Local baker brings passion, experience and doughnuts to restaurant menu development

(Amanda LaCasse/DD)
Casey Hopkins-Johnson, the baker responsible for the acclaimed menu at the newly opened Welcome Chicken + Donuts, has applied hard work, creativity and principles of sustainable development to her varied culinary career. (Amanda LaCasse/DD)

Downtown Phoenix Voices is an ongoing series of profiles on the many diverse and inspirational voices in the downtown Phoenix community. To read the previous installment in the series, click here.
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Key lime. Chocolate rose-pistachio. Cajeta. Carrot-glazed.

These are just a few of the flavors in the baking arsenal of Casey Hopkins-Johnson, head baker at Welcome Chicken + Donuts. The restaurant, located on the corner of 16th Street and Buckeye Road, opened to the public on Monday after months of preparation and recipe development.

Hopkins-Johnson developed the doughnut menu in collaboration with Michael Babcock, co-owner and manager at Welcome Chicken + Donuts. She is no stranger to the Phoenix baking scene, having gained expertise working for a range of local businesses, including Cartel Coffee Lab, Pomegranate Cafe and Jobot Coffee and Dining, to name a few.

A spunky, bright-eyed brunette, Hopkins-Johnson is easygoing and friendly — but she radiates a passion for her craft that is anything but tame.

She laughs as she describes one of her favorite creations, a baked vegan spiced fig doughnut that has been “blowing her mind.”

“Fig — you can’t go wrong with some figs, you know?” she said.

Hopkins-Johnson’s baking technique has been met with wide acclaim from friends, family and local dessert connoisseurs.

“She has a really amazing palate, and it’s subtle, too — she knows how to make subtle ingredients really kind of change the mood that you even experience,” husband Aaron Hopkins-Johnson said.

Casey Hopkins-Johnson is a well-trained baker and aspiring pastry chef who has had the opportunity to learn trade secrets from a variety of bakers around Phoenix. Her college and pre-college beginnings, however, would hardly suggest a career in baking.

Born in Scottsdale, Hopkins-Johnson moved to California at the age of 18 to attend college at Azusa Pacific University, earning a degree in global studies with a minor in sociology.

After college, she interned with the Abundant Table Farm Project, living with four other women on a farm in Oxnard, California. Here, Hopkins-Johnson was able to begin honing her skills as a baker, while gaining valuable lessons in the importance of farm-to-table principles and sustainable use of materials.

“I kind of just started baking as an exercise in stress relief,” Hopkins-Johnson said. “Just something to do outside of the farm work. And living with other people, it was a nice thing that I could do for the house, and I really enjoyed it.”

Eventually, Hopkins-Johnson moved back to Arizona.

“I came back here not quite knowing why I was here, but just feeling like I really needed to be back,” she said.

Hopkins-Johnson said the environment she found in the downtown Phoenix community was a welcome surprise.

“I felt like I had been missing this my entire life, living in Arizona,” she said. “For a long time, I was feeling very estranged from the larger Phoenix community, and when I moved downtown, it was like … there are so many people just like me, in this little neighborhood right here. Phoenix welcomed me back with open arms.”

Hopkins-Johnson first worked as a barista at Cartel Coffee Lab and Pomegranate Cafe. She first got the opportunity to put her baking skills to use when a position opened up in the kitchen at Pomegranate, and she was promptly made assistant baker. She also began working as a barista one day a week at Jobot Coffee and Dining, where she met her soon-to-be husband Aaron Hopkins-Johnson.

“We fell in love making coffee and crepes on Mondays,” Casey Hopkins-Johnson laughed. “That is our love story.”

In September, Hopkins-Johnson’s catering company, Bird City Baking Co., officially became a business with the help of a grant from the city of Phoenix. Their first client was First Draft Book Bar.

Recently, much of Hopkins-Johnson’s attention has been focused on developing the doughnut menu at Welcome Chicken + Donuts, which has so far been met with wide acclaim from locals and reviewers, such as the Phoenix New Times.

The rest of Hopkins-Johnson’s attention has lately been focused on the newest addition to her life at home.

“I have one really big hobby currently that is taking over my life, and that is my 8-month-old daughter,” she said. “I had other (hobbies), but she’s just kind of taken over … and I’ve loved every minute of it.”

Despite being a new mother, Hopkins-Johnson has made time for extensive baking projects such as Bird City Baking Co. and Welcome Chicken + Donuts, in addition to agricultural endeavors. She worked with a small community-supported farm and organic gardening installation company in Arcadia up to eight months into her pregnancy.

“She’s a really hard worker,” Aaron Hopkins-Johnson said, who often watches baby Finley at work. “That’s something I strive for in myself, but not only does she work a lot and often, but she works smart, too. … She only does jobs that she believes in.”

Casey Hopkins-Johnson has made an impact on the Phoenix baking community in ways big and little. She carries many of the sustainable principles she learned farming in California to each of her workplaces. These principles include making sure that ingredients are sourced locally, and that baked goods are quality and as healthy as possible.

“It’s hard as a small business owner … to make sure that you’re still making money and able to pay all your bills … while at the same time keeping those ethics of staying local,” Aaron Hopkins-Johnson said. “But she’s always figured out a way to do it.”

Her knack for easily navigating a range of subtle flavors to produce complex, unique recipes has also left a legacy here. Billie Speece, a barista at Jobot who used to work with Casey Hopkins-Johnson, praised her sophisticated palate.

“I love her avocado pound cake,” Speece said.

Aaron Hopkins-Johnson also lauded his wife’s knack for subtle flavoring in her baking.

“She makes a chocolate-chip cookie that you think is just a regular chocolate-chip cookie, but she puts a little bit of lavender in there so it has a floral taste, and with the chocolate that is an amazing combo,” Aaron Hopkins-Johnson said. “It’s those really tiny embellishments that really separate her.”

Casey Hopkins-Johnson is nothing if not multi-talented. She started college as a vocal performance major — she used to sing in a local band — and she speaks Spanish fluently (and often on the job).

Co-workers admire her friendliness, positive attitude and unmatched creativity.

“It’s very exciting to be a part of (the city’s) transformation right now,” Casey Hopkins-Johnson said. “I think that if we commit to staying here and making this a good city, a high-quality city, a city with its own unique culture … it will be a destination city. … I think we can make it what we want it to be.”

With plenty of doughnuts to go around.

Correction: Nov. 16: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Casey Hopkins-Johnson created the Welcome Chicken + Donuts menu on her own and helped create menus for other restaurants. It has been updated to accurately reflect her partnership with Michael Babcock to develop the menu and the extent of her work in other restaurants.

Contact the reporter at Faith.Anne.Miller@asu.edu.