VERNON WILKINS travels the city on buses, subways and foot, selling $1 carrot cupcakes he bakes from scratch, using a recipe he has made nearly every day - the exact same way - for the past 35 years.
"I never ever, ever, ever changed or skimped on my recipe," he said. "I buy fresh products every day. I go to the market every day. One of my favorite sayings in life is, 'If it's not broke, don't fix it,' and that's how I managed to be successful so long."
In the beginning, Wilkins, 60, sold carrot cake in his West Philly store. But when the business folded in 1996, he began selling the cupcakes on public transit and to West Philly store owners who nicknamed him the "Carrot Cake Man."
"I love the cake, especially the icing," said Scott Lee, owner of Lee's Deli on Baltimore Avenue near 47th Street. "I've been buying his carrot cakes for . . . a very long time."
Wilkins "had a store right near my deli," he added. "When [his] shop closed, I kept on buying [the carrot cake]. People kept on demanding it."
The cake is so popular that it has won awards and also has been turned into an ice cream flavor called Carrot Cake Man at Little Baby's Ice Cream shop in West Philly.
Martin Brown, one of Little Baby's owners, said Wilkins walked into the shop last summer and asked employees to make ice cream out of his carrot cake.
"Because of his popularity, the ice cream flavor turned out to be a hit," said Brown, 32.
"I've tried his cake," he added. "It's pretty good. I think what makes it so special is his how well-known he is in the area. Having his name on the ice cream made it a lot more exciting, a lot more interesting to the customers."
Wilkins goes to work inside his Mount Airy home each day at about 9 a.m. By 4 p.m., he's done baking and wrapping and is ready to go. From his home near Chew Avenue and Upsal Street, he takes the 18 bus to Broad and Olney, gets the subway to City Hall, switches to the El and heads to West Philly.
All the while, he's carrying a silver tray filled with 12 dozen small, round, cinnamon-colored cupcakes covered with cream cheese icing. Each one has been individually wrapped in plastic and stacked one on top of the other in a line covering the entire tray.
Riders buy them one by one.
Born and raised in West Philadelphia, Wilkins had owned a store on 47th Street near Cedar Avenue. For 17 years, he said, the store brought in customers from all over West Philly - especially students, parents and nuns at nearby St. Francis De Sales Catholic School and Henry C. Lea Elementary.
"Man, the nuns used to love me!" Wilkins said. "They would always place orders, and the kids see me now and always tell me about those days. I have so many stories about my carrot cake. A lady once told me she met her husband in front of my store. I have a lot of good memories."
Nowadays, he said he has fun doing the job he loves - just in a different way.
"The one thing people have to know about loving your job is having a positive attitude," he said.
"I've been working since I was 9, never had a break since then. But everything in my life has set me up to be the Carrot Cake Man."
And although life has thrown Wilkins some curveballs, the one thing he says he has never changed is his product.
By the end of his daily routine, the 144 carrot cupcakes he started with have disappeared.
"If you do anything, as long as you do one thing and stay focused to that one thing only, you'll master anything," he said.