Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Chop Talk: My Interview with Hello Cupcake's Penny Karas

She's a cupcake evangelist. A true believer in every sense, and she's opening up a cupcake cathedral where we can all come and worship at the alter of cakey goodness.

When Penny Karas opens Hello Cupcake later this Summer, she won't be alone. The cupcake movement is alive and well in Washington DC, not to mention LA, New York, and almost every other major city.

Back in 2006, when Karas was in the planning phases for Hello Cupcake, she went on a cupcake pilgrimage of sorts - touring the best shops around the country for ideas. When she came back to DC, she had three lessons learned from the road that she quickly implemented: 1) "product quality and variety is absolutely the number one priority", 2) "a decision to create a premium brand image", and 3) "provide the best cupcakes, with top-quality customer service in a sparkling clean environment."

None of those goals are accomplished easily, but Karas seems to be up to the challenge. She understands that "If the product is not good, it is not going to succeed, no matter how hot the “trend", and plans to use "use premium, seasonal and, when possible, local ingredients" in offering regular, gluten-free, and vegan cupcakes.

Karas has an obsession when it comes to perfecting her product. She says that she "took the Cook’s Illustrated approach and experimented with different versions of my recipes until I found the perfect ones", stating that "basic chocolate and vanilla cakes were the most difficult, because they really must shine on their own and take a variety of frostings well. I did 12-15 versions of each of those before I chose the ones on the menu."

But it's not just cupcakes that will draw customers to Hello Cupcake; Karas says that the feel will be that of a "a boutique or a little high-end jewelry store", and it certainly helps that her husband and designer is award-winning architect Bill Bonstra. The shop won't just look modern; it will be modern, with keeping environmentally friendly a key feature. "Environmental stewardship is personally very important to me" says Karas about what role being green played in opening up her shop, " I wouldn’t open a business without taking this in to account."

While the shop hasn't even opened its doors, Karas is already thinking beyond cupcakes. She'll be offering cake plates and reusable totes to carry your order in, as "a line of all-natural, canine-friendly, mini cupcake treats called Lola’s Pupcakes (named for her dog Lola)". She's also thinking expansion, looking for a space in a similar area where she could maybe spread out, and be "large enough to serve as both a retail shop and the Hello Cupcake commissary, for catering events and making deliveries."

Penny sees in DC a market of people ready to believe in her product. She sees a market that "gets it" in a city that is a "true food destination".

Whether or not her faith in her product or her market is well put or misplaced will come with time. Karas believes that the "individual nature of cupcakes has a huge appeal" and that "cupcakes are precisely the kind of treat that works well in a down economy", much like the one we're in right now.

One thing is for sure though; there is no doubting Penny Karas' enthusiasm about her product, or her dedication to her future customers. I can only guess that her customer’s enthusiasm and dedication will be just as intense.

Photos Courtesy: Hello Cupcake

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It's amazing what we will consume, isn't it? That a shop devoted to cupcakes will thrive just amazes me. If Starbucks could do it with specialty coffee drinks, then why not bakeries with cupcakes? If we could get one of these in the 'burbs I might be on the bandwagon too!