Gourmet cupcakes may have been somewhat pushed out of the spotlight in recent years as other desserts have had their moment in the sun, but they are far from done. Kansas-based Smallcakes: A Cupcakery, for one, is continuing to shine not just because of its high-quality cupcakes, but because it continues to emphasize the fun that is inherent in miniature cakes.
When he first opened Smallcakes, owner Jeff Martin was with met skepticism: “People in the Midwest were like, ‘There’s no way you’re going to be able to sell $3 cupcakes…The place is cute.
The cupcake is good, but you won’t last.”
But Smallcakes, a nickname Martin used for his daughter, has not only lasted but grown. The game-changer? An appearance on Food Network’s “Cupcake Wars” during his first year in business. Smallcakes didn’t win, but the story of why it was eliminated from the competition—Martin forgot a chief ingredient—pumpkin—gave Smallcakes the right kind of media attention. Martin’s mistake and his honesty about it has been immortalized in “I forgot the pumpkin” T-shirts.
After “Cupcake Wars,” Martin and Smallcakes appeared on “The View,” where Whoopi Goldberg praised their creations. The attention continued, including stories on both local and national media outlets. The shop served cupcakes at the 2011 MTV Music Awards, was named in the top 10 cupcake bakeries to try in the U.S. by USA Today in April 2012 and took cupcakes to a taping of an upcoming reality television show in Atlanta in August.
But Martin hasn’t let the attention affect the way his bakeries do cupcakes. Each Smallcakes location bakes and frosts 15 to 17 varieties of cupcakes fresh every morning and throughout the day, just the same as it has since it opened in 2008, made with all fresh ingredients—never frozen or even chilled.
The first location is still in operation in Overland Park, Kan., but the chain now has 10 locations, with another set to open in Marietta, Ga., this November. Smallcakes is part of the portfolio of Beautiful Brands International (BBI), the Tulsa, Okla.-based company that helps develop strong local brands into national and/or global franchises.
The slogan for the chain, which was born in the tough economy of 2008, is, “Maybe a Cupcake Will Help?”
In a recent interview with Sunbelt Foodservice staff writer Heather Blount, Smallcakes owner Jeff Martin discussed the cupcakery’s media attention and how Smallcakes stays fresh.
Q: When did you start baking?
I really did start baking with my mom and grandma. After high school, I went to Johnson & Wales out in Charleston, S.C., and got my culinary degree there. I’ve been baking ever since I can remember.
It’s funny because baking was not my forte at all. I was more of a “real” foodie, chef-type of person. I always thought baking was like this art that was very difficult to get right, you know? So it was really funny how I fell into baking when baking really wasn’t my passion. It was another type of cooking.
Q: What’s the first thing you baked by yourself?
I was trying to help my grandmother make a red velvet cake, and let’s just say that I used a whole bottle of red food coloring. It didn’t turn out so great.
Grandmothers, they don’t write down recipes. It’s all in their head, you know? I hate that because right now, I call my grandma and I’m like, “Hey, how did you make this?” (She says) “Well, a little bit of this, a little bit of that.” I’m like, are you kidding me right now?
Q: What about Brandy (your wife, who helped found the company)? What does she do at Smallcakes?
She has zero part in Smallcakes, which is even more funny. This was my brainchild, which she helped create, but she has what we call a “real job,” and she lets me kind of play around in the cupcake business. People call and they’ll say, “Hey, is Brandy there?” because on the website it has both of our names. The employees are like, “Um…Brandy doesn’t work here.” Most people think a woman owns a cupcake store. I guess it just makes sense, but it really surprises a lot of people (that I am the one).
Q: Do you still bake in your stores?
I bake about three times a week now. We have several stores, and I have bakers at each one, but I do float throughout the local ones and bake once (a week), so I bake three times a week myself, personally.
Q: It’s good that you can spend time baking at the store.
It’s good to make sure I still know what I’m doing and come up with new flavors because my bakers, they’re…like machines. You tell them to do this one thing, and they’ll keep doing it over and over again. To be consistent, we don’t give them that much opportunity to be creative, so when I get in there, I kind of get to be creative and try new things.
Q: What made you start a bakery?
Well, we, my wife and I, were out in L.A. about five years ago, and we noticed that cupcakes were kind of big out in L.A. and in New York (City). When we got back home I started doing some research, and I was like, “Man, this cupcake thing is kind of cool. All these places do is sell cupcakes—how easy can that be?”
So we started trying some different places, and…the cupcake places that we tried, they weren’t that great but the places were packed. So we went back home and about six months after that, we did all kinds of recipes and came up with these pretty awesome cupcakes. And that’s it. We just opened it up to see if it was going to work.
Q: What about your “Cupcake Wars” experience?
It was four months (after) we opened our doors. Business was good…and “Cupcake Wars” called and said, “Hey, we’ve got this brand new show.” I’m totally not into the reality thing, but they’re like, “It’s a reality show, it’s season one. Don’t know if it’s going to work or not, but would you like to come out to L.A. and shoot this thing?” And I was like, well, sure, why not? Let’s just do it.
I’m a very take-it-easy guy, go with the flow, and they put you in this environment. It’s very fast and it’s very timed—they look at the clock all the time. They give you these ingredients on the fly, so you’re doing a lot of things that you’re not normally doing in your bakery, especially using ingredients that you never use in your own bakery. But in the heat of the moment, I forgot to add pumpkin in the pumpkin cupcake…But I told the truth to the judges and it did get me sent home.
But what happened was, I don’t know, it didn’t backfire. Most people that bake at home, they forget stuff, so it was very relatable to people. And it just kind of took off from there. We used to be a mom-and-pop shop, and then we became a lot more. It was all because of a little incident, but how honest we were. It blows everyone’s mind; I could have lied about it and probably got away with it because the judges loved the cupcake. They thought it was great; I just forgot to use an ingredient.
Q: I heard that people love the pumpkin cardamom cupcake from the show.
They do. We pull it out for our fall flavor, so we bring it back in October, November, December. People come for that; they can’t wait for it.
The weather’s changed a little bit the last couple of days here in Kansas City, and people have been like, “Oh my gosh, I can’t wait for the pumpkin.” It’s that warm and fuzzy comfort flavor and it doesn’t get old because it’s very relatable and customers love talking about it, so of course I’m going to talk about it. It just puts us on a different level. We didn’t win, but do you remember who wins those shows down the road? Everyone remembers the pumpkin incident.
Q: I also heard that you met Whoopi Goldberg.
Yes. After (Cupcake Wars), business was good; life’s even better now. We went from selling like 300-400 cupcakes a day to like 800. I was thinking, “Man, this is pretty sweet. I’m good.” Then “The View” called because Whoopi Goldberg is a fan of the show and she saw our episode. She thought it was kind of cool how, $10,000 on the line, the guy tells the truth, and judges still loved the cupcakes but you’ve got to go home.
She invited us (to New York); she was doing a cupcake episode. And here’s the great thing: All the cupcake places that were on the show were from New York and L.A. They were not from any other city. So we were the only (business) not from L.A. or New York. We’re in there with Georgetown Cupcakes, Molly’s Cupcakes—the big dogs, you know. Very intimidating at the time, but again, we felt like it was another steppingstone.
So we went to New York for a couple of days; they showcased our cupcakes, showed clips from our episode. From that point, I think we got a lot of national attention. We already had people (interested) over “Cupcake Wars”—we had shirts made up that said, “I forgot the pumpkin.” We kind of made fun of it; we shipped these shirts all over. People thought it was hilarious, but then…we started getting people calling, “Hey, can you ship us cupcakes?” From New York and L.A., and you know, our thought was, “You’ve already got the ‘big dogs’ there, and you’re calling little ol’ Smallcakes?” That was huge.
About six months ago, USA Today wrote an article about Smallcakes as one of the top 10 cupcake places to try in the U.S., which was really awesome. It’s just really great how this little neighborhood cupcakery just keeps getting around. Our products are great. We’re not in a bigger city, in L.A. or New York, but we still get plenty of attention, and it’s great. It feels really good, and our customers love it. Whenever we open up a new store, everyone will talk about the pumpkin thing…
Q: So you have 10 locations now?
We do, we have 10 locations now, and then we have locations within a yogurt concept with Beautiful Brands, so all in all, there’s about 25 places that sell Smallcakes.
Q: Do you customize your locations for the community?
When we thought about franchising, the one thing I hate more than anything is that every one is (the same) across the board. Say there’s another cupcake concept out there and if you’re going to their location in Georgia, they have the exact same flavors as in Alabama. To me, that’s kind of a little weird because the same flavors that sell in Kansas City don’t always sell in another city. So we’re very open to having those flavors mix well with where that location is. At the Buckhead, Ga., store, people like the froufrou cupcake. It had to look good—
didn’t care what it tasted like as long as it was pretty. I had never thought about that before. So the flavors that are in Buckhead are totally different than the flavors that we sell in Kansas City. And we still sell the core flavors, but they like some of the specialty ones.
We give (the owner) this big recipe book that has about 70 flavors in there, and they get to pick and choose what they want to sell. The lady in (Orange City) Florida, for example, sells a lot of key lime and orange Creamsicle. She sells them year-round. I can’t do that in Kansas City, buy it’s always pretty and hot in Florida, so she can do that.
Q: Can you tell me about your upcoming Marietta, Ga., location?
I’m super excited about the Marietta store because it’s in the suburbs, and we’ve always been very fortunate and busy in the suburbs. People with kids…just love cupcakes. Then there’s not all that traffic like there is downtown, so Marietta’s going to be really great. The owner that we have there is an awesome lady. She’s an accountant, and she’s tired of doing numbers and stuff; she wants to do something else. She was halfway down the road to doing another cupcake franchise and she tasted our product and said, “No, no, this is what I want to do.”
Q: What makes Smallcakes different from other cupcake bakeries?
It’s the way we do the cupcakes. In our bakeries, we don’t have any big walk-in freezers or coolers. We make everything the day of, from scratch. We use butter at room temperature. We don’t mass-produce anything; we keep bakers on throughout the day. Our quality is so great because we keep bakers on throughout the day, baking up until 4 or 5 o’clock, so the cupcake you get at 8 o’clock (in the evening) was probably only made at 3 o’clock. A lot of other bakeries mass-produce all this stuff and put it in the freezer or the cooler and then pull it out when they need it, let it come to room temperature. We don’t do it that way.
My wife is really big on moist cake, and that was her biggest thing: “If we’re going to do this, it’s going to have good cake.” So our cake is really moist and really soft. We’ve just started making some cakes—now we’re not getting into the cake business—but we’re making some little specialty cakes because our cake is so good and people are like, “I really wish I could get this in a cake form.” That’s kind of what sets us apart.
Q: Tell me about your signature pink buttercream.
It’s girly and girls love cupcakes. But we actually do vanilla beans; we scrape the vanilla beans into our signature buttercream and then tint it pink. It’s pretty tasty.
Q: You use whole vanilla beans?
We use the natural bean itself—cut it open and scrape it out. A lot of places wouldn’t do that. A lot of places say, “We use quality ingredients,” and yeah, maybe they do, maybe they don’t. But we actually use the beans. We actually take the time to buy this bean, cut it, scrape it—every morning.
Q: How do you maintain consistency in your stores?
I go to every opening and train the baker. If they’re outside of Kansas City, they come to Kansas City and train, and then I and one of my assistants will go down there.
Being a culinary guy, it’s always cool to try new things. When I worked in other restaurants before, corporate restaurants, you couldn’t try anything. It was like, “here it is, just do what you do, just like this.” It keeps it consistent, so the way I treat my bakers is a lot like that.
But they also have tons of ideas, so when I’m in the stores with them or baking by myself, we try those ideas. They can’t be creative on their own, but they can be creative when we’re together.
Q: Tell me about your flavors. How do you get inspiration?
When we started out, we only had about eight flavors. Now we do about 15-17 different flavors daily. It does get kind of tiring trying to think of a new flavor. So a lot of our customers will come up and say, “I think you should do this or that.” Some people listen to customers, some people don’t. We actually listen to some customers and try it.
If it works, we put it on the menu.
We have a milkshake (flavor) coming out. I love milkshakes, so I was like, “Man, I wish I could make a milkshake cupcake…” That’s how we get inspiration.
Q: What kinds of flavors have come from customers?
We get kids who come in and say, “I wish you could use this.” Maybe they saw something on TV or something. Do we do it 100 percent of the time? No, but we do a pretty good percentage of listening to the customer. You’ve got to keep it fresh.
A lot of my recipes have come from my bakers and other franchisees. The Orange Creamsicle made by the lady who owns our Florida location—it’s our No. 1 seller right now. It’s awesome, so we’re very open to stuff like that.
Q: Will Smallcakes ever offer savory cupcakes?
Possibly. As we’ve been franchising, the No. 1 question people ask is, “what else do you sell besides cupcakes?” Luckily I’ve never had to sell anything other than cupcakes. I mean, this has been grand. It’s a good living…
But this is the first time for almost five years that we’re adding stuff to our concept. We’re doing whoopie pies now; we’re making that old school whoopie pie. We’re getting ready to get in some cakes. We’re not getting into the cake business, but we’re into about three or four different triple-layer huge cakes, decorated super nice. Things like that that have set us apart and that keep the dessert trend going.
I’m not sure what the next thing is. People out there say it was Thai, and I think that was like a couple years ago. Who knows what it’ll be next? But just to keep it going, maybe smaller desserts because our cake is so great that we’re trying to incorporate it into a lot of other things.
Q: What is a frosting shot?
Well, what’s the best part about a cupcake anyway? That darn frosting! Our new frosting shots were huge. People just came in going,
“I love your frosting, can I just get a cup of frosting or something…?” So on Mondays, we do cupcake happy hour—buy-one-get-one-free cupcakes. Everyone loves that, and you get a free frosting shot, a little 1-oz. container of frosting.
We do three or four different flavors each Monday. But now we’re also selling our frosting shots, so you can go on into Smallcakes and order any of your favorite frostings in a little cup and just eat frosting. It comes garnished for you, so if you get a peanut butter cup frosting, a peanut butter cream cheese, it will come garnished with little peanut crumbles on top.
Q: Some people think cupcakes are a fad that’s losing its sizzle. Do you ever worry that people will get tired of cupcakes?
I do, a little bit, yeah. I do, I think about it. I think with adding new product, it keeps you fresh. By no means do I want to be a full-blown bakery, but I do feel that having some more products, giving people some more things to choose from, is nice.
Some people can get tired of a cupcake, but…our cake’s great and maybe they can try a whoopie pie or maybe they can get a slice of cake—because we’re getting ready to start selling our cakes by the slice. Maybe that will keep them around.
I do think that when the cupcake thing is over…only the bigger brands will stay around. The mom-and-pop shops with one or two stores may not be around, but I think the places that have a broad appeal, I think they’ll continue to stay.
Q: Do you think Smallcakes will last?
Yeah, I do. I’m always looking for the next thing. How to make it better, or the next thing, which I think is exciting. The cupcake thing is a very exciting thing, but what’s next for the cupcake? Or what’s next after the cupcake? I keep thinking that every day I do this. A lot of people get into cupcakes and it’s new for them, and they’re all excited. We’re almost five years into it now, so the newness has worn off. So I want to keep pushing the envelope to see what I can do to make it different and to make it better.
Q: What do you see happening in the future with Smallcakes?
My hope and what I would love for to happen is to actually grow because we have a product that has been proven to be consistent all over the place, but also to grow and to expand inside. We really haven’t ever expanded this menu before, and now we are.
So I want to open more cupcake stores. I want people to franchise. I want all that stuff. But I want to add some extra stuff in there to see where we can take this thing. The brand’s great, the product’s awesome, so we’ve got two things that work really well for us right now. If we can grow on that, I think that’s huge.