“I’m not a baker, I tell everybody that,” Denise Williams says. Those familiar with her pastries, however, may beg to differ: Since coffee shop Deadstock opened as a kiosk in 2015, Williams has been making butterscotch cakes for her son, Ian Williams, who serves them alongside his tea-coffee blends and lavender mochas. The choice to make the cake for her son was done out of necessity, a way to help him bootstrap his way into running a successful cafe. “When Ian started his business, he didn’t have any money,” she says. “He was doing the coffee and tea, but we said, ‘Do you have pastries?’ and he said, ‘No.’ So, we started doing it.”
In the six years Deadstock has sold Denise Williams’s cakes, they have developed their own following. Deadstock would run out by the end of each week, and reviews and profiles of the cafe often mentioned the “butterscotch trap cake,” as it was known. Now, Denise Williams uses those cakes to fundraise for her free therapy services, occasionally with additions like bean pie or waffle ice cream sandwiches.
Each first Saturday of the month, Williams sells her butterscotch cakes, based on her daughter’s recipe, out of her son’s Chinatown coffee shop. While the cakes are a staple, occasionally Williams offers other treats, like her family’s bean pies. “Everybody sold bean pies in Philadelphia, most people here have never seem to have heard of them,” she says. “We’ve been eating those since we were children.” The funds she raises through her cake business — alongside direct donations — keep her supported while she dedicates most of her time to free therapy.
While Denise Williams isn’t a professional baker, she is a professional therapist: For decades, Williams has worked as a counselor, with a specialization in substance abuse. She was about to retire, but at the beginning of the pandemic, she felt compelled to keep working, offering free therapy to those who need it. “We all wanted to do something. I said, ‘What can I did to help?’” she says. “I saw the suicide rates rising, and I went, ‘You know, these people need counseling, but no one can afford it’… Too often I’ve seen people turned away for a couple of dollars or because they don’t have insurance, but people need counseling today, right now.”
Denise Williams started with a GoFundMe, but in the summer of 2020, she started hosting her cake pop-ups as another way to fundraise. As more people learned about her therapy program, Confronting the Storm, people began fundraising for Denise Williams in different ways. Some people donated to her directly via Venmo; others, like mutual aid program Piffin and PDX Bakers Against Racism, hosted raffles for Confronting the Storm, featuring prizes like restaurant gift cards to Indian restaurant Bhuna or Italian pop-up Estes. These days, she tries to add more pop-up events to her roster, including collaborations with other chefs; Psychic Bar’s Diane Lam was one of the first chefs to host Denise Williams outside of Deadstock in August of 2020. “Ian and I are good friends, and I met her at the shop,” Diane Lam says. “She wanted to do more dynamic of a pop-up, so we offered her our space.”
Her cause and her cakes caught the attention of other chefs around Portland, including Matta’s Richard Le. Le has been a fan of her cakes for a while, but at Ian Williams’s birthday, she made a waffle version of her butterscotch trap cake, which they dubbed “trap waffles.” Le liked them so much he left his cart on a Saturday to head to Deadstock, selling his Vietnamese fried chicken on those waffles with nuoc cham syrup. Denise Williams wants to bring back the waffles as a garage-meets-bake-sale pop-up in Hillsboro, using them as the foundations for an ice cream sandwich. But outside of the pop-ups, Denise Williams sells her cakes for pre-order via Instagram dm, accommodating dietary restrictions and adapting them to be vegan.
Overall, Denise Williams isn’t covering the full cost of a therapist’s private practice with her cake sales, and she’s still looking for a commissary kitchen so she can expand her output. But, really, it’s not about the money. “I make a little money with the cakes, but it also exposes me; people find out what I’m doing,” she says. “I’ve seen how difficult it is for people who need therapy but not be able to pay for it. I’ll figure out a way to make it work.”
Denise Williams’s next pop up will be on August 7 at Deadstock, 408 NW Couch Street Suite 408, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. or sold out. Those who want to donate to Confronting the Storm directly can Venmo @itsdenisew.
• Confronting the Storm [Instagram]