In-depth cupcake interview with Jami Curl of Portland's Saint Cupcake

Name: Jami Curl
Age: 30
Location: Portland, Oregon
Occupation: Bakery, Bakery Owner, Wife

It sounds like business is booming since you opened in December of last year. Were you surprised that cupcakes were such a hit from the start? What made you decide to make them the focus of your bakery?

Business IS booming—it's really quite overwhelming. We feel superfortunate that things are going the way they are; it's been a wild five months of business. We were VERY surprised that cupcakes were popular from the start, especially because when we first opened, the bakery offered so many other options. We decided to focus on cupcakes a few weeks after opening because we had a demand that was much, much bigger than our supply. The people of portland were demanding their cupcakes!

You say that pie is the only thing that can rival the cupcake—how so?

Pie is pretty much my favorite thing to eat. I am a gigantic fan of pie, I actually prefer pie to any kind of cake (including cupcakes)—ESPECIALLY here in Oregon where we have berries that are superdelicious. My husband and I grow cherries, blueberries and marionberries—and the combination of these with a yummy buttery pastry—I just think it's tough to beat. Cupcakes are good, but I have a special place in my heart (and tummy) for pie.

You also sell cupcake dots, mini versions of cupcakes. What gave you the inspiration for those?

I found a dot-sized cupcake tin in our kitchen and just tried it out. We put the cupcakes out in the cupcake case and they sold pretty much instantly. We now sell 4 or 5 times as many dot-sized cupcakes as we do full-sized cupcakes. Our customers really like that they can try several varieties of cupcakes without committing to a full-sized 'cake and parents REALLY like them because they are a more manageable size for kids. We named the mini-cakes “dot” after my grandma.

You once made 95 dozen cupcakes in a day—what goes through your mind after such an insanely cupcake-filled session?

We have now beat the 95 dozen amount—and then some. On the saturday before Easter we baked and sold around 4,000 cupcakes. On an average weekday we now sell 2,000 cupcakes and on Saturdays we sell somewhere around 3,000 cupcakes. Usually what goes through my mind after a day like the Saturday before Easter is, "What in the heck am I doing to myself and these poor bakers who work for me?" We are very happy that we're so busy, but at the same time, it's a ton of hard work.

You serve Nutella hot cocoa (!!)—do people usually have that alone? It sounds like it might be too much to have with a cupcake.

The nutella hot cooca IS a lot to handle with a cupcake. We aren't serving it during the spring and summer because it's a lot of rich yumminess to handle. We don't serve espresso drinks, either, because we feel that a latte and a cupcake—or a mocha and a cupcake—might be too much to handle. So, we serve regular brewed coffee and milk in cartons. People seem to love the simpleness of those choices.

You wrote on your blog that most of the recipes come from our's mom and grammies. What kinds of cupcakes did you eat as a kid, and how have you expanded upon these traditional recipes?

As a kid I was completely devoted to chocolate, but I hated supersweet simple buttercream icing, so I ate quite a bit of chocolate cake without icing. I started eating my Grandma Dot's pumpkin 'cakes at a very early age, and we still use her exact recipe at saint cupcake today. we also use my grandma's chocolate cake recipe, but we replace a lot of the liquid in the recipe with coffee from Portland's own Stumptown. It gives the cake an even bigger buzz factor—sugar AND coffee in one! I have some fantastic bakers working for me at saint cupcake, and they've worked up a tasty orange chiffon cupcake that our customers really love.

You rotate flavors each day, with specialty flavors like pumpkin with chocolate chips, the fat elvis (banana cupcake with peanut butter hot fudge frosting), vanilla-toffee with chocolate). Which are the most popular, and what's your personal favorite?

My favorite cupcake is the banana chocolate chip. Our two most popular cupcakes are my two least favorite cupcakes: toasted coconut cream and red velvet. We have had grown women throw tantrums over red velvet cupcakes—right in the middle of the shop.

How often do you test new flavors and where do you get the ideas for them?

I test new flavors weekly. Right now I'm finishing up testing an almond butter cake with pistachio buttercream and our kitchen manager, Megan, is working on a cupcake that incorporates the delicious Oregon strawberry. The ideas for new flavors come from the original list of flavors I created before opening the shop—we're still just pulling from that list.

You wrote that you were surprised that Easter was such a busy time for you. Do you do special themed cupcakes for holidays like Valentine's Day, Christmas or Easter?

We do have special cupcakes for various holidays but it's actually not something I actively think about. What normally happens is that the phone starts ringing off the hook with questions like, "What do your Mother's Day cupcakes look like?" So I then start figuring out what the Mother's Day cupcake looks like. Basically, if our customers create the demand, we try to meet it.

Have you noticed any times of the day or days of the week when business spikes?

Fridays and Saturdays, we are absolutely slammed. On Saturdays we usually have a line to the door from the time we open until the evening. Weekdays around 3 pm (when school gets out) we are usually pretty busy, too.

Serving cupcakes instead of a traditional cake at weddings is an increasingly popular option. Have you noticed more customers being interested in wedding cupcakes, and what kinds of services do you offer for them?

We are booked solid with wedding cupcake orders from now until September. We offer a complete line of services for couples who want cupcakes. We will customize flavors, icing colors, even sprinkle colors. In July, we've got an Alice in Wonderland themed wedding and some of the cupcakes will actually have the phrase "eat me" piped on. We deliver and set up, and we even bake a tiny 4" cake so that the bride and groom can still have something to cut. Weddings are really, really fun for us.

Have there been any special requests/custom orders that stick out in your mind?

The “eat me” cupcakes are quite special. We're also working on a wedding with a circus theme, so the icing on all the cakes will (HOPEFULLY!) look like circus tents.

Now, you say that we have to come in to find out who Saint Cupcakes is, but we're in New York—can you give us a hint?

The story is a long one, so I'll try to summarize:

Saint Cupcake was first just your ordinary baker's daughter but she performed a miracle and became Saint Cupcake, the patron saint of sweet. The miracle? She was able to make the village mute speak—with a pumpkin cupcake. And the mute's first word? "Sweet,” of course!

And now for some personal questions . . .

How often do you eat cupcakes?

I will have a bite of a cupcake if it looks or feels funny, or if I'm testing a new flavor. I used to eat so many cupcakes in one day, more than any one person should ever eat, so I had to go cold turkey for a while in order to get myself under control. Once a week I let myself eat a whole cupcake though, and it's either a chocolate one with hot fudge on top, or a banana chocolate chip. Sad, huh?

What's the best thing about eating cupcakes?

The icing to cake ratio. for sure.

How do cupcakes compare/contrast to other baked goods for you?

Cupcakes are good, really good, but they still run second to pie for me. It's just a personal choice. I just really love pie. Cupcakes definitely rule over other baked goods though—you just can't beat them.

Is there any innovation you'd like to see made to the cupcake that would improve it for you?

I would love to speed up the cupcake cooling process. We are usually so busy on weekends that we have to shove our cupcakes into the freezer as soon as they come out of the oven so that we can get them cooled and iced quickly. But all of that opening and closing of the freezer doors is really rough on commercial equipment, so I'd love some kind of high tech cupcake cool down apparatus.

What's your first cupcake-related memory?

Baking cupcakes with my Grandma Dot at her house in Georgia. It was the same day that I got my first dog bite. I had cupcake on my lip and the dog really wanted it, so,she jumped up to get the cupcake and got my lip instead.

What's the most fun you've ever had with a cupcake?

Almost every day in the Saint Cupcake kitchen is the most fun I've had with a cupcake. I have been so fortunate to find the funniest, happiest bakers on the planet. We do a lot of singing and dancing and joking around while making cupcakes. It's really fun. It might also be the sugar . . .

Do you have anything else to add?

It's surprising how many people take cupcakes dead seriously. iIt scares me sometimes, actually. More than 10 times a day I find myself saying to a customer, "They're just cupcakes!" But, obviously, they aren't just cupcakes to the woman across the counter who is in tears because we have just run out of red velvet. Cupcakes make people go crazy!


Peter Matthes said…
Cupcakes are serious business woman!
earl grey said…
i really enjoyed reading the interview. i am also looking at opening a cupcake bakery, in ATL- so that was very encouraging. thanks!!!