Cooking can feel like a balm for the soul, but there’s something about baking a cake—methodically scooping and leveling off flour, creaming butter and sugar into ethereal sweetness—that is especially comforting. During the bleak winter months of the pandemic, even something as simple as a weekday sheet cake can offer a tremendous boost to spirits.

But more momentous celebrations—say, birthdays, graduations, or romantic fêtes like anniversaries or Valentine’s Day—call for a show-stopping cake, something that really marks time. Chef Matt Bumpas, founder of Sweet Bumpas, a Seattle-ice-cream-brand-turned-Durham-cake-business, delivers just that with his whimsical, boldly flavored layer cakes.

Surprisingly, Bumpas isn’t a sweets person. “The majority [of desserts] are one-dimensional sweet and one flavor, and I don’t want more than a couple bites,” he explains.

His culinary background skews savory, but while working as a pastry chef at Poppy, a James Beard Award-winning restaurant in Seattle, he fell in love with making ice cream. His herb- and spice-infused scoops anchored his plated desserts (think: a fennel, pollen, and peach ice cream, paired with cornmeal blueberry cake). Bolstered by rave reviews, he started Sweet Bumpas in 2014 with one ice cream pushcart, eventually expanding to three carts and a walk-up window. He built his brand on 100 percent scratch-made ice cream—no pre-made commercial bases—and inventive flavors such as Cinnamon Basil Corn Cookie and Moroccan Honey.

To satisfy demand, Bumpas also offered basics such as chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry, though he never sacrificed on flavor intensity. Still, Bumpas says, “it didn’t make business sense to keep doing fun flavors that were inspired by my travels and the type of cuisines I want to eat. Ice cream has to be a high-volume game.”

That output, coupled with ice cream’s seasonality, made for a grueling workflow.

“I went full-speed from May to October each year, and then it suddenly came to a halt,” he says. “I was physically exhausted. As a business owner, I wondered, ‘How am I going to make it?’”

Though he was burnt out, Bumpas imagined things might be different in another city. He sought counsel from Tracy Stevens, a former kitchen manager at Durham’s LocoPops who had sold Bumpas his first ice cream cart. Bumpas was persuaded that the Bull City, with its affinity for local, scratch-made food, would be receptive to his ice cream. Plus, a move would bring him closer to his family and his Southern roots: Bumpas grew up in Virginia and spent family vacations on North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

In May 2019, he and his husband, Thang Do, moved to Durham.

Shortly after Bumpas arrived, he started scouting shop locations. The process proved frustrating, partly due to the broad scope of non-compete clauses in shopping center leases. He briefly taught at a kids’ cooking camp, debated taking a resident-chef job at a kitchenware store, and even considered going back to his first career as a school psychologist.

When the pandemic hit, like many people, Bumpas reevaluated anew. Boredom and a glut of black walnuts in his kitchen inspired him to make a banana walnut cake. After posting it on Instagram, a friend contacted him to make her son’s birthday cake. Bumpas obliged, and more requests followed, allowing him to refine his skills throughout the summer before business started taking off in the fall.

“I have been blown away by how supportive folks here have been of my tiny cake business,” he says. “The fact that I don’t have a fancy shop in downtown [Durham] hasn’t deterred them from seeking out my cakes.”

Since then, Bumpas has expanded his roster of four-layer cakes, which now includes the June Cleaver, a chocolate-frosted butter cake with bittersweet cocoa crumbles, and Caramel, Caramel, Caramel, a toasty burnt sugar cake with salted caramel Swiss meringue buttercream and dark caramel sauce.

“I’m really enjoying cake, because people are more open-minded,” Bumpas says.“It’s not an everyday treat like people view ice cream as.”

This rings especially true for custom cakes. For a couple celebrating their fiftieth wedding anniversary, Bumpas presented five options reflecting their affinity for Indian and Southeast Asian flavors, including a ginger cake with jaggery-roasted pineapple. They opted for Bumpas’ wild-card pick, a caramelized honey cake with a North African flavor profile (as it turned out, the wife loved cooking Moroccan food). He drizzled each layer with ras el hanout caramel sauce, its floral-sweet aroma redolent of a Marrakech souk, and pulled it all together with a Cara Cara orange buttercream frosting, rosettes, candied orange peel, and salty, buttered pecans.

Customer testimonials speak for themselves: One German chocolate cake converted a “ride-or-die for pie” person to team cake. Another convert described being able to hear the flavor in his wife’s birthday carrot cake, saying, “As I ate it, I experienced lost time.”

Do, Bumpas’ husband, is similarly smitten. Last March, Do was laid off from his construction management job, so during Bumpas’ crunch times, he started making buttercream and executing crumb coats to help out. He even made his own birthday cake, fulfilling his dream of recreating a famous twelve-layer Russian honey cake from San Francisco’s 20th Century Cafe.

Now that Do has returned to work full-time, Bumpas has hired a kitchen assistant to keep up with demand. But he plans to maintain a boutique operation—mostly because he wants to preserve his personal connection with clients.

“I was raised in the South, so I know the importance of manners,” Bumpas says. “Following up with customers and asking what they like or don’t like and thanking them for their business is important. I truly care about what I’m making.”

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