She likes to talk about the time she joined her daughter-in-law, Megan, on the popular Food Network show Cupcake Wars, but television appearances aren’t why Yvonne Loy started what she calls her “passion.” What makes Le Cupcake more than a crowd-pleasing, fast-growing business in south Lincoln’s Briarhurst Center is its kindhearted “Random Acts of Cupcakes.”
“A few times each month, we surprise someone with a free gift of cupcakes,” Loy explained. Sometimes they hand out delectable delights right in the store, other times, people will come in to let them know someone who is going through a struggle and could use a pick-me-up. They delivered one sunny batch to a young, single mom in the hospital worried over her sick baby.
Then there was the random act that still leaves Loy overcome.
A husband had lost his wife. Still heartbroken weeks later, he called Le Cupcake to send thoughts to her former co-workers. Touched, Loy and her crew kept his information, and a couple of months later, surprised him with a dozen cupcakes.
“Just to show we cared,” she said. “He was in tears that a business would do something like that.
“This is why I wanted to open a business.”
Getting starting with the help of an SBA Microloan
With her staff of 12, and a dedicated full-time manager who she fondly calls “her right-hand person for the past year,” Loy’s been busy since she opened the doors at the end of 2011 thanks to help from Lincoln-based Community Development Resources (CDR) and an SBA microloan.
This past Mother’s Day weekend, it was all hands on deck churning out some 5,000 cupcakes; once, they handled a single order of a couple thousand treats for a local hospital. Loy and her team of “champions” bake daily in the back of the store, rotating a lineup based on family recipes. Overall, revenues are up 38 percent this year.
“Number one thing is word of mouth,” Loy said of her marketing strategy. That and tastes such as Peanut Butter Cookie, Chocolate Malt, Banana Split and Orange Dreamsicle.
And often, they get referrals from grateful wedding brides.
“That’s our showcase. There’s no greater marketing tool than those weddings,” she explained. “It’s like people are paying us to market what we do. I love sitting with brides and grooms and going over their cake. It’s all about valuing people and enjoying what I do.”
Her music students proved a valuable test market
Loy learned those values growing up on a farm in South Dakota, where she learned from her mother how to make tasty goods from scratch with homegrown, fresh ingredients. Such efforts paid off early, winning a pie baking contest at the state fair while a junior in high school.
She went on to teach music to high school students, and when they would have a good rehearsal, she’d reward them with fresh cupcakes from her kitchen. But she admitted there was an ulterior motive with her choice of their reward.
“My students were the test market for my gourmet cupcakes,” she smiled, “and teenagers are honest.”
But when she spotted a few students with downcast faces, shut out of the baked treats fun as a result of suffering from celiac disease, Loy had an idea to craft gluten-free recipes. “That way, kids who felt left out because they couldn’t eat cake now could.”
And that’s turned into a red-hot market niche for her store--brides who request gluten-free cakes know Le Cupcake can accommodate their party with delicious Strawberry Champagne, Double Chocolate Cheesecake, and Pina Colada flavors.
By 2009, to supplement her teaching income, Loy began to build a loyal following at the Haymarket farmer's market in Lincoln. She would sell hundreds of cupcakes, spending the proceeds on a piece of bakery equipment to store it in her garage, repeating the process over the next two years until she decided it was time to retire from teaching and open a storefront.
Using a grand piano as collateral to secure the financing
To do that, she needed start-up capital. She applied for a commercial loan from a local bank, but the lender found the idea too much of a risk; instead, they referred her to CDR, where she met with Rick Wallace, the non-profit community lender’s executive director, in hopes of securing microfinancing to make her dream happen. His first questions: What makes your product different? Why should I consider you?”
“He wanted to hear my passion,” Loy remembered. With a three-ring binder packed with product ideas, the store’s logo, marketing plans and projected sales, it didn’t take long before Wallace became one of Le Cupcake’s biggest supporters.
But closing the loan was a more difficult task. After the two mapped out how much start-up capital the store would need, Loy found she was short on conventional collateral—but she did enjoy a beautiful grand piano in her living room. Securing a business loan for a cupcake shop with a piano?
“Who does that?” Loy laughed. But CDR needed one more piece of collateral to make the deal happen, and the piano would do.
Then, the day before the shop opened, as Loy worked around her builder finishing up the final touches, she discovered the two convection ovens she’d ordered didn’t match the building’s electrical system. She busily called every distributor in the area for a substitute oven so she could open on time—problem was, the only one available was a pizza oven.
“It totally scorched the tops of the cakes,” Loy said. So, drawing on her farm girl can-do initiative, she grabbed tin foil for the tops, adjusted the temperature, and “got that thing working great.”
With lots of walk-in customers, Loy found herself running back from the counter to the kitchen doing the bulk of the baking. She needed help, so after a false start, found college students looking for a part-time gig for tuition money with the right attitude for great customer service, who can bake, frost and run off to classes.
“We have an amazing team here,” Loy said.
Appearing on the Food Network was icing on the cupcake
And that team “got to play in the Super Bowl of baking," she said of the store’s chance to appear on Cupcake Wars.
The producers of the show, a reality-based competition which whittles down four contestants for a $10,000 prize and have their work featured by the network, solicited the bakery to appear. To win, bakers have to out-do each other, making improvisational recipes from unusual ingredients, such as treats made of jalapeno potato chips, to impress tough judges.
"The timing is completely real,” Megan told Lincoln’s KOLN-TV, “and it's made to be a stressful competition."
Unfortunately, they were eliminated in the first round. "Even though it didn't turn out the way we wanted it to,” Loy said, “we're just thrilled that we got the opportunity."
While Cupcake Wars made them local celebrities, Loy credits the help from her husband of 36 years, Greg, and the support of Megan, who volunteers countless hours to open and run the store.
"We have a heart for Lincoln and want our little business to help make Lincoln just a little bit better place to live," Loy said.