Usually you wouldn’t want to find pubic hair in your food. But at Sweet-N-Nasty, an erotic bakery that has existed in various Boston locations since the early 1980s, it’s just another design detail that might adorn your cupcakes or cakes — in edible form, of course. A strategic squiggle of icing here, a large chocolate penis there, perhaps a punny phrase (“breast wishes,” for example), and you’ve got the perfect baked good to take to a bachelor or bachelorette party, birthday party, or nearly any other occasion, depending on the crowd.
Owner Niki Novak opened the shop at 90 Massachusetts Ave. in Back Bay about 15 years ago, but before that, she had an Allston location, a Financial District location, and a tiny space at South Station at various points over the years. She opened the first shop (the Allston original) in the early 1980s; she had recently finished college, where she studied fashion merchandising and retailing, and she was working as a bartender while figuring out her next move.
It was a trip to New York to visit her sister that sealed Novak’s fate: Her sister was bringing dirty cakes to work — in those days, you could get away with that, recalls Novak — but the cakes, which were very expensive, tasted like cardboard. Novak, who had no baking experience, thought she could bring the concept of erotic baked goods back to Boston but do a better job than that New York purveyor of mediocre penis cakes. With Boston’s large student population and gay community, she saw a promising niche. She took some baking classes but mostly learned as she went, and she also got some help from her father, who had been in the restaurant business.
“I made some mistakes along the way,” recalls Novak, “but it was such a good idea that it was okay. People came back.”
In the early days, it was hard to find and keep locations. “It’s almost like a prison,” she says. Nobody wants to be near an erotic bakery, especially in the Financial District. “Even though they shopped there, they probably didn’t want their clients walking by a dirty bakery.” This was in the days before bright, friendly adult shops like Condom World and Good Vibrations opened; there were seedy sex shops in the Combat Zone, but a naughty bakery and novelty store cheerfully catering to mainstream clients in broad daylight in downtown Boston — a woman-owned shop, at that — was an unexpected development.
When Novak advertised in those days, she was pushed to the back of the newspaper with the adult ads, but she wanted to get the word out that that wasn’t what her shop was about. “We’re fun, we’re cakes, we’re chocolate,” she says.
Ultimately she found her cozy Mass. Ave. space, which is located right near Newbury Street. It’s a commercial condominium, so she owns it, which lets her do whatever she wants with the front window display (within reason). On any given day, passersby will see neon signage featuring Sweet-N-Nasty’s sexy leg logo, along with various novelty items — generally some inflatable penises and such. She wants the window to give people a clear idea of what they’re getting when they walk in, but she’s also not interested in antagonizing her neighbors and will take feedback into account if there’s something particularly offensive in the display. “I'm very flexible,” she says. “I keep a clean operation.”
Sweet-N-Nasty doesn’t just sell baked goods and chocolates; it’s a full novelty shop with plenty of R-rated greeting cards, bachelorette party paraphernalia, and pretty much any product you can imagine — straws, mugs, silly string, giant rainbow lollipops, and so much more — that can be shaped like or decorated with the most intimate parts of the male and female anatomy.
The inventory wasn’t always so extensive. In Sweet-N-Nasty’s early days, it really was just the baked goods, but Novak eventually added greeting cards, and then people started to make requests — vibrators, furry handcuffs, butt plugs. “Things I never thought I’d be selling,” says Novak. “At first, I would have the really dirty stuff hidden, and I would have a sign saying to ask me about it, but that seemed silly, because that was who I was and what I did. Anyone who came in who was offended — they weren’t my customers. I am what I am, and it’s blatant and just everywhere. It’s pretty nonchalant now; it’s this time when everything’s on television and the internet. But when I started doing this, it wasn’t like that.”
Over the past 15 years, Novak has seen the bachelorette merchandising segment explode. “That’s who has taken over the world,” she says. “They’re organized, there’s a long season for it, and there’s a market. Bachelors, too, but that’s a last-minute thing. They’ll come in, buy a blow-up doll and maybe a cake, and be on their way. But women will make multiple visits. They’ve got lists; they’ve got committees.”
She has also watched cupcakes take over in the past few years. “We do so many erotic cupcakes, it’s crazy,” she says. In the general bakery scene, cake pops came and went, and whoopie pies never quite took off, but cakes and cupcakes have persisted. “It’s important that they taste good,” says Novak.
It’s also important to Novak to keep prices down as much as possible. “I read somewhere that the biggest mistake women who own businesses make is that they don’t charge enough, but I think it’s because women are good shoppers,” she says. “I know I could get more for my products, but I’d rather sell a lot of them — and things lose their humor [as the price goes up]. We have funny wind-up toys and penis straws and all kinds of crazy stuff. For $2, it’s funny, but $5, not so funny.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Novak has to put up with a few complaints along the way from “religious fanatics” and others not thrilled with the existence of naughty baked goods. “I used to say, ‘Come and picket; bring signs. I’ll get the news here. I love it.’ Any publicity is good publicity,” she says. But nothing that extreme ever happened, and these days, fewer people than ever before are shocked by the content of a shop like Sweet-N-Nasty.
There are occasional complainers who say that the shop “discriminates against women,” says Novak, “but they’re just crazy. As a woman-owned operation, I hire women, I train women, and we do just as many penis pops as we do vaginas and boobs. I will debate anybody about anything; I try to get them to see our point of view that it’s just funny stuff. We're an equal opportunity offender. We make fun of everybody. Nobody's off limits. If you don't have that kind of sense of humor, then the store is not for you.”
“I went on an interview and was asked, ‘What are the social implications of a boob of chocolate?’” she recalls. “There are no social implications. It’s chocolate. You eat it. What you see is what you get. There’s nothing beyond this, and I don’t have any ulterior motives.”
Sweet-N-Nasty’s most popular product is probably the chocolate penis pops, says Novak, which come in an array of sizes (including ones labeled “Mr. Average” and “Mr. Exceptional”), skin tones, and curvatures. “We can’t go wrong with the penis pop,” she says. “Even the construction workers and cops working outside, they'll come in and bring a penis pop home for the wives. And girls will come in and say, ‘My roommate had a bad day’...penis pop.”
Novak and her team have plenty of fun with holidays, too. There are penis-bedecked ghosts for Halloween, and of course there’s a turkey with a penis for Thanksgiving. “Valentine’s Day is our Super Bowl,” says Novak. “That’s our holiday. The whole week. I just pray there isn’t a huge snowstorm every year. Once we get through that, then I breathe a sigh of relief. But Valentine’s Day, we cover it all: sex, love, chocolate, cards, it’s here. And there’s a florist next door, so we work off of each other.”
The team is always coming up with new ideas and having fun naming their many varieties of chocolate. Novak’s favorite? “‘Makin’ Bacon’ for the pigs doing it is pretty good. Everybody wants something named after them, too. My husband keeps saying, ‘Name a chocolate after me,’ but I have not done that.”
Novak’s family is quite supportive of the shop. When her sons — now 21 and 24 — were growing up, they knew at a fairly early age “that mommy did very inappropriate funny cakes.” Novak tried to keep the details quiet from the public, though. “My husband was convinced that if the people of the town found out what I did, we’d never get a babysitter on a Saturday night,” she says. But word spread, and the town’s librarians, teachers, everyone was putting in orders. “I was always cornered at cocktail parties,” she says. Everyone had a million questions. Her younger son was embarrassed at first, but once both boys got to college, “they were rock stars,” says Novak. “They saw early on that it was something to be proud of.”
Now, it’s become sort of a family business. “I’ve had my sisters work here,” says Novak. “My mother, who’s 83, has worked part-time for years. She’ll work on Sundays, and she’s a riot.” Her older son has filled in on occasion, and her younger son has worked during school breaks. Her husband, who works in commercial real estate, is “very supportive,” and her father, who’s now retired and living in Florida, has also helped out over the years. “Everybody has helped me,” says Novak. “It takes a village.”
Novak and her team get their share of bizarre requests, but they’ll try to accommodate almost anything. “Sometimes people will want to give us a picture, but we’re not interested in that,” she says. She also said no to a request for a cake featuring naked renditions of Bart and Lisa Simpson. “I know it’s a cartoon,” says Novak, “but they’re both children, so I said no.”
More and more lately, with the growing amount of baking shows on television, Novak sees customers come in with photos of absurd Photoshopped cakes that they want made — “cakes that can’t be done, things that aren’t real cakes, things that aren’t even edible,” says Novak. “My designs are edible. I’ll use some fondant and buttercream frosting and cake. I have people ask me for exploding volcanoes and waterfalls. You need construction for that. And that cake is not going to taste good if you can even afford it. I’d have to charge thousands of dollars, and that cake would take me weeks to make.”
But if you’re in the market for a cake that tastes good and is decorated with some combination of naked bodies and body parts, sex acts, and naughty words, Sweet-N-Nasty is the place to go. There are generally a variety of cakes and cupcakes ready to go if you walk in the shop one day, but call a day or two ahead of time if you want to request a custom order. Be prepared to answer a detailed list of questions that may make you blush more than a questionnaire at the doctor’s office — size and skin tone of body parts, amount of body hair, and presence of certain squiggles of white icing are all pertinent details that must be ironed out when it comes to an erotic cake.
“Some people will say, ‘I don't want it too dirty,’ says Novak. “So maybe it’s a butt. Maybe it’s a butt with little daisy dukes on it. For other people, maybe it’s a big vagina. You’ve got to steer the clientele to what they’re looking for.”
The best part of the job, says Novak, is the creativity. “There’s always something fun, something new — a new product coming in or a crazy cake being made. I hire on talent and personality, so we have a lot of laughs. It’s a fun job. It’s a job, and it is work, and it can be messy, but we have a lot of fun. I work a lot with younger people, and that keeps me young. For the last 20 years, I’ve probably been doing more paperwork than I do creative stuff, while my staff does more of the creative stuff, but it’s still fun. I love to hear customers come in and laugh.” And her staff seems to like it, too — there’s been very little turnover. “My average employee makes it to 10 years,” says Novak.
When she’s not at Sweet-N-Nasty, Novak is indulging in “a million hobbies.” She loves to cook and has been taking cooking classes for years. She’s also an “exercise fanatic” and a certified firearms instructor.
“I teach a lot of women,” she says. “I belong to the Second Amendment Sisters and another group called Ladies Launching Lead. I teach women to defend themselves and target shoot. I know it’s guns, and it’s not for everybody, but I promote gun safety. Women are the fastest growing demographic in the sport.”
Whether it’s teaching women to shoot guns or stocking a welcoming adult bakery with vibrators in an era when most sex shops were inaccessible to those unwilling to travel into gritty areas, Novak has been making her own rules for decades. It all comes down to a sense of humor and understanding that not everybody is going to accept everything.
“We don’t mean to offend anybody,” says Novak, “but you’ve got to have a sense of humor. Life is hard. There’s all kinds of crazy stuff going on in the world. That’s all I’d like to get across, that people should lighten up a bit. Nobody should take us too seriously — or themselves.”