UM Journalism Student
WATER VALLEY–Under a black and white striped awning on historic Main Street in Water Valley is a New Orleans-style bakery, Le Mojo’s, which is gaining popularity among the city’s residents since opening last October.
The smell of sugar and King Cake comes through the black wrought-iron door and inside are two refrigerated display cases filled with handmade baked goods – big vanilla cupcakes with icing mounded high and gooey chocolate cookies, enough to make anyone’s mouth water.
A little further inside you’ll find owner Lara Sossaman, dressed in a black chef’s coat, hard at work in the bakery’s tiny square kitchen. The sweet treats that come out of Sossaman’s kitchen certainly reflect her charming and likeable personality.
Owning the shop and keeping it local means everything to Sossaman, and is the driving force for starting the business, which was to get away from a commercial feel.
“It’s the personal business and the one-on-one with friends and family,” says Sossaman, explaining how she got the idea for the business. “Water Valley hadn’t had a bakery in about 40 years, and I hate commercialism. I wanted to allow people to get specific things that they wanted.”
Because she doesn’t want to be a commercialized business, Sossaman has the kitchen in the bakery set up much like one you’d see in someone’s home – two double ovens, one a Maytag and the other a Whirlpool, along with a standard two-door refrigerator. “It’s like my kitchen at home, just a little bit bigger,” says Sossaman.
The shop’s bright colors and fun feel invite visitors of all kinds.
“We have a variety of people who come in,” says Sossaman. “It’s actually been pretty neat to see the difference because you’ve got people you would never expect to walk into a bakery.”
Growing up in Water Valley and having experienced childhood in the small town is something else she said is still important to her and her business now.
“Now you can see kids walking up and down the sidewalk, they go to Turnage’s for a milkshake and they come down here for a sweet treat,” says Sossaman. “When I was young we used to rollerblade to the park. But just to see a new generation come in and change it a little bit to where you see people who want to shop in their hometown and not go to mainstream Oxford and Memphis. I mean, why can’t it happen right here?”
The idea to own a bakery all started, she recalls, when her sister Melissa Morgan, who also lives in Water Valley, wanted a specifically decorated cake with zebra stripes and hot pink flowers for her bridal shower.
“She couldn’t find anyone to make what she wanted, and after she told me what it was I went to Walmart, bought the pans and made it. Simple enough,” she says.
After that, word got out that Sossaman could make not only a delicious cake but also one that could fit a person’s specific needs, and so she began making them for friend’s birthdays and baby showers. All she’d ask is that they pay for the ingredients and she would do the rest.
But her real interest for cooking and baking began earlier. Sossaman worked every Saturday in high school at a restaurant no longer in town named Pruitt’s Early Bird, where she fell in love with the handmade donuts for which owner Larry Pruitt was famous.
“He made the fluffiest, prettiest donuts, and I thought I could do that,” she recalls with a grin.
Soon after, Sossaman realized that she knew how to cook, thanks to the help of her grandmother Lalah, who used to bake and cook around the house when Sossaman was a child. The added bonus for her now is getting to spend time with her mom, who often comes in to help.
“I’m free help. And everything is right here, if I want to bake a cake I can come here instead of messing up my kitchen,” says Sossa-man’s mother, Jo Smith.
Spending quality time together and keeping their home kitchens clean are two advantages of the bakery that both mother and daughter share.
“She loves coming in here and I love spending time with her,” says Sossaman. ”I don’t mess up my kitchen at home anymore. It’s great that way.”
A large part of her success and popularity in the town comes from her willingness to provide the best product she can for her customers.
People often come in asking her if she can create a cake or recipe that she has not tried before and she tells them, “Give me about five minutes and Google and I can figure it out.”
But perhaps the most notable measure she has gone to is developing a special cake mix for an autistic boy with food allergies. The boy’s mother, who is from Water Valley, came into the shop looking for a cake for his birthday.
“I took myself through trying every recipe, and I’m not going to use something that tastes nasty,” says Sossaman. “So I came up with one that uses applesauce, goats milk, completely gets away from eggs, and I make it for him every time something comes up, because he’s never had anything decorated.”
Another customer could not eat nuts, and so she baked him brownies without the nuts when he came in to buy them each Wednesday. Her willingness to make so many customers happy is a trait that keeps people coming back.
“A bakery is something Water Valley hasn’t had in a long, long time,” says weekly costumer Terrie Johnson. “I’m very glad she’s open, everything is great and she has very reasonable prices.”