Sucre bleu: French teacher turned dessert virtuoso keeps business sweet while managing tough times

Tracy Dempsey has navigated many changes successfully to keep her small dessert and pastry bakery on University Drive near Priest in Tempe open through challenging times.  –Photos courtesy of Tracy Dempsey Originals

Right about now, the “water of life” for Tracy Dempsey would be the ka-CHING! of the cash register in her dessert bakery and adjacent wine shop near downtown Tempe.

Times have been better.

She is among the small-business owners who have taken a financial hit during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nimble and resourceful, she refuses to let it bring her business down. Dempsey personifies Women’s History Month, observed during March, as she adjusts, adapts and does what is necessary to keep it afloat.

These inviting treats are an example of the dessert creativity that makes Tracy Dempsey a fixture on the Valley culinary scene.

It is easy to blow right past the nondescript building that houses the two shops at 1323-1325 W. University Drive, near Priest. It has no prominent signage. It’s a few blocks off Tempe’s high foot-traffic main drag on Mill Avenue.

“The building is a challenge,” she said.

The upside: There’s always a little bit of heaven in her bakery, TDO, for Tracy Dempsey Originals, which features desserts, pastries, soups, breakfasts and lunch boxes, along with a weekly special.

And there always are plenty of bottles of fine wine next door at ODV, the name being her little inside joke as a former French teacher. The initials sound like the French “eau de vie,” or “water of life.”

ODV, a pun that sounds like the French “eau de vie,” which translates to “water of life,” is the wine shop next to Tracy Dempsey’s bakery. Her husband, Chuck, owns the liquor license, she manages the shop, which specializes in Arizona wines.

What goes better while binge-watching “Schitt’s Creek” during the pandemic than a splendid bottle of “the water of life”?

“We thought we were pretty clever,” she said. “Wine is the other water of life, isn’t it?

“Our wine sales actually are higher than ever.”

As she was coming up in the Valley culinary scene, her desserts dazzled patrons at many of the finest restaurants.

Initially, Pat Christofolo, now owner of the Farm at South Mountain, let Dempsey make pâté and “special things” for her Santa Barbara Catering Co. Dempsey would go on to land gigs at family-owned Italian Terrace Bistro, The Cottonwoods, the old Marriott Mountain Shadows with an assist from chef Paul O’Connor, and Cowboy Ciao, Restaurant Hapa and Gregory’s World Bistro. Her reputation was growing, and chefs at each new stop were comfortable letting her experiment with “fun, creative” desserts.

The Lava Cake is among the specialties at Tracy Dempsey Originals in Tempe.

Her big break was landing the pastry-chef position at Lon’s at the Hermosa Inn.

Her lengthy list of contacts convinced her that she could go independent and contract with fine restaurants Valley-wide and deliver her creations to them.

She latched onto the building on University nine years ago because it had the commercial kitchen she needed and wasn’t far from freeways, which aided deliveries. The space next door was a perfect storage room.

“Business was good,” Dempsey said. “We were coming out of the Great Recession, real estate prices had dropped and a lot of restaurants were opening. I suddenly had upwards of 10 clients and every one was unique, so we were making unique desserts for each of them to complement their cuisine.”

There’s always a little bit of heaven at Tracy Dempsey Originals.

She had eight employees in the kitchen and a delivery driver.

“We were really growing because restaurants didn’t want to hire pastry chefs back at first,” she said.

And then, they did. They no longer needed an independent dessert contractor.

“We were on a tight margin and when business started to fall it got really hard.”

Could she adapt? You have to know who you’re dealing with to appreciate that.

Dempsey, 54, has been adapting her whole life. She grew up in California, moved to Arkansas while her father, a petroleum geologist, completed an advanced degree, and then went with her parents to Singapore, Indonesia and London. They thought it would be best for her to return to the states to attend college, so back to Arkansas she went, where her grandparents lived.

“I taught intro French to freshmen and sophomores at the university as a teaching assistant while I was going to school,” she said. “At the end of the semester, I would always throw a party and made cream puffs and crepes. I just loved doing it. It was my way showing I care.”

The Succulent Cake is among Tracy Dempsey’s creative masterpieces.

She went to Oklahoma for her masters, where she met her future husband. And then, she was off to France to learn more about the language, food and wine while he completed his masters.

They came to the Valley in 1994, ostensibly on an 18-month assignment that Chuck, then a meteorologist with the National Severe Storms Laboratory, had with SRP.

He wound up taking a job with SRP and she took a job teaching in the American English and Culture program for international students at Arizona State. Before long, though, the culinary arts program at Scottsdale Community College beckoned.

“I was in the first group in their new facility at SCC. I turned 31. I wasn’t the oldest, but I was getting pretty close to being the oldest,” she said.

“Cooking is a passion I’ve had since I was a little kid, working like crazy in my little Betty Crocker Easy Bake Oven with the light bulb in it. My family all were really great bakers and cooks. Food always was a very important part of our celebrations. I always had a side business, baking things and selling them on the side during college. Hospitality always was super important to me.”

Tracy Dempsey’s cookies are a customer favorite at TDO.

Managing all of those life-changing events prepared her well for her business.

As her commercial work dried up, she totally changed her model, creating the retail shop. A couple of years later, Chuck got his liquor license and ODV was born. He owns the license, she manages the shop.

When the pandemic hit and Arizona all but shut down, she turned TDO into a Community Supported Agriculture center, which could stay open as an essential business. She teamed with farmers and artisans to sell their goods.

“We were like a small grocery store. We were getting a bunch of chickens,” she said. “That’s the only way we survived at first.”

Now, even as more people are receiving the COVID-19 vaccine and the pandemic finally shows signs of easing, she is not yet ready to return to normal business hours and operation for the protection of what remains of her staff, now down to three, as well as the welfare of her customers. She offers curbside pickup only at TDO and no more than three people at a time, by appointment, in the wine shop, which specializes in Arizona products and has a wine club.

Among Tracy Dempsey Originals’ treats: The Marshmallow Beauty.

She’s doing everything by email. She posts her menu for the coming week each Saturday on her website, tracydempseyoriginals.com, and asks that orders be in by 11 a.m. the day before pickup.

For Saturday, March 20, among her special offerings are beignets and coffee.

“It’s spring equinox. We’ve got to celebrate with something,” she said. “Hopefully, the day will come soon when we can open again completely and our pastry case is filled again. Fingers crossed.”

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TRACY’S FAVORITES

Tracy Dempsey

Favorite dessert to make: Geez, that changes with my mood. Sometimes, I love to make ice cream, because we do have a commercial ice-cream freezer. I love ice cream. I also love to make things that are whimsical, like ding-dongs. I’ve made twinkies. I love making tarts. I keep putting tarts on our menu. Last week, I had a French-lemon tart. I’ve done a chocolate-red-wine crust.

If you didn’t own the joint, what would you order?: I would eat soup every day of the year, I don’t care if it’s 100 outside or not. We always have soup. My favorite dessert is my mint-chocolate-chip ice cream. I make it with fresh mint from the garden so it’s not green, it’s white.

What’s coming up this week?: Beignets. We’ve experimented with it. We serve them hot, so you pull up to the curb. If you take them home, don’t warm them in a microwave. They get soggy and too chewy. Put them in the oven at 250 on a sheet pan for 7 minutes tops. And cover them in powdered sugar again.

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