"Come on in!” Ella Russell calls out from behind the counter, greeting a visitor to her Third Ward bakery, located just inside the Eldorado Ballroom on Elgin. “Welcome to Crumbville!” Before she knows it, the visitor’s swept in for a smile and a hug. Russell embraces everyone, even strangers—especially strangers—drawing them out of their shells and into discussions, even if they’re just discussions about which cookie they’ll inevitably purchase: her best-selling neon-pink Cookie Minaj (strawberry-oatmeal with white chocolate chips), her vegan Oreo, or a “stuffed cup,” a plump cupcake with a cookie baked inside.
“They come for the cookies,” Russell is fond of saying, “but they stay for the conversation.”
This current incarnation of Russell’s shop started out as an installation—albeit an unusual one—for Project Row Houses (PRH), the community-based non-profit in the Third Ward whose ever-growing campus includes the Eldorado. Typically, the organization’s row houses serve as short-term studios for artists, who create and display photography, video, textiles, sculptures and other, rarely edible, pieces.
But Round 43—featuring the 43rd group to take over the houses, from October 2015 to February 2016—was a departure. The theme was “small business, big change.” The idea: giving space and support to local entrepreneurs. The goal: creating what the non-profit calls “community anchors” through commerce. Russell had long been known in the neighborhood for her popular line of Edubalicious baked goods, which she’d been selling online and in area salons, boutiques and barbershops since 2008. PRH asked her to participate, pairing her with local sculptor Anthony Suber.
From the beginning, the partnership felt destined. “We found out we both had family members who had general stores in East Texas,” says Galveston-born Russell, 42, a single mom with a million-watt smile and a habit of wearing one, large, artistically striking earring in her left ear. Soon, the two had transformed the house into a modern general store selling the entire range of Edubalicious treats. They called it Crumbville.
During its five-month run, Crumbville became a kind of community center. PRH invited artists to host live performances, book signings and film screenings there, and Third Ward residents began to frequent the place for reasons other than buying a couple of cookies. The only problem? Closing day came too quickly. “Toward the end,” she remembers, “I started getting sad.”
Opening her own standalone operation had been a longtime dream for Russell (though she originally envisioned that operation as a food truck). It sustained her through a series of setbacks: leaving her job with AT&T, living on a friend’s couch for nine months with her son while she figured out a way for baking to pay the bills, forfeiting a prime storefront opportunity when one of her baked goods' biggest vendors—Eat Gallery on Almeda—lost its lease. Now, Crumbville was set to crumble away too.
But PRH had other plans. As Round 43 was ending, a spot opened up in the historic Eldorado Ballroom—which was donated to PRH in 1999, and which has since been sectioned into multi-use spaces for local businesses—and the non-profit invited Russell to move in. Last May, the build-out kicked off, with Suber and other friends helping to design and decorate the space, and the shop had its grand opening in October.
“You’ll say someone’s done you wrong, but God’s doing you a favor,” Russell is fond of saying now, admiring the charming new storefront with its gleaming concrete floors, rustic accent wall, and shelves stocked with her stuffed cups and vases full of wildflowers. There’s no wi-fi, “intentionally,” says Russell, because she still wants conversations to happen here, in the spirit of her PRH installation. And it seems only fitting that the revamped Emancipation Park across the street is also set to make its debut in January.
“I see this being the place for kids coming up to connect to their childhood,” says Russell of her new shop. “It’s going to be a part of somebody’s history. They’ll be able to say, ‘That place, Crumbville, there’s history in the baking.’”