Written by Anna Raddatz | Photos by Anthony Harden
Jacey Kross recalls one afternoon when a woman came into Candy Cakes, selected a small cupcake, and brought it up to the counter to purchase. “I said, ‘Would you like this in a gift box?’ and she said, ‘Oh no, I’ll just eat it now.’ And I said, ‘Um, I don’t think so…’”
They truly do look good enough to eat. And while the natural ingredients aren’t harmful if they are ingested (just ask the owner’s Shih Tzu), these cupcakes are made to soothe the body, not the sweet tooth.
Candy Cakes Bath Bakery whips up bath bombs and other bath products disguised as cupcakes, cake slices, ice cream cones, and other sweet treats. There’s something for every occasion and mood, from Bridal French Vanilla Cupcake bath bombs and Birthday Cake milk bath slices, to Fresh Lavender “pedi-fours” foot soaks and Pompous Pomegranate Ice Cream Cone bubble baths.
If you think it sounds delicious, you’re not alone. “All day, every day, people come in asking if it’s a bakery,” says founder and owner Ali Pearson. “We have a sign that says ‘do not eat.’ We have no refrigerators. But they still ask!”
Luckily, all of this trompe l’oeil confusion hasn’t impeded sales one bit. From a small location on Main Street in Hendersonville, Candy Cakes is doing big business. Dozens of retailers, large and small, carry their products—including the Waldorf Astoria hotel chain, Hallmark, Foxwoods Resort Casino, and Crabtree & Evelyn—and they ship 10 to 15 orders a day to places as far-flung as Germany and Egypt. While 99% of Candy Cakes’ sales are via wholesale, individuals can purchase the products online or by stepping into their adorable storefront.
And it all started with some baking sheets and a countertop mixer in Ali Pearson’s kitchen.
From Home Kitchen to the Hilton
She came up with the concept back in 2007. A fan of bath products, Pearson thought it would be cute to put bath bomb ingredients into cupcake liners. She developed a recipe that worked—“That was the easy part,” she explains. Trickier was how to make the cupcakes beautiful; that’s where her daughter, Candace, came in. “My youngest daughter had just graduated from culinary school, where she had taken some pastry courses,” says Pearson. “She taught me how to ice.”
Pearson started churning out creations in her kitchen, using a small KitchenAid mixer. She reconnected with a friend and former co-worker, Jacey Kross, who began assisting with the business as marketing director. As Pearson came up with new designs, Kross would photograph them and email the images to stores, searching for sales. “We got a couple hits that way,” says Kross. Local stores like Porter & Prince and Lavender Fields started carrying Candy Cakes’ products.
Through their contact at Porter & Prince, they made a connection with the merchandise buyer at the Biltmore Estate. To their surprise, the buyer replied immediately, asking if they could meet that afternoon. “I thought, ‘Oh no, I can’t do that! I’m not ready! My samples have to be perfect,’” says Pearson. An appointment was made, the buyer fell in love with the product, and a long-term relationship was built. Today the Biltmore Estate places one or two orders every month.
Getting the Biltmore account was a turning point for the company. First, the higher demand meant that the business needed more space than Pearson’s home kitchen could offer. “We pooled all of our savings and pennies together,” says Kross, and they moved into a storefront in Hendersonville in February 2012. They also bought a 500-pound industrial mixer to replace Pearson’s little KitchenAid and brought on a few more helpers. But more importantly, because the Biltmore Estate receives an annual visitorship of approximately one million people from all over the world, it became the source of a steady stream of leads for Candy Cakes.
For example, the owner of a Canadian pharmacy chain happened across Candy Cakes’ products during a visit to the Biltmore Estate, and in June 2012 called to commission a holiday line for her 1,200 stores. “She found us at the Biltmore and she bought everything up that she found there,” recalls Kross. “She called out of the blue, and we had a long chat. I asked what sort of numbers they were looking for. She said 40,000 or 50,000 units, and each unit is a package of three or six. I’m doing the math… 40,000 times six… and I’m thinking, that’s a hell of a lot of cupcakes! I called Ali and said, ‘Are you sitting down?’”
By working long hours and producing thousands of cupcakes a day over four months, they fulfilled the job. As they describe the experience now, Pearson and Kross display the yin-and-yang balance common to so many collaborators. “All of it was a great experience,” says Pearson enthusiastically. “I absolutely loved it.” Kross counters with a slightly tense expression: “It was very stressful,” she says, but follows up with the fact that the order enabled her to quit her day job to focus on Candy Cakes full-time. “I thought, ‘Yay! Now we can really work together.’”
The Canadian pharmacy job also provided enough funds to make some investments in the business. Pearson and Kross started attending trade shows in New York, Chicago, Atlanta, and London, which helped them make connections and land new wholesale clients. And they updated their branding materials, from their logo and website to their product packaging.
“You have to have money to package,” explains Pearson, “and when you start shipping big orders and can have damages, you start to re-evaluate.” They went from packing their cupcakes in poly bags, to using custom-made plastic boxes that look beautiful on the shelf and protect the product in transit. “Finding the right cupcake box was a challenge,” recalls Pearson. “It took a year.” But their patience paid off; higher-end packaging translated into a dramatic increase in sales.
In fact, “patience” has become one of Pearson’s mantras. “If it’s something you love doing, don’t give up,” she advises. She has witnessed many other entrepreneurs who quit too early, losing steam when overnight success doesn’t materialize. Even Kross admits that early on she was tempted to throw in the towel. But for Pearson, that was never an option. “She knew it would work and never gave up,” says Kross of Pearson.
In a similar vein, both women have learned over and over to follow their gut instincts when it comes to big business decisions—and never to make commitments hastily. “Too many people make quick decisions,” says Pearson. “And they make those decisions out of fear.” Instead, Pearson says that when she takes a slow, thoughtful approach, the answer usually finds her. “It’s a matter of not jumping so quickly. Let it come to you. If you wait, it will come to you, and you will know what direction you should go.”
For Candy Cakes, sometimes this can mean turning down opportunities that aren’t a good fit (discount stores that would undermine their high-end brand identity) or seem suspicious (proposed business ventures that aren’t aboveboard). “We’ve turned down jobs that we know will cause problems,” says Kross. “We want the right fit every time.”
(article continues on page 2 and more photographs are at the end)