Susan Wright and Jason Cox are not your average pair of siblings. For one, they actually get along. Secondly, they manage to get along while owning one of the more successful local businesses in northwest Corpus Christi.
The two are the founders and owners of S&J Bakery, often referred by customers by the first two initials of that name. Susan and Jason celebrated 15 years in business in November, a milestone they say is due in no small part to the loyalty shown by their customers and the concerted effort they put into being a part of the community.
The duo says they didn't even realize they had reached the 15-year anniversary, partly because of the hectic nature of the business during the Thanksgiving holiday.
"It was crazy busy at that time. Susan and I walked past each other and said, 'Happy Anniversary,' and that's it" Jason says with a laugh.
"It kind of snuck up on us," Susan says of the milestone. "But if it wasn't for our customers, we wouldn't be here."
The siblings first had the idea to go into business together after they "got tired" of their jobs. Susan, the older of the two, was a realtor at the time, and Jason had worked at a variety of places, including the River Hills Country Club.
They got wind of an auction for a Corpus Christi bakery going out of business, where a bunch of equipment would available for people to buy. The pair pooled together some money and made their way to the site of the sale.
"The auction started at 10 a.m., and we walked in about 9 a.m.," Jason says. "The guy opened the door and said, 'Look, you all are the first ones here and I'll be honest with you. I've sold everything out of here that's going to make me any money.' And he locked the door behind us and said, 'You've got everything here to start a bakery, except an oven and a mixer. You come up with $800 and it's all yours, but you have to have it out of here today.' So, we gave him $800 and we had everything in that whole building, except an oven and a mixer."
Having gone to the auction hoping to just come away with some supplies, Jason and Susan, both graduates of Tuloso-Midway High School, now found themselves in possession of an entire kitchen's worth of equipment. The duo immediately sprang into action and called on friends and family to help with the move.
"We called everybody we knew with a truck or a trailer and it took us all day," he says, adding all of the equipment filled two storage units and a garage.
They opened S&J Bakery in a 600-square-foot building near Tuloso-Midway Middle School on Nov. 17, 1995. They started out selling cakes and kolaches, the latter of which wound up being the most popular item on their menu.
"The kolaches kind of took over," she says. "Nobody else had any when we first started."
Business was tough at first, with the pair not having enough money to advertise in any local media and relying mostly on word-of-mouth. Their mother even worked with them for free, as well, manning the counter. Jason lived with Susan at the beginning, and the two would often struggle to make ends meet.
"We had one lady who had a standing order of 20 ham and cheese (kolaches). At that point, we would always make 24 ham and cheese (daily)," Susan says with a chuckle. "And we ate the four sometimes for dinner at night because they didn't sell. It was terrible."
During the first few years, hours were rough, too. The pair would begin baking as early as 3 a.m. to get everything ready for when the bakery opened at 5 a.m., and would go until closing time at 2 p.m. Then they would have to stay for a bit longer afterwards to clean up and get ready for the next day's shift. The fact that neither Jason nor Susan had families at the time made it a little easier, but not by much, Jason says.
After a while, though, business began to get a little easier. Being located near a school ensured that parents driving past the business would eventually stop in for a kolache or pastry in the morning. Before long, word had spread pretty quickly about S&J Bakery's kolaches and business began to pick up.
Eventually, they moved into a new 2,400-square-foot building, complete with a dining room, that is actually only a few feet away from their old location. Susan and Jason find humor in the fact that customers could not find the new, larger location despite the short distance.
"We made a 40-yard move from building to building and people could not find us," Jason says.
Despite the hours and hectic schedules, though, the two siblings say their love of cooking has always kept them motivated. Jason talks about getting up early in the morning as a kid to cook anything he could think of, while Susan talks about decorating cakes as early as 11 years old.
"I kind of self-taught myself how to decorate, and (Jason) used to watch-" Susan starts.
"Justin Wilson, all the time. The Cajun Cook," Jason finishes. "One day, I think my mom was working, and I was watching Justin Wilson. I called her and said, 'Mom, can I make this dirty rice?' And she goes, 'Yeah, that's fine. Do you have everything there or do you need to go to the store?' I said 'No, I've got everything. I already pulled it all out.' So she said, 'Yeah, you can make it.' Well, I called her back 15 minutes later and I said, 'Mom, I think I need to cut this recipe down a little bit.' She goes, 'Jason, do it exactly the way the man told you to.' I said, 'OK.' When she got home, I had three roasters full of dirty rice."
As children, the family would gather every Saturday night at the home of Jason and Susan's grandmother for a big meal. The pair looks back fondly at the memories of their grandmother forming every hamburger patty by hand and frying it in a pan. Food has always played a central role in bringing family together, and that tradition continues to this day for Susan and Jason.
They lament that more families don't do gatherings like those in today's era of social media and text messaging.
"It's sad," Jason says.
The two siblings are also still very close. They claim to fight very rarely, maybe once a year. Even then, apologies are usually forthcoming within a few minutes after the argument has ended. Their bond can also be seen in the fact that each has been married to their spouses for 10 years, with both weddings taking place mere months apart.
Jason, now 37, has three children with his wife, the oldest of whom is 18. Susan, 42, has two children with her husband. Placing the importance on family has always been a big part of the business, so Susan and Jason close the shop on weekends to give their employees that time with their own families.
The menu has also grown with the building, with various sandwiches and entrees making an appearance.
But the kolaches are still the best-selling item on the list. The morning after Susan and Jason's interview, a line is snaking around the inside of the building and customers are stocking up on the different types of kolaches, which are made with two types of sausage, along with the familiar ham and cheese.
Each kolache is still made by hand, just as they were when the bakery first opened.
Rick Barker, a resident of George West who commutes to Calallen for work, is a regular customer at S&J Bakery. Jason greets him as Rick waits in line.
"You guys getting a little busy in here?" Rick asks.
"A little bit. I hope it gets busier," Jason responds, bringing a laugh from Rick.
"It's good though," Rick says.
"Oh yeah - it's a blessing," Jason responds.
Bob Weatherford, who meets with friends every morning for coffee at S&J Bakery, says Susan and Jason are more than deserving of the success they have earned.
"They treat us like royalty here," he says.
Jason and Susan are grateful to have remained in business as long as they have and hope to stay that way for another 15 years.
The best part of their job comes when they reflect on the fact that many kids have come through the bakery and returned as adults after graduating from college and starting their own families.
"They used to come in and couldn't see over the counter," Susan says. "Now it's their kids who come in and are looking over that counter."
"There's lots of good memories in this place," Jason says.