What is Work? Baking Your Cupcake and Selling It, Too

Running a business is not a fairytale. And fun is the exception to the rule, even when your bricks and mortar are chocolate and visual cute.
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It reads like a scene out of fairy tale co-authored by Julia Child:

Boy meets Girl. Boy designs T-shirts. Girl designs wedding cakes.

They start a business and live happily ever after...in the middle of several thousand cupcakes and racks of custom-designed T-shirts.

If you're saying: "Huh?" That's what this post is about: The Reese's Peanut Butter Cup approach to work, in which folks take two things they love and create a whole that other folks never thought of.

Brian Wood and Kim Boos started Boulder Colorado's Tee & Cakes in September of 2007. The shop, which sells original T-shirts and baked goods, was their way of making Work work for them.

Wood was trained as a graphic designer. Boos was a wedding-cake baker. Creativity in work was key to their idea of happiness. Recognizing the cupcake trend on the horizon, they took over the lease to a friend's smoothie shop.

When they opened, with a rack of T-shirts along the store's southern wall, and a pastry counter due-east, the shirts and the snacks were two different products, esthetically. The shirts were modern-graphics-y. The cupcakes were...cupcakes. Their business seemed more about their individual passions than one kind of target customer.

Time passed. Boos kept baking. Wood kept designing. Proximity can be a great source of inspiration. And, at some, point, he put a cupcake on his T-shirts. And those T-shirts sold like...cupcakes, which was to say, really well. This wasn't the kind of designing he'd set out to do. But it was good business.

Getting folks to buy cupcake-themed shirts was the equivalent of a rock band t-shirt with the words, "Love and Cupcakes" where a Guns n' Roses logo might be.

A series of baby onesies followed. (Because, really, what could be more adorable than kids wearing cupcakes?) Next up, were cupcake-themed magnets...and cupcake stands.

All of which sounds like fun! And opposed to work. Which is so wrong.

"Baking's not as cute as people think it is," Brian tells me, as he pours a coffee, hands over a chocolate-mint cupcake and prepares to box another dozen, mixed.

Tee n Cakes produces 800 cupcakes a day, in eight to 12 different flavors. The shop's kitchen holds one-and-half people comfortably. Which would be perfect, if people didn't come in whole numbers.

From a pure business standpoint, Wood and Boos's growth is limited on one side by the size of their shop, and by their downtown rent on the other. I counted 15 customers in five minutes while standing in the shop. And each of those customers spent $10 on average (some were parents with kids; one was buying in bulk.) But the food business is a hard place to break-even, much less profit. At some hours of the day, the place is jam-packed. At others, you can hear crickets.

Luckily, Wood and Boos's business isn't purely business, in the sense of bottom lines and overheads above all.

They're creatives at heart. And so, they hosted a cupcake-eating contest in early summer, in a town known for its tendency to take its food verrrrry seriously. The Food Network show "Unwrapped" dropped by to a shoot a segment on their signature bacon cupcake, which was selling out -- despite -- or because of its -- sugary-salty decadence.

(In the interest of full disclosure, the leader of the alt-country band I fiddle in is a good friend of Wood. And our first gig ever was on the sidewalk outside the bakery. Which made no sense, logically. Like, who wants to hear a bunch of guys in black twang-out as you eat your red velvet cupcake at high noon? -- and worked perfectly. Which just goes to show: sometimes, our best "business" asset is a willingness to bag the Proven Global Spreadsheet Shoulds in favor of the Community-Based Wanna/Gonna Do It -- So There's!)

But running a business is not a fairytale. And fun is the exception to the rule, even when your bricks and mortar are chocolate and visual cute.

These days, Wood estimates his work is made up of "10% inspiration and 90% perspiration." One quarter of his time goes to entrepreneurship; three-quarters to running the shop, which has six employees. Boos's wedding cake business, which is ongoing, is having to turn away customers.

They still find time to dream up new ideas -- it's kind of like breathing for them. Recently, they found a recipe for beer cake in a 1970s recipe book Boos's mother had bought at a thrift shop. There was a can of Budweiser in their fridge. And before you could say Homer Simpson, the kids from Tee and Cakes had produced a first batch of pretzel-topped beer cupcakes. Now on tap: localizing and upgrading the idea by using beer from a local microbrewery. This process exemplifies their working ideal.

"We like being small," Wood says. And he loves being a twosome, for professional and well as personal reasons. "Whatever once of us can't do, the other can," he says.

But down the road, he imagines a time when he and Boos will have found the perfect recipe for their small business:"let the machine work itself and let us be the creative people we want to be."

That sounds pretty sweet to me.

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