One savory treat led to the opening of Cupcake Company.
STORY & PHOTO | ERIN WILLIAMS
A bell jingles overhead as a customer walks through the entrance, the aroma of fresh sweets wafting through the air. In perfectly lined glass cases lay rows of cupcakes of different colors, shapes and sizes. Chocolate and vanilla glazes shine against the natural light coming in through the front windows. Chocolate ganache double dipped in chocolate sauce, red velvet topped with swirls of cream cheese frosting and a fondant heart, and cookies and cream with buttercream frosting delicately rolled in crushed Oreos are just three of the hundreds of cupcake flavors available at Cupcake Company. But all of these cupcakes started with just one flavor and a playful joke between husband and wife.
Four years ago, Renee Brown woke up inspired to make a sweet treat for her husband, James. The two had always joked about quitting their day jobs and opening a bakery. She baked a cherry cheesecake-flavored cupcake, which she packed up and sent off to work with James. It turned out that Brown’s experimental treat was a smashing success.
“Everyone really liked it a lot,” Brown says. “I was like, ‘Wow, that’s weird,’ and so I made some more.”
Brown went on to experiment with adding wine to cupcakes, creating a rich, raspberry merlot, and before she knew it, a business was in the making.
It was three months after Brown sent her packaged treats to work with her husband that she began selling cupcakes out of her home. Brown and her husband then went on to purchase a truck, which they used to sell their cupcakes at festivals, events and weddings.
Less than a year later in October 2012, the business expanded again as the Browns opened their cupcake bakery in Penn Laird, Virginia. And in September, they opened a second location 5 miles down the road in Harrisonburg.
“I find a lot of people are really proud of us,” Brown says. “They really are excited for us because of the fact that we did start the way that we did.”
The process of preparing the cupcakes starts long before the building opens at 10 a.m. The bakers arrive before sunrise and begin baking the cupcakes for the day. Then the “frosters” arrive to blend ingredients together to pipe on top of the various sweets. The cupcakes are done by the time the store opens, and no more cupcakes are baked until the next morning.
“Our employees are really like our family,” Brown says. “We spend a lot of time together.”
Brittiny Cobbs, head baker at the Harrisonburg location, started out as a loyal customer. She fell in love with the cupcakes and decided to switch from working at another local business and come to work for Brown.
“Eating the cupcakes is definitely a plus,” Cobbs says. “Getting everything baked in time for the store to open is my biggest challenge.”
Five cupcake flavors are always available at the bakery: red velvet, chocolate ganache, vanilla vanilla, chocolate vanilla and cookies and cream. According to Brown, these are the basic cupcakes that are typically enjoyed by everyone. They’re also easily customizable for special events or parties. Brown and the rest of the bakers then cycle seven different flavors each day, often choosing seasonal favorites like spiced eggnog or chocolate hazelnut.
The cupcakes come in mini, standard and jumbo sizes, with standard being the most popular. A standard cupcake of any flavor is $2.50, a price Brown finds to be competitive in the national market.
“Somebody came in here the other day and says that our cupcakes were more expensive than heroin,” Brown says. “I don’t know about that, but it’s funny to see the wide variety of opinions that we get.”
Brown believes that the prices reflect the effort and ingredients put into each individual cupcake. Many of the ingredients used in the cupcakes can’t be purchased in a grocery store, and have to be specially ordered.
“We don’t skimp on what we believe makes our cupcakes good,” Brown says.
The company currently doesn’t offer shipments of cupcakes for just that reason. Eager customers have reached out to Brown on Facebook and through email encouraging the company to ship their cupcakes across the nation, but Brown refuses.
“The quality of our cupcakes is way more important than just being able to ship all over the place,” Brown says.
Cupcake Company’s delicacies aren’t just for people. Brown launched a line of irresistible treats for four-legged friends as well — PuppyCakes. The treats are made without preservatives and should be given to dogs within a few days of purchasing them. Brown currently offers peanut butter and applesauce-flavored treats.
The idea for PuppyCakes came from customer suggestions, something the company takes into consideration.
“We don’t ever say, ‘Hey, here’s a new cupcake,’” Brown says. “We say, ‘Hey, we’re thinking about this cupcake, we’d love for people to help us taste it.’”
By reaching out to customers through Facebook, the company has been able to expand its network of customers and consider their opinions when it comes to experimenting with new flavors.
Brown also uses Facebook as a way to share free cupcakes with her loyal customers. Every Wednesday, Cupcake Company gives away a dozen cupcakes to two local businesses. On Fridays, it gives away a dozen cupcakes to a random person who comments on its Facebook page. Customers can then come to the store and pick up their cupcakes. Instead of wasting them and throwing away cupcakes at the end of the night, people are able to happily enjoy the leftovers.
Reaching out to the community and greater Shenandoah Valley is a priority for Brown. In the spring, Cupcake Company hopes to collaborate with White Oak Lavender Farm to create a lemon lavender cupcake. Coming into work is easy for Brown because she gets to see the joy that her cupcakes bring to the people around her.
“The nice thing about cupcakes is that most people aren’t coming here for a sad reason,” Brown says. “They’re in a good mood, they want to celebrate. We most of the time see people at their best.”