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November 23, 2014

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Gladys is the star, Kenya takes the cake

Who would have thought that Kenya Jackson, daughter of Gladys Knight, would become the proud owner of a national gourmet bakery?

Who other than Gladys Knight, Dionne Warwick, Patti LaBelle and Natalie Cole.

Jackson is the owner of Kenya's Cakes of the Stars at Sunset Station, which opened in early June as a collaboration with her mom, Warwick, LaBelle and Cole.

The gourmet bakery will sponsor tonight's Sunset Station concert starring her mom and LaBelle, with guest comics Sinbad, Robert Townsend and Jamie Foxx. It will benefit the Boys and Girls Club of Nevada.

Although she had an exciting childhood as the daughter of pop star Knight, the thirty-something Jackson is not as pampered as one would think. Instead she is, as she puts it, quite "grounded."

"I was raised in the South, in Atlanta. So I grew up in the kitchen with my grandma, Elizabeth Knight. She really can burn!" Jackson says.

This is where Jackson gained a love for cooking and started baking for a hobby. During her childhood, she began catering different events held by friends and family.

"She experimented on us," says Chetleigh Knight, Jackson's cousin, who works for the city of Las Vegas. "She was always messing up the kitchen and tinkering around with those Easy-Bake Ovens, but whatever she made it was always good. She would go into the kitchen and start throwing something together. We always knew it would be sweet and good."

"One day my Aunty D tried my chocolate cake and she loved it. She said, 'This is the best chocolate cake I have ever tasted,'" Jackson says, laughing at the memory.

Aunty D -- otherwise known as Dionne Warwick -- gained that name because of her close friendship with Jackson and her family. "She is like an aunt to me," Jackson says.

After Atlanta, Jackson and her family moved to Detroit. During her sophomore year in high school, they moved to Las Vegas, where she attended Bishop Gorman High School. Now married to Jimmy Jackson, she started off her career in entertainment marketing and public relations, but veered back to her first love -- baking.

The business began as a gourmet bakery, which Kenya opened in August 1994.

"It was a good bakery, but just not as large as it is now," says Jeantil Jackson, Kenya Jackson's stepdaughter and a bakery employee. "Either people didn't know about it or people just couldn't find it. Now we stay really busy. The day we opened Cakes of the Stars at Sunset we were really busy. I was the only one who knew how to make cappuccinos and I was running all over the place serving everyone."

Before the bakery opened, Jackson spent more than two months adapting her family recipes to mass production.

"Our family recipe was a pinch of this and a handful of that," she says. "We first had to figure out how many cups was a handful and then we had to change that recipe to a recipe for mass production. All we did was test, test, test."

"We" meaning Jackson and Rose Poole, a baker for Kenya's Cakes of the Stars.

"Rosie is wonderful," Jackson says. "After baking, she would bring me a sample and all I would have to tell her is it's missing velvet or it needs to be more grainy, and she would know exactly what to do."

Once mass production was perfected, it was time to debut. "Opening the bakery was a team effort," Jackson says. "We have a great team."

Jackson's business has since expanded to include a production center on East Patrick Lane.

Since the chocolate cake was Warwick's favorite, Jackson named the cake after her: Dionne Warwick's Classic Chocolate. And so begat Kenya's Cakes of the Stars.

The entertainers -- beyond Aunty D -- sampled Kenya's cakes and decided on their favorites. They now include Gladys Knight's Pineapple Passion, Patti LaBelle's Sock-It-To-Me Cake and Natalie Coles's Luscious Lemon Cake.

"I believe in quality, quality, quality -- quality service and a quality product," Jackson says. "Our product speaks for itself."

In fact, her employees want to buy her a hat that says -- yes, you guessed it -- "quality."

The same is expected of the concert. "This is definitly going to be a true variety show," said Jack Taylor, public relations director of the Station Casinos.

"My family has a saying," Jackson says, "All people are lip service" -- meaning that people are all talk. "With this (benefit) concert, these four women have a chance to give more than just their names to the bakery."

And if Jackson hasn't followed in her mother's Pips-assisted footsteps, that's OK. Entertainers in the Knight family apparently skip generations.

"Who knows?" asks Chetleigh Knight. "Maybe my children or Kenya's children will be entertainers in the future. Kenya is doing what she loves, which is baking."

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