AJ Baker, Owner & Chef, Sundae Cafe
A fine-dining experience not to be confused with an establishment exclusive to frozen treats, the Sundae Cafe team has spent nearly two decades transforming a humble snack shop into a destination for coastal flavors — both sweet and savory. Recently renovated, the space has taken on yet another layer of elevation in what could be considered its third life. The new updates are a direct reflection of the team’s downhome-upscale food philosophy.
At the unassuming strip mall location on Tybee Island’s 1st Street, owner and chef, AJ Baker, has an affinity for showcasing creative twists for Lowcountry classics, the freshest seafood and quality meat (he’s partial to a great steak). And since Southern hospitality would be remiss without libations, Sundae Cafe is ever dedicated to expanding their wine list and curiously exploring a range of craft cocktails.
On Culinary Beginnings:
I like to eat! I started working at MacElwee’s Seafood Restaurant on Tybee as a dishwasher when I was 13 years old and never stopped. I just continued to move up in the ranks there and then in other kitchens. I really enjoyed learning about food, and it sparked me to pursue a culinary degree and start my career. In 2003, my friend and business partner Kevin Carpenter (who passed away in 2015, and who I happened to meet at my first job at MacElwee’s) and I opened Sundae Cafe in what once was a sandwich and frozen yogurt shop, hence the name. We started with ice cream and sandwiches, and we had no staff the first year and a half. We slowly grew and expanded our menu, becoming a full-service restaurant.
On Influences and Inspiration:
While there isn’t any single person, I would say my teachers and chefs at culinary school and just living in Charleston while going to school really solidified my love of Lowcountry cuisine. I’m always trying to find what’s fresh, local and to take classic Southern dishes but do them just a bit different.
On Restaurant Renovations:
We gave it a fresh, more modern and cozier atmosphere to make sure the vibe in the restaurant reflects the vibe of the menu. New tables, new chairs, new lighting, new look to the bar. Everything. We have revolving art on the walls from five different female Southern artists (all of the art is available for purchase through a gallery owner). I am so happy with how it’s turned out. I’m most excited about the new bar. We opened it up and installed reclaimed wood. I think the floor and ceiling are pretty much the only things that are the same as before.
On Pandemic Challenges:
Adjusting to the rules and regulations for health and safety was challenging. We kept our dining room closed — which was a tough decision — but being so small and with no outdoor space, it felt like the right thing to do for our regulars. We were strictly to-go for a long time. Shorter staff, consolidated menus, the supply chain has literally changed everything. We are always changing things on the fly due to what’s available. That’s a choice we make because we will not lower our standards on quality.
On Summer Optimism:
There have been a lot of obstacles, a lot of hard times, a lot of sad times but a whole lot of great times, too. I am so grateful to have had almost 20 years at Sundae Cafe, and I look forward to even more in the future. We’re going to play it by ear and see what happens, but I always see us staying flexible. I mean, we started out with ice cream and sandwiches, so flexibility has certainly gotten us a long way!