“I spent a lot of my childhood in and out of Brixton market,” reminisced Michael Morgan, CEO of the hospitality group MM Holdings—and the baking mind behind Piece of Velvet in Brooklyn. He spoke with a South London lilt, fingers interwoven into a firm, confident grasp. “We would run around stealing fruit and be given fruit. And sometimes, be given a slap because we stole the fruit from the vendors, who would then see us the next day and give us a piece. There was no calling the police or our fathers. If you done wrong, you got a slap. You accepted it. And in the end, some of us ended up working for those guys.”
In that world, retribution assumed the shape of mentorship and loyalty reigned supreme. Decades later, he would adopt a strikingly similar paradigm for himself across the pond in Brooklyn as an owner, mentor, and baker.
When Michael was a teenage boy, selling ice cream from a mobile fridge unit at one of London’s royal parks, he couldn’t have imagined that he would end up in New York as an entrepreneur with a thriving cake business. In fact, Michael, the son of first generation Jamaicans in England, was not the least bit inclined toward the culinary sector. “I had no interest in pastries or in cooking. I got into this industry from a business perspective. Culinary came after,” he explained, in what he calls his ‘seamless-appropriate’ outfit, consisting of a black bomber jacket and sleek black sweats, made all the more apt when he speaks of his days as a Fulham football player. “But business has a responsibility to those who are supporting it, and since immersing myself in this sector, I’ve come to realize that food is a great niche business.”
After four years in professional sports followed by a period of time in the retail and wholesale market, he entered Brighton Business School, where he earned his MBA. While awaiting his results, he went to New York to visit his brother and his brother’s children. The trip turned out to be more fateful than he had expected.
“At that time, I started working in the back office of CitiBank Corporate with my brother and I was bored,” he said with a wry grin. “I needed to get out, so I happened into Cake Man Raven’s store in Fort Greene one day, and I kept going and coming back. It was not a cohesive business and I wanted to make sure it ran smoothly. That’s exactly what I ended up doing. I even learned how to make cupcakes.”
While Morgan was initially interested in streamlining daily operations, he quickly made community outreach integral to his model. He wrested control of the business and reinvented it as Piece of Velvet. If you were to ask him about his contributions to the neighborhood, you would be given a litany of anecdotes the way one might read a grocery list. Nothing is superfluous and praise is swatted away. “I don’t like grandiose sayings. It’s just who I am. I’m not trying to save the world, but I’m going to do whatever I can to help those who are closest to me and are in pain. It’s just how I was raised, I suppose.”
Unsure of where next to take the business, Morgan returned to England and worked as a consultant for NHS until a friend proposed that the two of them move to Ghana to work with excavators. “Once in Ghana, all the creativity came back to me about the cake business. There’s a lot of time and no electricity there. So when I would get back at six and the sun had come down, I’d have nothing to do but think,” he recalled. “I only knew one recipe, which was red velvet at the time, so I had to think about how I could make the offering wider and more diverse. Knowing the ingredients and the process, I came up with ten cake recipes.” In just three years, he would open five Piece of Velvet locations.
At the crux of Michael’s character is humility, bolstered by resolve. “The community outreach facet didn’t come from a business model. It came from being in Ghana and seeing how those guys lived with and treated one another. Living there, I saw how a little bit could do so much. When I came back to America I thought of sending money to Ghana, but then saw what was happening here. There was—and is—stuff happening in New York, right here and right now.”
Since returning, Michael has cemented his status as one of New York’s preeminent pastry-slingers and philanthropists. His most recent large-scale effort consisted of partnering with Carmelo and Lala Anthony in order to feed 300 children during the holiday season, though his intentions were not so grand in the beginning. “It initially developed from a desire to help those who were closest to me, but it’s now extended itself to helping people that I don’t even know.”
When Michael says this, he is referring to a whole host of people, varied and unique in their upbringing and paths: the homeless, the underprivileged, and even the lonely. The man with the Flavor Flav clock who comes for free cake and a cheeky dance to Trinidadian soca music. The wholesome, middle-aged church-going man who voluntarily acts as an ambassador of the shop. The young men whom Michael took under his wing, who have since established their own businesses as a result. “We’re focused on the youth right now. Giving them a chance. Giving them a job. This way is far more effective in impacting people,” he said.
And at that point, he paused, with a purposeful glint in his eyes. “We do not care where you came from or how you got there. You’re just a human being like us. You bleed. We bleed. You breathe. We breathe. You eat. We eat. If this is the way you want to turn your life around, then come on. Do it. The chance, you will be given.” ♦
Photos by Jane Bruce