ELLSWORTH, Maine — During summer, unattended roadside stands with neatly stacked bundles of wood or freshly picked vegetables are a common sight in Maine. But cheesecake sold on the honor system is something entirely different.
Brenda Ledezma doesn't like to sit still. After her kids moved out she needed something to do. That is on top of working as a bartender with 12-hour shifts, three days a week. Brenda thought about getting chickens but landed on cheesecake instead.
"I just love to cook," Brenda explained. She turned what used to be a craft room off the back of her small home into a licensed kitchen equipped with two mixers and four household ovens. Brenda started making cheesecakes and selling them to people she knew in 2013. Often her customers could not pick the cakes up when she was home so she slipped them into her garage cooler and people left their money.
"I told my husband, I said I’m gonna put single slices out there and see what happens. He was like, you can’t do that," Brenda said. Her husband, Andre Rodriguez, was initially worried about theft, but all his worry has long since been laid to rest.
Brenda is known around town as Momo.
"A lot of people don’t know my real name," she said. Brenda got the nickname which stands for "motor mouth" from a former boss who remarked on her fast-paced speaking style which matches her never-sit-still personality. And the name stuck.
Over the years demand has grown for Momo's cheesecakes so much that her sister, Nadine Leach Barnes, helped her build the pastime into a business. Momo started selling single and whole cheesecakes to anyone who stopped by her garage entirely on the honor system, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Momo and Nadine cook close to 400 cheesecakes a week, two at a time.
"I don’t want to do it in bigger quantities because I don't want to take away from the flavor," Momo explained as she continued to bake. She makes all of her 47 flavors in five household ovens because that is what she started with, and she is worried if she changed anything it would impact the quality of the cheesecake.
Momo's husband delivers the cheesecakes to more than 25 locations where they are sold including restaurants, markets, and campgrounds, and he does anything else his wife or sister-in-law needs.
"I just ask her what do you want and how do you want it," Andre said with a smile. "It's the best job I ever had."
Momo's niece helps with the slicing of hundreds of cheesecakes weekly, turning her business into a full family affair. Five coolers in her newly renovated garage get wiped out daily, Nadine says.
Michelle Bonin drove an hour from Blue Hill to visit Momo's Cheesecakes after learning about it on Facebook.
Bonin picks out a slice for her husband and one for herself and then puts her cash in a small, red tin box next to a guest book.
"I was surprised that it's the honor system," Michelle said before leaving for her hour-long ride home.
The garage cheesecake business attracts people from all walks of life and all over the world, who leave sticky notes all over the garage walls.
Fishermen buy whole cakes at 3 a.m. and take them out on their boat, hospital workers stop by in the middle of the night, school buses stop after games, and plow trucks jam the parking lot when it's snowing, according to Momo and Nadine.
"We have people that's drinking, they come from the local bars, and they come in here. And lots of times, they forget to pay 'cause they're drinking. So they'll see me out in public and say, 'Hey, Momo! I forgot to pay you last night.'"
Momo isn't worried about people leaving IOU's as long as they come back and settle their ticket.
But it is her and her family's unwavering faith in their community that is perhaps why her honor system clientele just continues to grow.
"It’s just nice to trust and it’s nice to be trusted," said Momo.