Jin Hee Sonu, owner of the West Valley's Purple Elephant Cakes, didn't plan to be a baker.
A graduate of Sogang University in Seoul, Korea, she began her career in public relations in 2001. Her family did not recognize baking as a profession.
“Korean parents expect you to work for a big-name company if you are in PR, or be a doctor or lawyer,” Sonu says. She did the corporate thing for a year, but realized she wasn't happy in the PR world. In her spare time, Sonu would visit new bakeries. She learned more about the act of baking and fell in love with it.
To pursue her dream of becoming a baker, Sonu moved to New York and attended the International Culinary Center (formerly The French Culinary Institute). Upon completing the program in 2004, she worked with top pastry chefs at Morimoto, Café Boulud, Gilt at the New York Palace hotel, and Morgans Hotel Group.
In 2010, Sonu opened her first bakeshop in Manhattan’s Upper East Side with an ICC classmate, Candy Tamano Iannelli. “Candy was from Manila,” Sonu says. “We bonded instantly in school and always joked about opening a business together.”
They named the bakery Purple Elephant Cakes after Sonu's daughter Annie's favorite toy. (Annie, now 14, is also a part of the bakery team.)
In 2011, Sonu's husband Scott moved to San Mateo to join his brother in business at a Taekwondo studio in the Bay Area. Sonu had just started Purple Elephant, and was torn for six months on whether to relocate, but eventually moved to San Mateo — Annie, bakery, and all. Sonu reopened and operated Purple Elephant there for five years.
Then Scott opened another Taekwondo studio on the west side of metropolitan Phoenix, moving the whole family again. Sonu's friends encouraged her to reopen her bakery in Scottsdale, but after analyzing the market, she determined there were not enough options for custom cakes in the west Valley.
And so the third iteration of Purple Elephant Cakes opened in Litchfield Park in 2017.
The bakery’s menus have changed as Sonu moved about the country. New York and San Francisco’s palates leaned more adventurous, while Arizona customers favor traditional flavors. (Purple Elephant Cakes currently offers a variety of cupcakes, cake pops, French macarons, and gelatos, as well as custom cakes.)
Sonu also invites her customers to suggest flavors. As a result, mazapán — a Mexican sweet paste, similar to marzipan but with peanuts instead of almonds — is an option. She's also made a popular horchata macaron.
More recently, as COVID-19 ransacked the food industry, Sonu started collaborating with other local business. She carries products from Absolutely Delightful Local Arizona Honey and Miss Tiff’s Caramel and Confections in her space.
Hope Mendrin of Hope’s Artisan Bread started selling bread out of the Purple Elephant space in early July. “I wanted to support a woman-owned business, and Hope has tripled her business since starting,” Sonu says.
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Sonu will also soon share her space with Ruben Trujillo, owner of Café Emporos.
Trujillo got hooked on coffee while teaching English in South Korea. While on an apprenticeship at a coffee shop for three years, he became a certified barista, learned to roast his own coffee, and create latté art (as in 3D animals — way beyond leaves and hearts). Sonu says she loves his coffee, and prefers to use his product in her baking when the recipe calls for coffee.
Starting in September, Trujillo will be serving coffee at Purple Elephant from 6 to 11 a.m.
For hours, orders, and more information, see the Purple Elephant Cakes website.