Harith Razaa, owner of Comfort Desserts Reimagined on Dempster Street (Photo by Adina Keeling)

Harith Razaa only wanted to do two things with his life: own a bakery and become a florist. His parents disapproved, so he went to college at the University of Wisconsin and went on to work in radio, health care, government, information technology, and even opened up his own shrimp company. 

Those jobs earned him leadership positions and made him money, but they weren’t fulfilling, said Mr. Razaa. Now, nearly 70, he is finally opening the bakery he always dreamed of. 

At Comfort Dessert Reimagined, Mr. Razaa greats all his customers with a smile. “Everyone who walks through that door is more important than me,” said Mr. Razaa. 

The bakery’s walls are painted a vibrant orange color, and fresh flowers spring from glass vases. Display cases brim with desserts, and music dances through a speaker. One of the best parts of owning his own bakery, Mr. Razaa said, is playing whatever music he wants, which for him, could be anything from jazz to Billie Eilish. 

Located at 517 Dempster St., Comfort Dessert Reimagined sells only five types of dessert: pie, bread pudding, sheet cake, trifle, and cobbler. But don’t be fooled: Mr. Razaa cycles through 28 types of bread pudding. And for each, he bakes a unique loaf of bread. 

Mr. Razaa said he refuses to charge more than $5 for his desserts. He said anyone paying that much for sweets is getting ripped off, and he wants his desserts to be affordable. Mr. Razaa also refuses to sell brownies or cookies because he said other coffee shops and bakeries do it better. He admires his neighboring shop owners, and because he does not make the same desserts they do, he isn’t a threat to their businesses, said Mr. Razaa. 

“I’m surrounded by great neighbors,” said Mr. Razaa. He bought his gym shoes from next door, and said he wants to serve on the local school board. Mr. Razaa chose this spot for his bakery because of the great location and friendly community. 

Mr. Razaa said he does not care if the bakery doesn’t bring in much money, he just wants to make people happy by being cheerful, respectful, and selling desserts. He considers himself a people pleaser, and making other people happy gives him purpose. “I want people to be happy,” said Mr. Razaa. “That’s what we’re in – we’re in the happiness business.”  

A “Broke, But Never Poor” Family

Mr. Razaa said he started home baking 40 years ago. He grew up watching his mother and grandmother bake, so he was accustomed to being in the kitchen, he said. Every day, his mother and grandmother took the train down from Kenosha or Zion to cook and clean for wealthy families in the North Shore. On days when they could not find a babysitter, Mr. Razaa came with them, watched them bake, and if he was lucky, got a chance to lick out the bowl, which was especially exciting when brownies and chocolate cake were on the menu, he said. 

Mr. Razaa’s grandmother was the head of the food service for what is now called Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Zion, he said. Cancer patients were administered platinum-based treatments back then, which led many of them to lose their sense of taste and smell. Mr. Razaa’s grandmother knew how to cook curries and heavily-spiced dishes that the patients could taste, so all the patients loved her, said Mr. Razaa. 

Mr. Razaa’s parents and his grandmother worked to support a large family. Mr. Razaa has 11 sisters and four brothers, and although his family was broke, they were never poor, he said. Poor is a state of mind, broke is a situation, and because his family members never felt like victims, they were never poor, said Mr. Razaa, 

“Black people have been victimized,” he said, “but not all of us look at it the same way.” As a Black man, Mr. Razaa said that no Black person looks at the hardships they face as a positive experience, but some perceive these challenges as an obstacle that will make them a stronger person, and that is how his own family viewed their own experiences. 

Mr. Razaa’s mother was the moral compass of his family, the grand organizer, and the arbiter of tasks, said Mr. Razaa. “There were so many kids in my family. Everybody had a job,” he said. “My job was toast man.” For breakfast, his father bought two loaves of bread, but Mr. Razaa’s family only owned one two-slice toaster, so his job involved toasting bread and buttering the previous two slices while they were still hot, he said. To this day, Mr. Razaa said his family teases him, calling him “toast man.”

An Expiration Date for the Owner

When Mr. Razaa told his family he planned on finally opening a bakery, they were shocked and incredulous. But Mr. Razaa said he does not plan on doing this forever. In fact, in about 18 months, maybe two years, he wants to pass on Evanston Comfort Desserts to a young woman, preferably a young woman of color. 

“I’m only going to do it for a while,” he said. “They won’t find me dead in the kitchen with a whisk in my hand.”

Mr. Razaa is not sure what he wants to do when he retires from Comfort Desserts Reimagined. Maybe write a book, or learn to play the saxophone, he said.

Adina Keeling is a photojournalist and reporter, covering city news, sustainability, schools, and art. She also investigates mental health systems and environmental injustices in Evanston, and puts together...

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