Sandy Bradley has held many titles in her life, from daughter to mom to faithful employee. Now, she can add “the Greatest Baker” to that list.
In December 2020, Bradley was named the top baker out of 20,000 contestants internationally. As a grand prize, Bradley will receive $10,000 cash, a feature in the July/August 2021 issue of Bake From Scratch magazine, and a trip to Stuffed Puffs headquarters to meet CEO Michael Tierney. The competition collected $368,757.70 in donations for the organization No Kid Hungry, which was then dispersed to every state. Bradley says that the charity aspect is what pushed her to promote herself more.
But the journey to being crowned the Greatest Baker has been a long one, full of valuable lessons, sweet victories and constructive defeats.
Bradley has been baking since she was 4 years old when she received an Easy-Bake Oven. Born and raised in Valley View, just south of Jonesboro, Bradley had grown up with a deep love and admiration for her mother and her mother’s culinary talents.
But it’s Christmas of 1965 that is most vivid in her memory.
“My mother, who was an excellent cook and baker, was a stay-at-home mom,” Bradley recalls. “She set up my oven in the kitchen, pulled up a step stool to our kitchen island, gave me a bowl, and said that she was going to show me how to make cornbread in my oven. I was game for that, and I watched her, and I was trying to copy what she did.”
Bradley recalls her first cooking lesson with a laugh.
“My dad came home from work and was upset and puzzled as to how I was allowed to play with a 5-pound bag of cornmeal,” Bradley says. “Meanwhile, I was watching the little oven as Mom and Dad are talking, and mom is cleaning up my mess. My mom explained that the only way that I would learn properly was to experiment and try again. My mom let me bake and learn from my mistakes.”
As Bradley grew up, baking gradually fell to the wayside. But as an adult, she fell in love with baking again. Bradley moved to Little Rock in the 1980s to work on a political campaign. That’s where she met Roy, the love of her life. Soon, they were married, and Bradley stayed in the capital city.
Bradley notes that when the two were newlyweds, they lived paycheck to paycheck. But an advertisement for a cooking competition in the then Arkansas Gazette caught Bradley’s eye — especially the $500 prize.
“At that time, I was trying to come up with more ways to bring in income for our household,” she says. “I figured that if there was something that I was good at and there was a chance that I’d make money with it, then it was worth a try.”
Bradley, however, had no previous competition experience. She took to reading the rules repeatedly in earnest. Upon walking through the door, however, Bradley recognized that she was in trouble.
“When I walked in to turn my dish in, I quickly realized that I was out of my league. Folks were elaborately decorating their spots and had beautiful typed recipe cards. I promptly found the nearest trash can and threw my recipe away. But it wasn’t the end of the world for me. There was still something to be gained from this,” she recalls. “I went around with my notebook and started looking at every single entry so I could better understand this cooking contest world. People took things to another level. I realized from that day that the rules are just a starting point in a cooking contest. You really have to read between the lines. I listened to the judges’ critiques and came away inspired to do another cooking contest.”
Bradley began entering into local cooking contests with the Arkansas State Fair. She walked away with several prizes. With more wind in her sails, she made her entry for the third and final day of competitions at the State Fair and continued winning. Bradley moved on to winning state contests and traveling all over the country. She says that it didn’t matter to her whether or not she won the national contests — she was just glad to have the opportunity to travel with her husband.
“I was able to fulfill bucket list goals and places to see by traveling for competitions,” she says. “I went to a competition in California. I’d always wanted to see the Sequoia National Forest, and they took us there when we went. When you’re young, it is an incredible way to be hosted and to get around.”
Bradley won the state chicken recipe contest and went to Atlanta. She began participating in international competitions. She won the Williams Chili Seasoning contest and won an egg recipe contest, despite the fact that she doesn’t eat eggs.
But from 1995 to 1996, Bradley’s whole world suddenly changed.
“My mom passed away very suddenly when she was 68. Then, I learned two months after that, that I was pregnant. I had been married for seven years — we didn’t think that we could have kids,” Bradley shares. “I still worked in the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce. Cooking contests took a backseat to family. I hadn’t really done anything in the cooking contest world, and it had changed a lot.”
Bradley made another big life change and joined the McLarty Companies, where she has been for 14 years. Bradley describes the job as “probably one of the best things in my life that’s ever happened.”
As her daughter, Lauren, grew up, Bradley would occasionally enter cooking contests with her as a team. They always placed well, but Lauren found cooking competitions to be stressful, citing that cooking in front of people while being closely watched made her uncomfortable. The family competitions didn’t reignite Bradley’s desire to cook competitively, since it was no longer about the money. Rather, they were great ways to spend time together.
Cooking with her daughter helped Bradley pass on the important lessons that she once had to learn. Having an idea, testing it, tweaking it and remaking it was a process that had been cultivated in Bradley’s family for generations. Just as they had picked up steam, 2020 happened.
“I started posting pictures of my Great Dane, Jake, on Facebook to cheer people up and let them know that I was doing OK. Then, I’d post pictures of whatever I’d baked,” she says. “People would show me a picture of something and challenge me to bake it. I would, and I’d leave it on the porch for them to pick up.”
She began to relax in the evenings by accepting the challenges of her friends by baking salted caramel cheesecakes, lemon blueberry cakes, chocolate raspberry cakes and other delicacies.
One day, everything changed when a friend sent Bradley a link.
“Someone sent me a link to the Greatest Baker,” she says. “They had nominated me. The next thing I know, I get an email requesting that I fill out an application.”
Bradley didn’t think that the application was real and that if it was, didn’t think that it would end up being that big of a deal. She filled it out quickly before bed, included a few pictures, and sent it off.
“I didn’t read the fine print. I didn’t know that more than 20,000 people had been chosen, and that it was international,” Bradley admits.
The virtual competition broke down all of the competitors into groups with several hundred people. Bradley never really told anyone that she was in the competition. Her daughter knew, and her daughter promoted it on Facebook, but it was a busy time of the year for Bradley, so she was more concerned about work than the competition. As Bradley moved further up the leaderboards, though, she began to pay more attention.
“It didn’t get serious with me until I got notified that I was in the Top 32 out of 20,000. My daughter came down the stairs and told me about my placement. I hate promoting myself, so she and our friends began promoting me,” Bradley says.
Then, her coworkers got wind of the competition.
“A few of my coworkers saw the Facebook posts and picked up on it and started sharing it,” she says. “It made a huge difference. I got into the Top 8, and it started going viral among friend groups.”
When Bradley realized the potential impact that her promotion and winning could have, she began to work hard toward victory.
“Someone local picked up on the fact that it [the Greatest Baker competition] benefits the local hunger alliance. The federal one grants money to each state. I want to say that in 2020 they received $1.3 million in grants from this entity. It’s hard for me not to love an organization that helps hungry kids to be fed. This contest turned into a mission for me. People embraced the idea, and I got into the Top 4.”
Bradley ended up sharing the news with her boss when she needed to schedule a time slot for a photographer to come visit in the event that she won.
“I had not brought this up to my office and Mr. McLarty,” she says. “I didn’t think that I was going to win. I didn’t even think that I was going to place. I got an email, and it said that we need a photographer to come to my house next week to take a picture of me and some items that I make in case I win. I needed to let Mr. McLarty know. He said that he didn’t know that I liked to bake. I said that I do, it’s just not what I do here. We laughed, and he was so congratulatory, wanting to know what he could do to support me. The company was extremely supportive and nice.”
Bradley says that the final week of the competition was very intense.
“I was flip-flopping between first and second all night,” she remembers. “The community and friends and coworkers all started sharing and went into overdrive — it was mind-boggling. I couldn’t see everyone that was voting and donating, but I could see glimpses of it. I didn’t know who I was really competing against. I started looking at the profiles — two of the four were professional bakers, very highly trained, with beautiful work. Another girl was a superstar on TikTok. She was a sweet little lady from Orlando. I really liked her. One of the ladies was extremely artistic. And I was thinking, ‘What in the heck am I doing here with my turtle cheesecake?’ Mentally, I went back to my first contest: I’m out of my league.”
Bradley was content to be in the Top 4, but her family and friends wouldn’t settle after coming so far. It was “Team Sandy” that took it to the next level. When the contest reached its final hour and everything was settled, Bradley was crowned the Greatest Baker. But Bradley doesn’t consider the victory to be hers alone.
“I didn’t win — the team won. Most importantly, No Kid Hungry was the winner of this contest. I think about the number of children that will be touched by this, and they are the winners,” Bradley says, tearing up before adding with a laugh. “I owe a lot of people cookies and cakes and pies.”
Kathy Webb, executive director of the Alliance, says, “As the lead No Kid Hungry partner in Arkansas, the Alliance is very grateful for the support of Sandy Bradley and the Greatest Baker competition in the fight against childhood hunger. The $368,757 donation to the No Kid Hungry campaign, raised during the competition, will allow No Kid Hungry to continue helping children and their families access healthy meals and nutrition education during an incredibly difficult time.”
Bobbi McDaniel, Alliance SNAP outreach advocate, says, “I am excited for Sandy and for the awareness this brings to issues of hunger. The No Kid Hungry campaign connects families and kids who need meals with the federal nutrition programs that provide them, and I’m grateful that the Alliance’s SNAP Outreach team has been able to facilitate connections to SNAP and P-EBT for families in need during the pandemic.”
Bradley doesn’t know where her love of cooking will take her from here, but she looks forward to receiving the prized opportunities from winning the contest and helping nonprofits, which took a serious hit during 2020. Additionally, she looks forward to continuing to bond with her family and the community that has played such a pivotal role in her life over these last few months. And she especially looks forward to carrying on the legacy that her beloved mother passed down to her.
Bradley was just a young child when she and her family squeezed through a packed church in Jonesboro. The family had joined the rest of the townsfolk for the funeral of a notable member in the community.
“This person wasn’t a politician or a preacher. This person was a middle-class, normal person who worked hard every day, who had a wonderful family and was a good soul. The church was just packed, and there were almost more flowers than people,” Bradley recalls. “We sat there, and Mom glanced around as they were bringing in chairs. Mom leaned over to Dad and me and said, ‘I so wish this person knew just how much they were loved.’ I quickly replied, ‘I hope they do too.’”
Bradley pauses to reflect.
“I can honestly tell you, from this contest, just how much I am loved. I am just humbled by this experience. It makes me know that, even in 2020 when things were bad, people were still good and able to come together and care. Nowadays, more often than not, I remember when my mom told me that. And I can only think, ‘I know,’” Bradley whispers. “I know.”