On a summer morning in a compact Pflugerville kitchen, the scent of cinnamon is swirling around Sianni Dean. The aroma comes from trays upon trays of tightly coiled sweet rolls. Hours earlier, wet and dry ingredients were mixed into a sticky and glorious dough, and that dough turned into these fragrant, if naked, pastries.
To some rolls, Dean applies a glaze of traditional icing. But others will soon be transformed by the chef’s wildest imagination. When Dean’s at work, you might mistake her for a sort of hadron collider for desserts. Have you ever seen a peach cobbler turned into a roll? At Cranky Granny’s Sweet Rolls, anything is possible.
Staple desserts like banana pudding, cookies-and-cream ice cream, and strawberry shortcake are each remixed into the kinds of buns you savor on a special occasion. There are even savory twists, like a Buffalo chicken roll topped with blue cheese and ranch. Cranky Granny’s clearly stretches the definition of what a cinnamon roll can be.
As Dean, 24, says, “We’re not just a cinnamon roll company. We’re a nostalgia company.”
Customers come into the bakery at 16051 Dessau Road, Suite F, and remember the sweet rolls their grandmothers used to make, or they remember a special childhood treat from the mall food court, Dean says. Cranky Granny’s is built upon her own warm memories. It’s her love letter to the power of family, to self-determination, and to hard-fought space in the Central Texas food scene.
Dean came up with the idea for Cranky Granny’s when she was just a teenager. She enrolled in an entrepreneurship class at Willingboro High School in New Jersey when she was 15, and the teacher, Kyle McCray, a successful alum trying to give back, turned the course into a competition with a prize of up to $100,000 for the winning business plan.
“I didn’t win any of the years,” Dean says. But even in high school, She knew where she wanted to focus her blood, sweat, and tears: cinnamon rolls. At the time, national chain bakery Cinnabon didn’t have much market competition, she says, and rival company Cinnaholic was just starting to expand across the U.S.
Dean took a baking and pastry class at Willingboro High, and in 2014, she started working on recipes out of her mother’s 100-square-foot kitchen. She asked people what they liked and didn’t like about the sweet rolls they purchased elsewhere. Not enough frosting, some said. Too hard on the outside, others remarked.
At the time, she had a job serving frozen treats at Rita’s, where customers could order from dozens of flavors of Italian ice and everyone had their favorite variety. It inspired her: “That would be dope if we offered a variety of different cinnamon rolls,” she remembers thinking.
So in 2017, a month after graduating high school, Dean launched her own cinnamon roll business from home and found receptive customers in her neighbors — and a passion for sales within herself. At first, Dean sold sweet rolls at pop-ups, supplied other businesses, and did catering. In 2019, she moved in with her girlfriend, Aaliyah Rivera, and started operating out of their apartment.
The name Cranky Granny’s comes from Dean’s grandmother, Toya Hendricks, whose face adorns the logo. “Whenever I speak to her, she always tells me about how proud she is of me,” Dean says. Dean remembers spending time at her granny’s house, which was full of laughter and great food. There was no negativity there, she says, just connection with family and friends. Plus, Hendricks and the rolls have at least one thing in common. “She’s literally the sweetest woman you’ll ever meet,” Dean says, “but Granny does like to curse a lot.”
Dean didn’t perfect her recipe right away. When she started out, “honestly, the sweet rolls were coming out absolutely disgusting,” she says — dense, heavy, yeasty, and floury. “My granny tried, and she said it was good. I was like, ‘Granny, you don’t have to lie,’” Dean says with a laugh.
After visiting Austin in January 2020, Dean took a leap of faith and moved to the city that fall. In the early pandemic-stricken days, she sold rolls out of Northeast Austin sports bar Midtown Live.
In the spring of 2021, she opened her first physical store, an 826-square-foot space at the Domain, the upscale outdoor mall in North Austin. But the location was cursed with issues: It didn’t get enough foot traffic, and Dean had trouble retaining staff. As a result, Dean was the baker, cashier, janitor, bookkeeper, and marketer. It was unsustainable.
After a little more than a year, Dean shuttered the shop. She temporarily scaled back and sold rolls out of the now-shuttered Smokey Creek Cajun Bar and Grill in Round Rock from September 2022 until January 2023. Eventually, she found her current location in the northern suburb of Pflugerville, an upgrade at 1,500 square feet. She signed the lease days after her 24th birthday and opened on March 25.
Cranky Granny’s now has seven employees, including Rivera and Dean’s sister, Tynisha. Still, Dean is usually the first person in the door.
She has developed patience over her baking career and grown more comfortable experimenting. Mistakes turn into discoveries that turn into refinements, like with her glaze formula. Dean says the process reminds her of George Washington Carver’s innovations with peanuts.
“It was tweaking what it is that I was already learning in school, adding certain things in and taking certain ingredients out. That’s all a recipe is,” Dean says. “Of course, we all know how to make pancakes, but the way your granny may make a pancake and the way my granny may make a pancake is going to be totally different.”
A Cranky Granny’s sweet roll is, first of all, large. Bigger than a fist, assuming you are not Shaquille O’Neal. The roll is soft and bready throughout — so cushiony you could take a nap on it. The icing is thick, creamy, and generously slathered.
The banana pudding sweet roll is a burst of flavor, with actual banana slices, banana-flavored glaze, and vanilla-wafer crumbles blanketing the top like a meteor shower.
Dean keeps a running list of flavors she wants to try making, always adding on new ideas and customer suggestions. Recently, her 9-year-old niece proposed a raspberry cheesecake flavor. The store’s churro-flavored roll — topped with cinnamon sugar, caramel, and chocolate — was born out of wanting a Texas-inspired menu item.
She also wants the business to offer something that she didn’t always have growing up: representation.
As a kid, Dean didn’t see many models of success in the culinary world who were like her — young, Black, gay, and a woman. Running Cranky Granny’s means being proud of her identities and holding her head high. “I don’t water myself down for anything,” she says. “You get what you get with me.” If young Black girls and gay people can see themselves in her story, Dean thinks, maybe they’ll think that their dreams are possible, too.
In the next couple of years, Dean would like to expand. She has her eye on locations in different U.S. cities, including back home in New Jersey, and she’d like to get more into wholesale. Big picture, she sees Cranky Granny’s on a roll, with a bakery in every state.
Dean knows Cranky Granny’s is a destination.
“We’re a place where you’re going to go get that experience,” she says. “You’re going to go wait in that line for just a bit because you know that your sweet rolls are being prepared fresh for you right there in the back.”