When I was little, I was a total sweet tooth. Back in the day when calories didn’t matter — or even seem to exist at all — and I didn’t get caught up with body image, I could eat cupcakes like nobody’s business. Chocolate cupcakes with vanilla frosting were my favorite, but I was often too impatient to wait for my mom to frost them before snatching a plain one straight from the pan.
Who would’ve guessed that, several years later, cupcakes would be my life? Considering my grandfather was an award-winning baker (he entered the women’s contests to have stiffer competition and, much to their dismay, usually took the prize), I suppose sugar must run in our gene pool. Looking back now, it might seem pretty predictable, but I never would’ve known just how important baking would become.
One day during the second semester of my sophomore year of high school, I decided to make homemade cupcakes for my friend’s 16th birthday. I asked my mom if she had any special recipes, but other than her famous carrot cake (which did not appeal to me at the time — oh, how foolish I was), she didn’t have any ideas in particular.
Naturally, I turned to the internet for inspiration. After some searching on multiple food blogs, I came across a recipe for chocolate cupcakes (from scratch, of course) with malt buttercream. Topped with crushed Whoppers malted milk balls, they looked like the perfect treat for my friend’s sweet 16.
Though I always enjoyed helping around the kitchen growing up, baking those cupcakes opened my eyes to how relaxing and fun baking could be. I even decided to make them extra fancy by piping on the frosting with my mom’s practically brand new decorating gun. Considering my total lack of visual art skills, they actually looked pretty dang good, if I do say so myself.
The next day at school, after proudly sharing the cupcakes with my friends, I was met with a chorus of, “These are the best cupcakes I’ve ever had!” I was ecstatic. I went home with my head held high, along with a newfound desire to try every cupcake recipe in sight.
Soon after that, while searching for new food blogs online, I came across Shea’s Bakery, a bakery founded by a 14-year-old in Delray Beach, FL. Shea’s love for homemade baked goods blossomed into a local gem. Business picked up steadily, and she began donating (and still does) a percentage of her profits to various charities. She has also won multiple awards for her success as a young entrepreneur.
Shea’s story totally inspired me, and I found myself overwhelmed with ideas. As a strong proponent of suicide prevention (following the tragic death of a childhood friend and through my own struggle with depression), I realized that starting a business would be the perfect way to raise money for this vital cause. What better way to bring awareness to such a stigmatized issue than by bringing people joy through cupcakes?
The night I read about Shea’s Bakery, I rushed downstairs and told my mom that I wanted to start a home-based bakery. She looked at me blankly for a second, and I could tell she was skeptical (I don’t blame her — I was the type of child who got really excited about trying a new activity only to quit shortly afterward). But I persisted, and, after some convincing, we started planning.
What started as a cute idea quickly turned into a serious business venture. I decided on a name, MCR Cupcakery — “MCR” standing for my initials, not for My Chemical Romance — and bought an internet domain to get my website up and running. Creating the menu was one of the most fun parts; we had everything from chocolate chip cookie dough (topped with a homemade mini chocolate chip cookie) to pink sugar (vanilla cake with strawberry meringue buttercream and a pink gumball inside), including the malt shoppe cupcake that started it all.
We were soon ordering bakery boxes, cupcake liners of all colors and designs, piping bags, frosting tips, and a ridiculous amount of sprinkles (some of which we still have lingering in our pantry). Once I made a custom logo, we ordered business cards and stickers for boxes, and we were almost ready to roll.
The last step in opening the business was getting approved by the Virginia Department of Agriculture. Yeah, this was serious. We even had to add an extra door to our kitchen area just to make sure our cats wouldn’t come in while we were baking. Because who wants cat hair in their cupcakes? Not me, that’s for sure.
After our successful kitchen inspection, our final task was to send cupcake samples to a lab for further safety testing. My mom and I seriously had to wear ponchos, hair nets, and gloves to make sure that the cupcakes were A-OK. The saddest part was dropping our pretty little red velvet beauties into a plastic bag. They deserved better.
Though the wait wasn’t any fun, we got positive results back and were finally able to get to work. The business started small; without funds to advertise significantly, we relied heavily on word of mouth. Initially, close friends ordered a dozen or so cupcakes for their families, but after they shared rave reviews with other people in the area (Virginia Beach represent), calls and emails began to flood in.
Our big break came when we catered a high school graduation party. Friends of the host’s family, including a well-respected local event planner, got in contact with us to place orders and ask if we’d be able to cater certain events. It was overwhelming and exciting to see that the business was actually taking off.
However, it was definitely not easy at all. Since our cupcakes were made to order, the turnaround time had to be quick. Even though we required customers to place orders at least three days in advance, managing the business while still getting schoolwork done seemed pretty much impossible sometimes.
During my senior year of high school, our drama department was putting on the play, The Insanity of Mary Girard. I played Mary, and there were some days when it actually did feel like I was going insane. I’d get out of a grueling rehearsal after a long day at school, sit in my car crying for a bit, head home, eat dinner, study, and get back to baking, hoping to get enough sleep that night to make it through the next day.
In the midst of applying to colleges and working hard to keep up my grades, I spent most school nights covered in flour and powdered sugar. Sometimes, I’d space out and forget the vanilla, meaning I’d have to start all over again. And don’t even get me started on how many arguments my mom and I had in the kitchen. Trust me — when two strong-willed women are trying to finish four dozen special-ordered cupcakes at 11 pm on a Wednesday night, things are bound to get messy in more ways than one.
Despite all of the times that I never wanted to taste or smell or see frosting again in my life, and as clichéd as this is to say, it was all worth it. Regardless of the baking soda/baking powder mix-ups, endless trial and error to find just the right amount of peppermint extract, and overly cautious delivery adventures to get the cupcakes to their destination intact, running MCR Cupcakery was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done.
Running a business taught me about the creative process, time management, financial smarts, balance, and, most importantly, passion. Through all of the failures and redos, I learned that doing what you love isn’t about yourself. I was reminded of why I opened it in the first place: to bring joy to people. Even though our clients will never know the chaos that went on behind the scenes, the tears shed over a mere batch of cupcakes, or the crumbs still hiding in the cracks of our old kitchen floor, they felt delighted to open a box of treats made with love.
This realization came to fruition when we finally calculated how much we’d be able to donate to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and To Write Love on Her Arms. Sending off the donations showed me what an impact one idea (and some love to make it happen) can have on the world. It humbled me to know that the smile a cupcake brings to someone’s face could result in bringing a smile to the face of someone who previously didn’t believe there was hope.
I officially closed MCR Cupcakery in summer 2013 before heading off to IU in the fall for my freshman year of college. It was a bittersweet moment of sadness and relief, not only knowing that what I poured my life into for about two and a half years was coming to a close, but also celebrating all we had learned and accomplished. I wish I still had the website today (partly to laugh at the subpar photos I took with my digital camera at the time), but I know that MCR Cupcakery won’t be forgotten.
Now, I envision myself in the future doing the same thing for the rest of my life: putting ridiculously outlandish ideas into action, occasionally crying over my own audacity in believing that those ideas could actually pay off, yet still deciding that joy is worth the hard work at the end of the day.
I still dream of opening a real bakery someday — a cute store with a shiny glass display case and bright colors, a place where people of any age can come to be kids at heart, a business that brings light to those who are suffering. Maybe it’ll be called MCR Cupcakery; hopefully, I’ll be able to come up with a way more creative name than that. But no matter what, I’ll always smile when I see a cupcake. Because we could use more smiles in the world.