OVER THE 22 YEARS she's been selling beautifully decorated cakes and other sweets from her North Philadelphia bakery, Denise Gause's loyal customers have consistently offered her kind words, she said.

"People would say: 'Oh, I'm so glad you're here. I don't have to bake anymore,' " Gause said yesterday. Or, " 'Miss Denise, I don't know what I would do if you weren't here.' "

That contingency plan may have to be revisited by customers of Denise's Bakery on 22nd Street near Cambria in Swampoodle, a neighborhood with few options for baked goods.

An overnight fire yesterday at the bakery has put the future of neighborhood mainstay - officially Denise's Delicacies, better known as Denise's or Denise's Bakery - in jeopardy.

Fire Department officials believe the fire began about 2:45 a.m. in the bakery's kitchen behind the shop. The blaze destroyed the baking facilities and left intense smoke and water damage upstairs and in the shop where baked goods had been displayed, Gause said.

The property will have to be gutted, then rebuilt, according to Gause, who began the business 26 years ago in East Mount Airy in her previous house's kitchen.

It's unclear if Gause and her husband, bakery co-owner Rudy Gause, want to reboot the bakery or shut it down, she said yesterday, sitting in her West Mount Airy living room.

"We haven't gotten quite that far," she said.

"If we decided to rebuild, it will be in that location. But that's an open issue right now," Denise Gause said, her eyes slightly red and glossy, up since a 3 a.m. phone call. She said she hadn't eaten any food since dinner Saturday night.

"It's not so much the business, it's the customers," Gause said. "They made us what we are or who we are. They supported us. . . . We wanted to be there always for our customers because they were there for us."

Rudy Gause concurred, adding: "We've become attached to them. So many we know by name. It's almost like family to us."

Neighborhood residents near Denise's "took pride in having the bakery" in the area, he added. "They took ownership of our bakery."

The Gauses' work has only begun. From their kitchen, the couple and Denise's sister Marie Davis, all employees of the bakery, called each of their 23 employees to update them on the situation. They urged the workers - about a handful are part-time - to file for unemployment. Most have worked at Denise's for at least 10 years - there are not many "scratch bakeries around," Gause said.

The trio also compiled a list from their records of customers who had put in cake orders over the past few months. Denise's receives about 350 to 500 orders each week, she said. Starting today, Team Denise will call 60 to 70 customers who were supposed to pick up special-order cakes this week, she said. The customers will be offered a refund or, if they paid with Electronic Benefit Transfers using SNAP funds, their account will be credited, Gause said.

Janice Whitner, a North Philadelphia grandmother who had planned to pick up her granddaughter's birthday cake tomorrow, stopped by the boarded-up bakery yesterday. She wanted to contact Gause about getting a refund for the cake, which was supposed to be decorated with characters from the Disney film "Frozen."

Her granddaughter, who turns 17 tomorrow, was crying in the car. "I'm going to order a cake from ShopRite," she said.