holmes is “Keeping You Sweet” in a different way. Her all-natural cheesecake company, launched in Newark, has expanded to more than a dozen Whole Foods stores in less than a year’s time.
Culinary creativity runs in Harris-Holmes’ family. Her late mother, Georgia B. Harris, ran Georgie’s Catering, specializing in savory comforts. Admittedly, mom and daughter split when it came to the use of organic ingredients. “Just make it taste good,” Georgia would say, more concerned with flavor than sourcing. Still, she asked Harris-Holmes more than once to join her business and do desserts.
Harris-Holmes had other plans. In the wake of Seduction, she toured as an actress with productions including Dreamgirls and Smokey Joe’s Cafe. Her all-female band Koffee supported U2’s European tour alongside another musician-turned culinarian, Kelis. (Now a cookbook author and Cordon Bleu-trained chef, Kelis is known for her earworm of a single, “Milkshake.”) The crew ate well on the road. “Kelis always talked about food because her family owned a catering business as well, and she had a passion and love for cooking,” Harris-Holmes says.
Fast forward, and Harris-Holmes is surprised to be at the helm of a fast-growing culinary business. Yet life has a funny way of opening doors at the right moment. When her mom died in 2011, Harris-Holmes sought solace in her recipes. “She left her cookbooks, so I just started baking,” she says. Drawn to mom’s sweet-potato pie, Harris-Holmes decided to give it a healthy remix. “That was the first that I made, the sweet-potato cheesecake.” She swapped in natural ingredients and eliminated gluten, while keeping the soul of the original intact.
The only issue? She was baking nonstop, and cheesecakes were piling up. “My husband would say: ‘You need to do something with this,’” she remembers. He knew that the baking was a form of both healing and connection. In 2012, Harris-Holmes decided to give Newark’s farmers’ markets a go. She quickly gained fans, including individuals experiencing homelessness in Washington Park. “They would always ask me for sweets, and I said: ‘You know what? This is what we’ll do. Whatever doesn’t sell is yours,’” she recalls, noting how she would put aside people’s favorite flavors. “I really wasn’t doing it to make money. I just wanted to have some peace.”
It was at the Common Greens Market in PSE&G Plaza that fate intervened. Among the customers was Carey Hamilton of Newark’s jazz station, WBGO, who commissioned a sweet-potato cheesecake for a holiday party. When Whole Foods came to Newark in March 2017, Hamilton pointed Harris-Holmes to the purchasing assistant, who was intrigued by her healthy twist on tradition. The store invited her to go through the vendor application process.
“I’ve been shopping at Whole Foods for over 20 years, and living a clean lifestyle with no preservatives, artificial flavors or colors for longer than that. I never in a million, trillion years thought that this would lead me to selling product in the store,” she says. She had been converted after catching the flu as a Howard University student and finding relief in an herbal cure. “I changed everything: my diet, my respect for herbs. When Whole Foods came to be, it was like supermarket heaven for me. For them to be interested in a product that I’m making? I was flipping out.”
Harris-Holmes takes pride in being part of Newark’s revival. “When I started doing the markets there, and I started meeting people— even the people in the park who were homeless—what a beautiful pulse,” she says. “People love that city. They believe in Newark, New Jersey. That’s what’s going to make a difference.”
She needn’t have. As in the studio, she had a style all her own. In music, she explains, “the creative process is in combining your taste and mixing it with a standard.” Say, jazz or blues. In food, “it would be taking a cheesecake, or pie or cookies, and then bringing what you bring to it—your taste, your style, your flair.” In so doing, a baker forges her style.
“It’s like a voice.”
Fittingly, Harris-Holmes was shopping in Whole Foods’ West Orange location when the email came. She was in. “I dropped to the floor, and I just wept. For me, it wasn’t just a confirmation. It was something that I could do that reminded me of my mom,” she says. When shoppers came to her side and she explained what had happened, a mid-aisle celebration erupted.
Harris-Holmes plans to expand her line in 2018, but she’s taking it one day at a time. “I’m going with the flow and seeing where it leads me,” she says. That attitude has served her well, and one suspects that there’s good energy coming from above. On the label of each cheesecake, you’ll find a love note: “Made by Georgia’s daughter.”
KEEPING YOU SWEET
Prices starting at $4.99 for a 4” cheesecake. Available at Whole Foods Markets. Also see Harris-Holmes at the Newark Downtown District Common Greens Farmers’ Market this year.