It’s the middle of the day on East Nashville’s Dickerson Pike, and a break in the bitter cold has brought this infamous corridor buzzing back to life. Cars zip by on four lanes, and pedestrians amble along the historic thoroughfare.
Among the smoke shops, liquor stores, used tire garages, and seedy motels, something stands out: a cute little electric-blue bakery and brunch shop, newly opened by two local sisters who believe it will help spark a revival in their neighborhood.
Seated inside at a window table are Kathy Leslie and Sandra Austin, owners and operators of Shugga Hi Bakery and Cafe. They’re quick to smile and generous with their laughter, radiating a kind of motherly warmth as they chat about cakes, customers, and more—but they’re far from naive about the mission they’ve embarked on. The sisters grew up a few miles away on Hart Avenue, they love the neighborhood, and they know exactly what a clean, safe place like this could mean for the community.
She gets up and walks behind the cafe’s bar, then returns clutching a small, drug store thank-you card. Smiling as she opens it, she reads aloud:
“‘Thank you all so much for opening a nice environment in our neighborhood. I’ve lived here for thirty-four years. A lot has come and a lot has gone . . . This is just to say you all have brought beauty to us.’”
“We could have opened up anywhere,” Leslie adds. “But we wanted to be here.”
Opened late last summer, Shugga Hi sits on a tiny triangle of land where Dickerson and Whites Creek Pike converge. The sisters have been passing by here their whole lives, even as far back as when the building housed a segregated burger joint. “It was ‘No coloreds allowed,’” says Austin.
But now with sleek, multimillion-dollar homes on nearby Fern and Ligon Avenues taking advantage of the neighborhood’s breathtaking panoramic views of downtown, plus plans for a Cumberland River marina to be built just blocks away, Leslie figures this area could soon become the next Five Points.
“I think it will, because there’s nowhere else to go,” she says. “If you come over the hill and you see the skyline, this is a diamond in the rough . . . and we wanted to put something here that will reflect how Dickerson Pike will become in the future, not how it is right now.”
The sisters’ original plan was for a simple cake shop. They were hoping to repurpose an old shipping container and place it in the vacant lot next door, but when they contacted the landowner, he offered to lease the whole building.
“My sister is a master baker, and I’m a master eater,” Leslie says with a laugh—and with no objection from Austin. “When we came in here, this place was totally a mess, but we just stepped out in faith. Really it was supposed to just be a bakery, but since we had all this space it turned into a cafe, and then once you have a cafe you’ve gotta have a bar. It just kept going.”
Austin might be the sister with the kitchen skills, but both are experienced entrepreneurs. Leslie is an attorney and real-estate developer, while Austin worked as a financial adviser and once owned her own mortgage company. Growing up, their father ran his own body shop—despite only having a third-grade education—and that gave both women a sense that anything was possible.
But the sisters say the idea behind Shugga Hi comes straight from their mother, Catherine. She worked full-time as a nurse but valued family and togetherness over all else, sharing her love through food and fixing the kids three healthy, home-cooked meals every day. “And we didn’t sit at the TV,” Leslie says. “She used to say that if we were going to eat with the president, we would know how.”
“I was always up under mom,” Austin explains. “I would stand there and watch her doing this and that, and at Thanksgiving and Christmas, oh Lord, we’d have twenty cakes . . . She just loved to bake, and she taught me how to do it . . . I kept on baking, and as I got older everything evolved and it got more intense. Then people started asking me to bake for them, and it just got more and more and here we are. That’s my peace and my passion. I get home, turn on some music and get a little glass of wine, and I’m thinking, Okay, so what am I gonna make?”
Like her mom, Austin is now a pro at both cooking and baking, so Shugga Hi serves quality breakfast, lunch, and dinner all day, with a big emphasis on sweet treats and a welcoming atmosphere. Inside, the décor is modern and colorful but also cozy and unpretentious, with affordable prices geared toward neighborhood accessibility.
“We want you to walk in and feel like you’re at home, feel like you’re appreciated, and get great food with great customer service,” she explains. “No worries, no judgment. You come in and you be you.”
Her menu includes comfort food favorites like the Shugga Hi cake-waffle burger (made sweet and savory by using cake batter), chicken-n-waffles, fish sandwich, and a breakfast concoction rightfully named “Da Bomb”: two homemade biscuits stuffed with eggs, bacon, sausage, and cheese, with a delicious honey butter drizzled on top.
Austin also whips up fresh cookies, pies, and pastries, plus alcohol-infused cakes, which are getting quite the reputation.
“What I’m most famous for is my Sip of Cake,” she says with a laugh. “It’s supposed to be like you’re sipping on a drink, but you’re actually eating cake. We’ve got Gin and Tonic, Jack and Coke, Bailey’s Irish Cream, Rum Cake, Pina Colada—you name it and I just about make it all.”
The place is open six days a week with low-key live music on weekend nights, “Kool Karaoke” on Thursday, and a jazz brunch buffet every Sunday. And this month the sisters are planning a special, prix-fixe menu for Valentine’s Day—with Austin working up a deliciously boozy pink-moscato cake to top off the meal.
More condos and tall skinnies are being planted on the streets just off Dickerson, and with business slowly picking up as word gets out, the sisters hope Shugga Hi could soon encourage other investors to follow their lead. But to them, the cafe is more than a savvy investment or an outlet for Austin’s passion.
“The concept really is for our mother,” Leslie explains.
As a tribute to her, “The Catherine” is now an item on the breakfast menu—two pieces of bacon or sausage, one egg, toast, and potatoes, just the way she liked it. And every time someone orders the dish, both Leslie and Austin think of how proud she would be.
Back at the table with traffic streaming by as the city’s daily exodus begins, the sisters have her in mind as they look over what Shugga Hi has become. They almost feel like pioneers, they say, happy to live out her values of compassion, good food, and community in a neighborhood that deserves a second chance.
“Food means love to me,” Leslie says.
“Coming up as a child, I just remember that Dickerson Pike was a rough place,” Austin adds. “But it’s also always been a neighborhood of togetherness.”
If Dickerson Pike really does turn around, it will be because of people like these two.
Shugga Hi is open Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., Saturday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Sunday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.