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Check Up: Caroline Burum

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The proprietor of the late, lamented Toopees and her partner return with a new, sweet shop.

by Eric A.T. Dieckman

Caroline Burnum
Caroline Burnum: From two "P"s to two scoops

Ten years ago, Caroline Burum poured much of the community its first eye-opener of the day at her coffeehouse, Toopees. For me, getting back in touch with her was a thrill. As a starving young writer/performer in the late ’90s, my first inner Loop hovel was a ram-shackle open-air loft (the walls did not meet the ceiling) at an artists’ collective, TemplO, on Feagan. A friend and neighbor introduced me to Toopees, which became my first inner Loop hang, a real hotspot and brunch favorite (when I had the money for more than café au lait). Toopees has since closed and has been replaced by Divino, a unique Italian restaurant and wine bar started by friends of Burum’s. Though I occasionally visit this current incarnation—and can now afford a few bottles of wine—it’s difficult not thinking of the place in terms of what it used to be, a straight-friendly café brewing with diversity.

There’s a sweet end to this story as well: Burum’s partner, Carol Claverie, opened an ice cream shop in southwest Houston in October, where Burum shares the duties and continues to serve coffee drinks along with the frozen confections. Many Toopees regulars have found their way to Sugar Mountain Creamery.

Burum closed Toopees in 1999, when a friend died from cancer. “She was about the same age as me. Then my parents divorced several weeks after my friend’s death. They had been married for over 40 years. I started reevaluating everything. The way I had structured my business didn’t allow me to have a break. I didn’t feel like I could be supportive. I wanted to reach out to the relationships I had around me.” Burum found ways to get closer to the people in her life while still working in the food industry. She became a food broker by day and coached soccer for her nieces on weekends. She and Claverie started selling cobblers and other home-baked concessions during the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo. All along, she would think of other ways to rekindle her entrepreneurial spirit. “It’s like a disease,” she says. “I’ll be jogging in the morning and I’ll think, What can we do next?

When Claverie decided to open up Sugar Mountain Creamery, in part to have more kitchen space for their rodeo baking, Burum let her take the lead and assumed a behind-the-scenes supporting role. Understanding their roles, whether in their working life or in their personal relationship, has been key to their success as a couple, Burum says. “It’s kind of a running joke in the household. Even when we’re doing a simple task around the house, one of us will ask, ‘Who’s the lead in this project?’ I’m the lead with the rodeo, and I was lead in Toopees. She’s definitely the lead with Sugar Mountain. We’re both very independent. We want to bring something new to the relationship every day without any power struggles.”

Now that Burum’s nieces have grown older, one of them, Sophie, has taken a participa-tory role in the business. When Toopees was open, the then preschool-age niece would hang around and keep her aunt company. Now, at Sugar Mountain, the teenager can be found behind the counter. “Old Toopees customers come in and see Sophie and just come around the counter to give her a hug,”Burum says.

One of the ideas Burum came up with during one of those morning jogs is a family-oriented sports bar. “The second day after we sold Toopees, a friend called, saying, ‘I’ve already got the logo. Let’s do it.’ I’ve always flirted with the idea.” The more she thinks about the idea, the more she believes she will open it. Burum’s sports bar would focus on kids’ sports and kids’ teams during the day and offer a limited menu. Alcohol wouldn’t be available until late in the evening, when an outdoor volleyball court would open up for the “big kids.”

Another prospect: a few Sugar Mountain franchises if the first one succeeds. Until then, Toopees regulars like me looking to grab a cup of coffee and an ice cream cone can find Caroline, Carol, and Sophie at Sugar Mountain Creamery (26 North Braeswood at Chimney Rock, 713/283-7775). Stop by and have a scoop and taste the sweetness Burum has savored in her return.

Eric Dieckman profiled Stephen Stein in our December issue.

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