Sweet Surrender: Sarah Nieves, Sweet Shop Production Manager at 4 Rivers Smokehouse

I’m always curious about how people got to where they are today, especially when it comes to the culinary world. You probably know about 4 Rivers BBQ, but what you don’t know is that they have a dedicated Sweet Shop. I’m talking custom cakes, cupcakes, pies, brownies, and even homemade poptarts. I sat down with Sweet Shop Production Manager Sarah Nieves to talk all things sweet.

Sarah Nieves, 4Rivers Smokehouse, Natedoesfood, Jacksonville, Florida

Did you go to culinary school?

I went to the International Culinary Center which used to be the French Culinary Institute in New York.

Why did you choose that out of all culinary schools?

When I finally decided that what I wanted to do was go to pastry school, I did my research, and I knew I didn’t want to stay in Jacksonville. I think I was being a little bit pretentious, but I knew I wanted to go to New York. When it came down to CIA versus International Culinary Center, it was more fast-paced, and I wanted to get it done and over with. I had already been in college for four years, and I was done with school. It was a fast-paced quick program. I did it and got my diploma. That one is focused primarily on pastry, whereas most everyone else is culinary and pastry. And I just wanted to do pastry.

Where did you go to college before?

FSCJ for photography and art. I’ve always been an artsy kid.

Sarah Nieves, 4Rivers Smokehouse, Natedoesfood, Jacksonville, Florida

How do you go from photography to pastries?

The whole reason I got into photography was because I thought I was going to be a food blogger. And as I was baking one day, I thought, “I actually like this part more than the photography, and the editing, and all that.” So I almost dropped out of FSCJ and didn’t finish. My mom said, “Nope, you’re going to finish.” So I finished and then moved up to New York six months later.

How did you come to 4 Rivers in Jacksonville after New York?

I was down here for literally two weeks. And I lived like a block away. I was driving by, and I saw the sign that said “Hiring Now.” So I looked up the 4 Rivers website, and I saw that it had a bakery in it. And I thought, “Alright, I’ll do this for the summer.” It’s been four and a half years and I’m still here.

At what point did you become the production manager?

I got hired in June, and in December of the same year I was approached about becoming a manager. I had never really thought about myself as a leader or anything. So I said, “Sure,” and a couple months later I became an assistant bakery manager. That was in May, and then in October I became the bakery manager, and I was bakery manager for a year. And then I was getting a little burnt out on the bakery stuff, so then I asked if I could train on the smokehouse side, and I became a restaurant manager. And after restaurant manager, I became the service manager of the store. I did service manager for 11 months, and that was a huge learning thing. I feel like I really learned how to be a manager and I really learned the restaurant. After that, I felt like, “I need to go back to the bakery.” It was awesome. It was great. It was so stressful. And I need to frost a cake. So last September, I left service manager and I became the bakery production manager. And that’s when they gave me both stores.

Sarah Nieves, 4Rivers Smokehouse, Natedoesfood, Jacksonville, Florida

Do you have a big influence on the menu change?

Yeah, I’ve had quite a few things on the menu. They’re always really open with communication. If you come up with an idea, I just send that up to the director of the bakery and she’s pretty open to anything. I think I’ve had six different things on the menu in the four years I’ve been here. I did the beer and peanuts cupcake we do for Super Bowl every year. For fall I did an apple pie cupcake. I did a peach cupcake two years ago. Last year for fall we did an apple bourbon bundt cake.

How did you stay motivated when you were in New York?

I know that making desserts, pastries, sweets, that is what I have to do. When I’m doing that, I’m happy.

What are your short term goals?

To make us (Sweet Shop) a well-known name. There have been regulars here that come up to the bakery and are like, “I didn’t know you were here.”

What are your long term goals?

All of my employees have always said over the past four years, “You need to teach.” So I’ve toyed with that idea. I don’t really want a bakery, like a storefront. I’ve always just wanted a cake studio. Ultimately, my favorite thing is frosting cakes. I don’t even like baking them. All the girls bake everything for me. I just decorate. Because it’s the artsy part of it. That is my background.

Any advice for up and coming bakers?

It’s the advice I give myself every day: focus on the big picture. Instead of focusing on one tree, you have to focus on the whole forest. Because you can focus on one detail so much that you drive yourself crazy. If I asked anyone in this room right now to go look at that bakery, they’d be like, “Oh my gosh, everything is perfect.” But if I asked Adrian over there, she’s like, “That’s messed up, this has a small dent in it.” At the end of the day, it’s just cake. What you’re making is going to make a ton of people happy.

Sarah Nieves, 4Rivers Smokehouse, Natedoesfood, Jacksonville, Florida

220 N Park Ave
Orange Park, FL 32073
(844) 474-8377
9220 Baymeadows Rd
Jacksonville, FL 32256
(855) 368-7748

Website: https://www.4rsmokehouse.com
Instagram: @4riversjacksonville @4riversorangepark

About Nate Mayo