Inside the Chesapeake Bakery Cranking Out 30,000 Smith Island Cakes a Year

Smith Island Baking Company masters Maryland’s eight-layer confections.

Photograph by Lauren Bulbin

When most people look at a Smith Island cake, they see a delicious dessert. For Brian Murphy, founder of the Smith Island Baking Company, it’s a multilayered series of calculations. “I call myself the spreadsheet cowboy,” says Murphy, a former commodities trader who moved to his native Eastern Shore with his family after launching the business in 2009. “Everything’s a math problem.”

The bakery churns out 30,000 of its from-scratch cakes a year, as many as 250 a day. Each consists of eight layers, which means—we can do math, too!—that Smith Island cranks out some 240,000 cake tiers every 12 months. Much of the work is done by hand, a daily dance that Murphy describes as “ballet on wheels.”

Smith Island cake wasn’t actually created by the Smith Island Baking Company. It’s a waterman’s confection born in the 1800s, as deeply rooted in Chesapeake Maryland culinary lore as the blue crab (which is why it’s Maryland’s official state dessert). There are many variations, but they generally all consist of eight to ten layers of cake and icing.

Murphy launched his company on Smith Island itself, but five years ago he moved it to an abandoned grocery store in Crisfield on the mainland, where he wouldn’t have to worry about transporting supplies roughly ten miles offshore. Post-Covid, he hopes to start offering tours and tastings that could draw visitors to his new hometown and Somerset County. “People only come to Crisfield on purpose or by accident,” he says. “We want to give them a reason to come on purpose.”

Food Editor

Anna Spiegel covers the dining and drinking scene in her native DC. Prior to joining Washingtonian in 2010, she attended the French Culinary Institute and Columbia University’s MFA program in New York, and held various cooking and writing positions in NYC and in St. John, US Virgin Islands.