Sprinkles launched the cupcake craze when they opened in Beverly Hills way back in 2005 and has racked up celebrity endorsements from the likes of Barbara Streisand, Tyra Banks, Ryan Seacrest, Paris Hilton, and Blake Lively. Oprah, the queen of celebrity endorsements and all things, really, once ordered 300 cupcakes for overnight delivery to her studio audience eight months into their first year. The attention from Oprah doubled their business immediately. Later on, in 2012, Sprinkles made a splash again by installing the ‘Cupcake ATM’ that dispenses freshly baked cupcakes 24 hours a day — best part, Austin now has one! Directions to the Austin location here.
The preview event for new Austin Sprinkles, in the Domain shopping center, started at five p.m. As I approached the clean, bright storefront ten after, a line had already formed at the door, snaking across the sidewalk and down the way a bit. A woman holding a clipboard at the door was checking people in from a list and fielding questions from dog-walking passerbys about when they could get their hands on one of these famed cupcakes. A DJ inside was spinning a remix of ‘Crazy in Love’ as Sprinkles employees made their way up and down the line, circulating trays of miniature cupcakes. Inside, the display case was full of perfect cupcakes in perfect lines, and the counter was lined with flutes of champagne. Behind the counter, a tall, polished woman stood in a crisp brightly colored sheath dress, smiling and greeting everyone. This, I thought, is a woman who has met Oprah.
Candace Nelson immediately came out from behind the counter and graciously took a few minutes to share her story and wisdom with us. Read on to learn a little bit about what it’s like to follow a dream, disrupt an industry, run a national bakery chain, and start a family while doing it.
Sprinkles started in L.A. and has taken over the nation one store at a time since. Sprinkles now boasts 24 stores coast to coast and more on the way. Tell us the Sprinkles story. Did you alway envision going national?
I grew up loving to bake, but that certainly wasn’t how I started my career. I started in banking, and then I was in the dot.com world in the late 90s. There was the dot.com boom and then subsequently the dot.com bust… so I’m in San Francisco, in my mid 20s, looking around like ‘Should I go to business school? What should I do?’ I decided to go to pastry school and follow my passion. I started baking cakes, desserts, and cupcakes out of my house, and I loved it. And I thought the cupcake, this all-American treat, could really stand on its own. So I set about to reinvent this childhood treat that we all loved. And the idea of the first cupcakes-only bakery was born.
My husband and I opened the first Sprinkles in Beverly Hills almost 12 years ago. And you know, people thought we were pretty crazy, because it was the height of low carb. The South Beach Diet was like the New York Times best selling cookbook for weeks and weeks and weeks. And then also opening the first one in L.A. where people are not really known for eating at all. So people thought it was a little bit of a silly idea– prior to opening. But once we opened, we sold out on day one and it was sort of a sensation right off the bat.
Now, when you ask ‘did I envision that it would be national…’ I think starting a business is so hard that you have to be such a champion of it, and you have to be so passionate about it. I’m such a cheerleader. I think you just have to be such a believer that if I were to say I didn’t imagine it being an national company, I wouldn’t be telling the truth, even though not everyone thought we would survive.
How is running Sprinkles as a national company different than when you started?
The biggest difference is that I’m not physically making cupcakes in the store anymore. That lasted for about a year, and then I pretty much fell on the ground in exhaustion. But really, for us to grow this company across the country, we had to hire up, and you know grow a team, and really train them. So my job went from literally creating cupcakes and handing them to customers to more of a management role, focusing on marketing and recipe development. So I don’t get to touch the cupcakes and the customers as much as I used to. That part I do miss, but I think in the end, it’s been worth it.
Do you have any tips for women who are trying to grow their own businesses and how to give up some that control?
That’s the hardest part. I mean, I held on so tightly to every recipe and my way of doing things. It took me longer to hand over the reins to somebody than it should have, but I wasn’t in a place to let go [yet]. I was like ‘I’m the only one who can really do it just right.’ I was a perfectionist and a control freak. But you have to be willing to give up [a little] to get better. I guess it’s hard for me to give those words of advice, except to say that I did it and it worked out for us, but I know how hard it can be. Do your research. Hire the best people you can. Make sure you have the good people working with you, and around you, and for you, and train them well. Really invest in your people.
You’ve become a mother twice over since you started your business (two boys, aged 6 & 9). How has motherhood changed your approach to life and business?
Well I now understand when we used to get those phone calls like, “Can you just bring my order out to me? My 18-month old just fell asleep in the back and I cannot get out of the car.” And we’d be like “Sure!” but you just never get it until you’re there. I look back on those days I’m like, oh my gosh, it’s amazing. I still get that. More compassion for all those busy moms trying to get their stuff done and be a good mom too.
Sprinkles donates leftovers at the end of the day to the homeless. How did you start doing that?
I remember the first bakery conference my husband and I went to, and it was really enlightening. We went in and it was all of these businesses devoted to extending shelf life. You think you’re going to this bakery conference it’s going to be all this fresh yummy stuff, and instead it was all chemicals. Everywhere. [It was] before we opened Sprinkles, he and I just went around to talk to people. I said ‘Look, we’re going to be fresh every day we won’t need any of this stuff.’ And people laughed at us! They’re like, ‘how are you going to make it? Because if you don’t sell it, you’re not going to throw it away!’ We said, ‘Well, actually, that’s exactly what we’re going to do, [but] we’re not going to throw it away.’ The whole idea of a baked good is that it’s freshly baked. In order to do that, and not have that waste, we wanted to donate to a good cause.
These cupcakes are freshly baked. Someone didn’t come in and bake them yesterday or make them at 5:00 in the morning for the entire day. These are freshly baked all throughout. In order to do that, we have this excess at the end of the night, and we wanted to do something good with it.
What does the future hold for Sprinkles? Will we be able to pick up your red velvet cupcake mix in grocery stores any time soon?
I mean, I would love that. We talk, we brainstorm all sorts of things, including frozen cupcakes already in wrappers you can pop in the oven. But for us right now… well, we have such a demand in terms of opening stores. You know, we’re opening another one in Plano in just a few months, and [we’re focusing on] getting the ‘Sprinkles experience’ out to the widest audience we can [and] in the right way. And once you do any sort of wholesaling, you lose a little bit of that control. So, we’ve held off on anything like that right now, but it certainly could happen.