Skip to content

Crunch Time

How Tanya McCaskill-Dickens went from hairdressing to homeschooling mom to the creator of the Crunch Cheesecake

By Cassie Bustamante  

Photographs by Mark Wagoner

When a fire caused extensive smoke damage to her Florida salon 29 years ago, Tanya McCaskill-Dickens decided it was time for a change. With no frame of reference for North Carolina except for what she’d seen on The Andy Griffith Show, she packed up her bags, kissed her parents goodbye and headed to her new place of employment, Dudley Beauty.

These days, McCaskill-Dickens is owner of Savor the Moment Dessert Bar downtown, known for its trademarked Crunch Cheesecake. Nevermind that she’s also mother and teacher to the five children she and husband James, Greensboro’s deputy city attorney, adopted. How does one go from working in the haircare industry to owning a confectionary shop?

“I seize opportunities,” she says. Owning a dessert cafe wasn’t always the plan, but neither was moving to North Carolina. Or adopting more than one child. “I told my mom I was going to have a newspaper route and I was going to buy her a house and everything,” she recalls of her childhood with a laugh.

Instead of pursuing a career in the newspaper biz, McCaskill-Dickens set her sights on studying prelaw after high school. Sadly and suddenly, her brother was murdered the summer after graduation. “It kind of threw me off a bit,” she says. Changing course, she opted to enroll in cosmetology school.

After completion, she opened her own salon and was soon bringing in an income of six figures at just 23 years old. But that building blaze set her in motion. “I would have never left otherwise,” she says. Accepting an educator position with Dudley Beauty, she walked away from owning her own business.

Just a year into her employment, McCaskill-Dickens says she missed being an entrepreneur and approached the company’s founder and CEO, Joe Dudley. “He increased my salary by $20,000, but it wasn’t the money.” She reiterates, “It wasn’t the money.” That entrepreneurial itch still needed to be scratched. A couple months later, she once again spoke to Dudley, who, seeing her drive, offered her a salon on campus, which held her over for a little while.

Dudley, who passed away in February, became her most impactful mentor, an integral part of her entrepreneurial story, she says. “He is essential to it.” In fact, she says with a chuckle, sometimes “I open my mouth and out he comes.”

As a child, Dudley was believed to have limitations and was held back twice in his schooling. And yet, he persevered, eventually earning a degree in business administration from N.C. A&T State. He went on to build an empire, creating a business that still thrives today in Dudley Beauty.

Even though he was by any measure highly successful, he still faced challenges. McCaskill-Dickens recalls a coworker saying to Dudley, “I don’t want to be disrespectful, but I am just so embarrassed whenever you go speak because you don’t speak very well.” And Dudley’s response? Jokingly, he quipped, “I’d rather say ‘I is rich’ than ‘I am poor.’” She laughs heartily at the memory.

“He was a great communicator,” she says. And he invested in the enrichment and education of employees. Every morning at 6:30 a.m., seven days a week, Dudley hosted voluntary reading and discussions sessions on campus. “We were reading Napoleon Hill’s The Law of Success — all these amazing books —Think and Grow Rich.”

McCaskill-Dickens stayed at Dudley Beauty for just under four years, opting to once again own her own salon. At the time, her grandmother asked her, “You’re going to leave the company where you get a steady check?” But that confidence that had been instilled in her as a young entrepreneur — backed now by the mentorship of Dudley — made itself known. “There was something inside of me that said, ‘Yeah, that’s what I am going to do.’”

And that is exactly what she did do for another 12-and-a-half years until “retiring” in 2009, when she and James exponentially grew their family. At an early age, McCaskill-Dickens saw her grandmother foster lots of children and knew that when she married one day, she’d want to adopt a child. “We were going to have one kid,” she says. With James in private practice and her owning not one, but two salons, that was reasonable. “We weren’t trying to slow down like that.”

But the first photo Children’s Home Society sent to them for consideration was two little girls. And McCaskill-Dickens did what she always does — she seized the opportunity.

The couple then decided to add a boy to the family. “They called me and they said, ‘We have the perfect little boy for you . . . but he has a sister.’” So two children became four. And didn’t the singular boy need a brother? Of course. “That’s how that happened,” she says of their five adopted children.

In the role of stay-at-home, homeschooling mom, she put her entrepreneurial spirit to use in other ways. When her sons interest in robotics piqued and there was not a program to be found, McCaskill-Dickens started one, which went on to win two awards. And, after putting her leadership skills to use serving as president of a High Point homeschooling co-op, she started her own, plus a STEM co-op.

“We had a mission statement for our home school,” she says, noting the three facets of community service, entrepreneurship and faith. Why teach kids entrepreneurship? Confidence, she says, that can translate into anything.

While fostering that entrepreneurial spirit in her kids, something she’s written about extensively in her book, Raising Generational Entrepreneurs: Keys to Building a Legacy, she found herself cooking up a new business plan.

“I feel like God gives me these great ideas to do stuff, like in the middle of the night, and I don’t know how to turn that off,” she says. “So I just go with it.”

With her mom, who’d always been a baker and had moved here when McCaskill-Dickens’ father passed away, she launched Savor the Moment in late 2012 as a licensed in-home bakery, using her home’s second kitchen for business. “We started like that, kind of laissez-faire,” she recalls, setting up at the Piedmont Triad Farmers Market and taking on enough orders that allowed her to continue homeschooling. But a brick-and-mortar? That wasn’t the plan.

When former salon client Teresa Crawford, who owned a bakery, called to say she was retiring, McCaskill-Dickens wondered what that had to do with her. “Your mom loves to bake and you’ve got a built-in staff with all those kids,” she recalls Crawford saying. Crawford wanted McCaskill-Dickens to buy her out, a purchase that would include everything from the supplies to the location. She went to James for his opinion, expecting to be shut down. Instead, he suggested she give it a go. “Even then, I didn’t fully understand what that meant,” she says. “But what I did know, it was an opportunity.”

In 2017, Savor the Moment opened its doors on Coliseum Boulevard at Crawford’s former location, which featured a great parking lot as well as a party room. Because the kids were homeschooled, McCaskill-Dickens utilized the space to create an environment that was conducive to their education, hosting a chess club, a 4H club around entrepreneurship and homeschool holiday parties. While there, she and a friend, Penn Griffin assistant principal Charnelle Shephard, whose daughter had started a business at 14 making a squishy goo similar to Slime, launched an annual kidpreneur expo they still run today.

At the time, Savor the Moment was a traditional bakery, peddling custom wedding and birthday cakes. But when COVID descended upon the country in 2020 and people were requesting small and individual cakes for virtual weddings, McCaskill-Dickens quickly realized that her business could not sustain itself.

“OK, we’re going to do something different,” she recalls thinking. That something? A product that would set Savor the Moment apart and could be sold by the slice: its now trademarked Crunch Cheesecake. Make no mistake, this is not New York-style cheesecake. It’s a fluffier, creamier base perfected by her mom, “a mad chemist when it comes to baking.” On top of that, a layer of Sundae Cream, a white sweet cream she’d already been using in strawberry shortcakes. And the pièce de résistance? An element of crunch, inspired by a cake that was popular at the time, Strawberry Crunch Cake.

“And I tell you, it took off!” she says, noting the “support local” push that was a result of the pandemic. She and her staff started with just four pans, which produced eight slices each. “We were up until 2 o’clock in the morning, baking for the next day,” trying to meet the demand of customers. Not to mention the supply shortage the pandemic brought on. “I was spending half of my day running around,” she says, in search of eggs, butter and cream cheese.

And yet, McCaskill-Dickens continued to pound the pavement every day. “Because I know we have a good product,” she says. “And I am telling you right now, I know this product will be successful.” By the end of that year, the “Home of the Crunch Cheesecakes” relocated to its current downtown Davie Street spot, where there’s more foot traffic.

All of this, mind you, was done while McCaskill-Dickens was enrolled at N.C. A&T State. With five teens approaching university age, she wanted to instill in them the importance of earning a degree — and that meant finally earning her own in cultural studies. In December 2022, she walked the stage, Summa Cum Laude.

Currently, Savor the Moment puts out 800 Crunch Cheesecake slices a week with an expanded menu of 16 regular flavors, including nostalgic nods such as banana pudding and peach cobbler. McCaskill-Dickens’ personal favorite? White chocolate raspberry.

Plus, she says, inspired by favorite haunt Coldstone Creamery, “Let them build their own!”

Even with such a unique product and a loyal following, the struggle is getting people to simply give it a chance. She’s often met with replies of, “Oh, I don’t like cheesecake.” But in those victorious moments where future customers succumb and take a bite, McCaskill-Dickens says, “I have never not had anyone say, ‘Oh my God, this is different.’’

Different enough, in fact, that aside from having it trademarked, McCaskill-Dickens imagines turning Savor the Moment into a franchise. That dream prompted her to open a second location in High Point, closer to her home. And, as mentors have pointed out to her, if you want to create a franchise, you have to first show that it can successfully be done. So, in creating the High Point location, she’s created the model of what a franchise could look like. Next, she’s got her sights set on Durham.

Will McCaskill-Dickens ever slow down? “I retired in 2009 from a business and never thought I would start another business like this,” she says. “So the goal has been to leave a legacy, something my kids . . . would want to continue.” And even at that point, she admits, she has dreams of going into politics and making strides in the state’s foster care system.

At 54, just a decade away from so-called retirement age in America, she looks back on all of the “yeses” she answered with when opportunity knocked. “You don’t know where it’s going to lead you,” she says, but sometimes you just gotta take the leap.”  OH