An Oneida Woman’s Adventures Starting and Running a Cupcake Business
At the height of the recession, when people were losing jobs left and right, I did something very courageous: I jumped into the fire (Stuck my head in the oven is more like it!) and opened a gourmet cupcake shop.
I had recently moved up north with my daughters, after being laid off as an editor in Southern California. Jobs in publishing were hard to find, and the best assignment I landed was a 500-word story for 10 cents per word. I quickly did the math: $50 dollars + two children to support equaled ONE very grim future.
That reality ignited my entrepreneurial fires. Tired of making other smart people rich, I decided to create my own wealth and launch a small business.
I knew exactly what to do, too.
I remembered on my lunch breaks in Newport Beach, the land of beautiful, fit people, I’d see lines of excited customers out the door at Sprinkles. I was stunned that size-zero women were willing to give up their eating disorders for a day to indulge in cupcakes. One day, I spotted Lindsey Davenport in line. If a disciplined, professional tennis player was caving in for a cupcake, there must be something to this, I thought.
That’s it! The cupcake craze hadn’t hit my new small town yet, and I decided to open the very first gourmet cupcake shop here. It would be a fun place for families, an escape from the recession. A place to eat, rock and be happy.
And Rockin’ Cupcake Café was born: The perfect marriage of music and cupcakes.
The dream comes to life.
Sure, I had a very marketable idea. But where would the seed money come from? The Bureau of Indian Affairs referred me to the Small Business Administration. For five months, I worked with two S.C.O.R.E. mentors on a business plan so impressive, I imagined investors throwing money at me.
A big fish actually took the bite, but in the 11th hour, just days before signing loan papers, the bank wiggled off the hook. I didn’t have any culinary experience, and it spooked them.
True, I wasn’t a professional baker. But I was learning. While crafting my business plan, I simultaneously developed recipes. Every day, I baked, tweaked and tested cupcakes and frosting to perfection. (I was possessed by my vision!) My daughters were sick of cupcakes and wanted real meals. But if customers were going to pay $3 a pop, they had to be incredible.
Nine months—and10 pounds—later, my cupcakes were ready for market. By that time, I had decided to invest my own money, and my father (bless him!) contributed generously, too.
To hell with a bank. Nothing was going to stop me now.
Landlords, competitors and swindlers.
Originally, I found a location in an historic part of town. So historic, the city voted to loan me $50,000 to develop my business there. Due to major plumbing and electrical issues, however, I had to pull out of the lease and lost the $50K. A blessing in disguise, as this landlord, I discovered, had swindled other tenants. I found the perfect alternative spot, and signed a lease immediately.
You meet parades of professionals on your way to opening a business: realtors, landlords, city council members, contractors, lawyers, artists. Some enter the scene like kismet, right when you need them; and an unscrupulous few rip you off.
Stupidly, I “trusted” an equipment-leasing agent who promised she found a bank to fund my ovens and refrigerator, my biggest-ticket items. She asked for $800 up front, and again, STUPIDLY, I wrote her a check. I never saw her again. I can only hope karma will eventually catch up with Susan Clark.
Remember my clear-cut vision, to be “The First Gourmet Cupcake Shop In Town?” Well, the hiccup with the original landlord ate up so much time, two other cupcake shops moved in ahead of me.
That’s OK. Maybe I wasn’t the first cupcake shop around, but I was determined to be THE BEST.
Employees: The wild card of every business.
On September 11, 2010, I opened my storefront, with four bakers and five cashiers. The bakers were students from a local culinary school on whom I was willing to take a chance. My lead cashier was my nephew’s wife, who desperately needed a job, and I thought I’d give her a break.
Heed this warning: Even the tightest business plan in the world will NEVER prepare you for the unpredictability of employees, family or not.
I trained my student bakers and although I didn’t have to pay them for the first three months during their externships, I paid them very well ($11/hour).
In the end, one stole $900 out of the safe, another slammed me with phony YELP reviews after I laid her off (she called in sick far too often), and my nephew’s wife filed a bogus claim against me with the Labor Board, claiming “I worked her like a slave.” It was quickly dismissed.
Despite the disappointing setbacks with some employees, my spirit stayed strong, my vision undeterred.
My customers made it all worthwhile.
Hands down, the absolute highlight of my business was my customers. They drove me to bake the freshest, tastiest cupcakes every day. It’s what they were expecting, and I didn’t want to let them down.
They paid me with compliments: “You have the best cupcakes in town!” (My cupcakes were made-from scratch; no boxed mixes.) A college student at Georgetown handed me a Christmas bonus when she came home for the holidays: “Your cupcakes are WAY better than D.C. Cupcakes.” (That shop has its own reality TV show, too!)
And the cutest 5-year-old boy said, “Your frosting tastes like a miracle!” That line inspired a huge marketing promotion.
All that time in my test kitchen had paid off.
I landed some big clients along the way, too: Intel and Nordstrom, a huge feather in my cap. Nordstrom is a stickler for quality, and they were selling MY cupcakes to their upscale clients!
A tough decision.
Business slowed down considerably in the summer, and it never recovered. In December, after nearly two years of the hardest work I’ve ever done, I closed Rockin’ Cupcake Cafe. I simply ran out of operating capital, and we were coming into January, the month everyone goes on a diet after the holiday pig-out.
Truth be told, I was relieved. I had been working 80 hours a week, with only Sundays off, on a hard kitchen floor and I had acquired a limp from Plantar Fasciitis. A heartbreaking outcome, but you gotta know when to fold ‘em.
Yes, I lost a lot of money. But . . . I gained a wealth of respect for myself (and my own handicapped placard!). I believe I’m the only Native American woman to own a cupcake shop, and that makes me proud.
While I’m still healing on so many levels (my limp is barely noticeable now), I’ve moved on. I’m back in the journalism business, and I’m just now able to write about my small-business experience. (It had been too painful to recount for quite some time.) I still bake by special order at an offsite kitchen. In fact, I’m catering a wedding this weekend.
Owning a business taught me some valuable life lessons: One, NEVER hire family. (You always hear that, and it is 200 percent true!) Two, if you lick buttercream off your fingers every day for 15 months, you’re bound to put on a little weight.
Most important, though, I gained insight into myself. I know now that I can do anything I put my mind to.
Lynn Armitage is an enrolled member of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin. She writes a single-parent column for Indian Country Today Media Network. She welcomes your comments at: Boatfolk@aol.com.