Sweet Cheats, a dessert shop and bakery in Atlanta's Cabbagetown neighborhood, isn't exactly a place you'd serendipitously stumble upon. Getting to the bakery requires a good bit of meandering through Cabbagetown's maze-like network of narrow, one-way streets, lined with the shotgun cottages that once housed employees of the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill. But if you're lucky enough to make all the right turns, you may accidentally find yourself at the front doors of a rather inconspicuous bakery and dessert shop with excellent cake pops and an even better backstory.
When you walk inside Sweet Cheats, you'll probably notice three things: the overwhelming scent of buttercream frosting hanging in the air; the display case packed with an array of outrageous, towering desserts that make your average cupcake look like a kale smoothie by comparison; and the handful of medals and trophies tucked away on a top shelf, featuring the shapely physique of an extraordinarily muscular, lean woman sporting a very small swimsuit.
Knowing that the woman behind this little shop of indulgences once spent the majority of her waking life rigorously training in the gym and sticking to an incredibly strict diet doesn't make a lick of logical sense. But it does make a good story.
Six years ago, Shirley Hughes Tubbs was living and breathing fitness. She was prepping 20 pounds of cod each week, sticking to a militantly strict diet prescribed by a trainer, and clocking upwards of 15 to 20 hours a week in the gym. At the peak of her training, her body fat percentage hovered somewhere around 11 percent, and mealtime was signaled not by hunger or cravings, but by an alarm clock that rang out every few hours. Tubbs was in the height of competition mode as a female figure competitor—an exhibition of physique that prizes exceptional muscle definition, leanness, and minimal body fat, all of which competitors demonstrate by strutting and pivoting onstage in Swarovski crystal-adorned bikinis and stilettos.
But nowadays, Tubbs spends her time dipping cake pops and assembling cheesecakes smothered in white chocolate. Which begs the question: how the hell does someone go from practically living at the gym and subsisting on baked cod to shilling red velvet cheesecake for a living?
It all started at the gym. When Tubbs first stepped inside the weight room in 2007, she had no grand plans for the stage: she was just trying to lose a few pounds. Before long, a stranger approached her, asking if she was training for a show. "I didn't know what they were talking about," Tubbs tells me. "But I went home, looked up some of these girls she'd mentioned that were competing, and thought to myself, I could do that." It wasn't long before she was stepping onto the stage for the first time, placing first in her novice division and second in the open. That jolt was all she needed. "I was all in," she says. "Once you do it, and you get the bug, you're done."
Immediately afterward, Tubbs began training alongside thirty other fellow female competitors under the direction of a professional trainer, Roc Shabazz. He oversaw not just their gym activity, but their entire daily nutritional regimen, tweaking their ultra-precise formula every four to six weeks based on how their bodies reflected the food intake. Tubbs' diet was rigid, to say the least. "Once I got to training, I'd eat a quarter-cup of oatmeal. I'd then train for an hour, do cardio for about an hour, drive an hour back to my office, go through probably two more hours of work, then prep for my second meal, which was usually four ounces of cod and asparagus," she says. "Another three hours later, around lunchtime, I'd probably do four ounces of cod again, with asparagus, but if I was lucky, I'd be able to have maybe a quarter-cup of brown rice. And then by 3 PM, I'd probably be repeating my second meal." This would go on throughout the duration of the training season, sometimes stretching from March through November. It was, for a woman who loves food, a special brand of hell.
Of course, it came with all sorts of challenges: the expense, the planning and prep-work, the strategy of navigating get-togethers at restaurants by slowly sipping Crystal Light and bringing her own fish filet, packed in her purse. But for Tubbs, one of the hardest obstacles was sticking to all of this while attempting to stifle a pretty raging sweet tooth. "That was probably one of the hardest parts," she says. "Those first couple weeks are horrible. Your body's going through a total sugar withdrawal." For Tubbs and her teammates, sugar was considered the ultimate dietary nemesis. That explains why she and her fellow competitors went completely balls-to-the-wall on dessert the instant they stepped off the stage at a show.
After their individual competitions, Tubbs says, the teammates often celebrated by giving each other gift bags stuffed to the brim with junk food. "We'd stuff Snickers bars, potato chips, anything you could imagine," Tubbs tells me, adding that the protein bars being sold on-site were pretty much the last thing she wanted after months of deprivation. "I'd be raiding the vending machine." But eventually, struggling with her own strict budget in the midst of the recession, Tubbs decided to skip the bulk candy-buying and make her own homemade cupcakes for her teammates instead. They were a huge hit. "They tripped out over them," she says. Those cupcakes, made with full-fat milk, real butter, and loads of that sweet, sweet sugar, were like a drug—and Tubbs was suddenly the fitness community's underground hookup.
Within a week, strangers were calling her at her home, asking her to bring a batch to the next competition. "Within a month to six weeks," she says, "I went from training five days a week to one day a week because I'd stacked so many orders. That's when I decided, 'OK, maybe I'm onto something here.'" A few months later, she was delivering an order of 4,000 cupcakes to her sport's equivalent of the Super Bowl: the Arnold Schwarzenegger Classic in Columbus, Ohio. It was there, pumping out the last 2,000 in a friend's home kitchen,that she realized she could leave the competitive circuit behind for a life of cupcakes and cake pops.
I ask her if she ever felt like she was living a double-life. "Absolutely," she says. "I was breathing in powdered sugar, and caught myself wondering if it counted as cheating." Shortly after taking out a lease on her space—a 200-square-foot nook with just enough space for a cash wrap and a display case—Tubbs decided to leave the competition world behind.
The over-the-top treats sold at Sweet Cheats are an amalgam of everything Tubbs craved during her training mode, but couldn't touch with a ten-foot pole. "I would say 90 percent of the flavor combinations came from cravings when I was dieting," she says. She points out a seven-layer bar, stacked with coconut, walnuts, graham crackers, chocolate chips, butterscotch chips, condensed milk, and toasted coconut on top. "It was everything I couldn't have. So I put it all in one bar." Each dessert is over-the-top in its own way; representative of all the indulgences which Tubbs and her teammates were forced to ignore for months on end. "If I get one cheat meal, I'm going all in," she explains. "And I don't want anything that's fake, or gross. I want real butter. Real, whole milk… don't give me skim. Just give me all of it."
Now, Tubbs is constantly developing new recipes, placing catering orders, and generally keeping up with the daily roller coaster of running a small bakery. She's also no longer competing. I ask her if she misses it. "Well, I'm no longer a size zero," she says, laughing. "But I can't imagine going through that, ever again." Talking with her, you can tell it's a part of her life that's happily locked in the past, yet isn't easy to leave behind. As she shares stories from her days as a competitor, she flips through photos on her phone, but close-ups of frosting-drenched baked goods now outnumber images of her ripped physique. She says she recently met another local small business owner who also used to compete. "We were saying, isn't it amazing how we can have as many cocktails as we want? But when we wake up in the morning, we're like, 'Oh God, these jeans don't fit.'"
I asked Tubbs if she's happier now, despite no longer winning medals or sporting miniscule bikinis in front of thousands of spectators. "Oh, yeah," she says without hesitation. "I mean, I loved the way my body looked. I wish you could have that and not have to be so rigorous in training, but it's all or nothing." And it's not just the deprivation that sucked. The depressing psychological ramifications that come with her past lifestyle totally warp one's relationship with food, reducing it in one's mind to the most basic fuel—nothing more than a utility. "You're just thinking, OK, when's my next meal? And then the alarm goes off again," she says.
For some athletes who already have that utilitarian relationship with food, this isn't problematic. For Tubbs, it was part of her life she was no longer willing to give up. "I love food too much. I love entertaining, I love going out, and, well, I work in a bakery," she says. "Your priorities change. And mine have changed."
Despite making her exit from the figure competition world, to this day, Shirley's still the go-to sugar hook-up for a lot of her former peers. She tells me that the last competition for Nationals, which took place at Atlanta's Hyatt, resulted in 17 deliveries from her shop to the venue. "Because once someone sees someone else eating it, they want to know where it came from. And I ship all over the country, so when the Arnold or the Olympiad happens, I still get my hardcore fans saying, 'I need my dozen.'"
Yes, even though she's effectively swapped out a life of diets and deadlifts for one of sugar and flour, Tubbs is still maintaining her status as trafficker of sweets to some of the healthiest people in the country.
Perhaps the biggest difference between her past and present lives? She definitely doesn't eat cod anymore.