Sweet Freedom

Ex-convict Shakoor Watson overcame a heroin addiction to build a thriving bakery

When you step into Shakoor’s Sweet Tooth, you’re immediately conflicted. The cakes that line the glass showcase of this Brooklyn eatery seem to shimmer and call out to you, like so many gems in a jewelry store. And they are just as rich. Moist, red velvet cake and traditional triple-layered favorites, such as German chocolate cake, carrot cake, and strawberry shortcake, compete with lemon meringue pie and peach cobbler.

But it is owner Shakoor Watson’s original sweet potato cheesecake that brings customers back. It’s absolutely addictive — something that Watson understands better than most.

Watson, 45, is not ashamed to say that he has been a recovering heroin addict for the past 12 years. And that he is an ex-convict. He was 28 at the time, a baker and an intravenous drug abuser who would do almost anything for a fix, including beating and robbing a man for drug money. The assault yielded exactly $1 and a seven-year sentence, for robbery and assault, in some of New York’s most notorious prisons: Rikers, Attica, and Sing Sing.

About a year into his prison term, Watson began looking for an anchor to cling to; he soon found it in Islam. Drawn to the religion’s frequent calls to prayer, he became Muslim and changed his name from Elonzo to Shakoor, which means “grateful and appreciative.” He found himself rediscovering the self-pride his parents had tried to instill in him when he was growing up, and began reaching back for the strong values that had once been his foundation. Slowly, he began to reclaim his life.

“Some guys in prison are always talking about what they’re going to do when they get out, but my transformation began inside,” says Watson. “I wasn’t waiting until I got out to get it together. I came out of jail running.”

After working for $4 an hour at a Key Food supermarket for a few months, the baker’s union to which Watson had once belonged called. They offered him a job at Pechter Fields, a wholesale bakery in Brooklyn, New York, and he later worked for Fink Bread in New Jersey. After Pechter Fields went out of business, its main competitor, Acme Cake Co., lured Watson back to Brooklyn. While at Acme, Watson frequently brought in ideas for new recipes. Although he was told they were no good, a month later he’d spot his idea coming off the conveyer belt. So, he turned what could have been anger into fuel. Instead of bringing his recipes into work, he began making them at home and selling them to family and friends.

By then, he was married to Marissa Watson, 43. “In our first phone conversation, he told me all about his past,” she says. “He didn’t have to do that. He took a real chance, so I did too. Shakoor is a man of his word. If he does something, he does it right. And his outlook, as far as doing something positive and becoming a positive force for others, is real.”

Marissa had saved money,

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