Cupcake interview with Shirley Neary, Co-Founder of Omaha's Cupcake Island

Name: Shirley Neary

Title: Founder and co-owner (with Ed LeFebvre) of Cupcake Island, Inc.

Age: 54

Location: 119th and Pacific, near Brother Sebastian's, Omaha, NE.

Occupation: Artist (drawer, painter, quilter), Homemaker, Mother, and now Cupcake Shop Entrepreneur. I like to say that my 2006 art project was this cupcake shop.


What was the inspiration for Cupcake Island, Omaha’s first and only cupcake shop? Did you do market research to find out whether there was enough of a local market for an all-cupcake bakery? Did you have experience in baking?

There were three inspirations for Cupcake Island: the small town Iowa bakeries of my youth, a constant search since then for a freshly baked cupcake for sale, and the boulevard on 52nd and Jones St. in Omaha, which my children called "Cupcake Island" when they picnicked there. As to market research, I didn't do an official study. I just knew that there were no cupcakes for sale on local bakers' shelves. I also knew that our focus would be cupcakes, but that Ed, as a business partner, and the baker, would bring his huge customer base from his wedding and birthday cake business.

My experience in baking is experimenting for friends and family, over the years. I love to bake and do it often, but I have no commercial baking experience.

When did you open and what are your hours? Have you noticed a certain time of day/week to be the busiest?

We opened on September 5, 2006. Our hours are 8 to 5, Monday through Saturday. We are busiest toward the end of each week, and in the afternoons. On Fridays, we have sold out, and Saturday is busy all day.

What does the name “Cupcake Island” signify and what kind of an oasis are you providing for your customers? How much does the atmosphere of a bakery affect people’s enjoyment of its cupcakes?

Our name signifies a place of memory and maybe fantasy, where everything is perfect. Really, I don't want our customers to see us scrubbing pans, or floors, or complaining about the heat (but, of course, they will⎯we have an open kitchen). I hope that our atmosphere is partly why people come in⎯it's a warm color scheme, with music that can be heard outside as people approach. It makes us "dance" and feel happy! We have three small tables and chairs, with outdoor seating in nice weather.

Since your original inspiration was a visit to New York’s Buttercup Bakeshop, I’m curious if there’s a local sensibility to your bakery. Is there something more ”Omaha-esque” than “New York-esque” about it?

I love this question, because a lot of people think I'm trying to bring a New York idea to Omaha. It's really more that The Buttercup Bakeshop showed me what is possible. But, we've always planned on a Midwestern feel. It is more Omaha because of our location⎯we basically have customers who drive to us. Omaha doesn't have a New York style "walk by" market. Also, our most popular flavor is our chocolate/chocolate “Devil Among Us,” and I think in New York, it might be something more wild⎯maybe not.

You had searched for the kinds of cupcakes you wanted in Omaha to no avail. What were the options prior to Cupcake Island? What’s been the reaction of shoppers? Are they eager for a shop dedicated to cupcakes or surprised at the range of offerings?

The options for cupcakes were little plastic six packs of flavorless ones at the grocery stores, or baking your own. Shoppers who visit us are ecstatic about our shop, and our offerings. I could write a book of the stories we've heard of how our cupcakes have made a difference in people's lives. Customers of all ages come in with a smile on their faces.

You have a delightful array of daily special flavors, including Sugar, Spice, and Apples Are Nice (apple spice cake with caramel frosting), On Cloud Nine (angel food cake with whipped cream frosting), Twirl for Me (marble cake with vanilla frosting), Peanut Butter Cup (chocolate cake with peanut butter filling and cream cheese frosting), and The After Dinner Mint (chocolate cake with chocolate mint frosting). How did you come up with the special flavors, and are there any ideas for flavors that didn’t make the final cut?

The flavors and their names are a lasting memorial to our days of planning. We (Ed, Kara, our operations manager, and I) met every day at 10 a.m. amidst the build out of our space. Ed would sometimes bring in samples, and Kara would name them (with help from her mother, Kim, over a bottle of wine). Kara gets the credit for all of our names, and for getting a peanut butter cupcake on the menu. As for other flavors, there are so many desired ones that we'll always be testing. Kara has a very creative baking sense (having once made a wasabe-ginger-chocolate cake) and is sure to bring in a fruit tart cupcake soon. Some flavors that didn't make the cut are peaches and cream, cookies and cream, and chocolate orange. They may be in our future.

Some of your specials also include a vegan chocolate cake and a sugar free cake with sugar free frosting. Do you find that you have a lot of customers with special dietary requests? Do you take suggestions from customers as to new flavor ideas?

We don't have too many customers with special dietary requests, but there are a few, so we like to offer them. Customer input is definitely appreciated. That's why we now have a Lemon Drop flavor, mini cupcakes, and 7 minute icing.

You have a special picture on your website that kids can draw and get a 10% discount on their cupcakes. Do you have a sense of how many of your cupcakes are eaten by kids vs. adults? Does each group approach the process of choosing and eating their cupcake differently?

Our cupcakes are enjoyed equally by both kids and adults. People order them for office breaks and parties, and kids’ get-togethers. I think kids tend to choose by color, and adults by flavor.

Do you plan to serve anything else other than cupcakes?

We've always served bottled cold drinks, milk, and fair trade coffee and tea. We now serve muffins, and have made layer and sheet cakes, and wedding cakes from the beginning.

And now for some personal questions . . .

How often do you eat cupcakes?

More than I used to.

What's the best thing about eating cupcakes?

The first bite.

What's your favorite type of cupcake?

Anything from scratch, with whole ingredients, nothing artificial.

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

They are more special, for me, than a cookie or bar or pie. Would bread be in the baked goods category? A good loaf of freshly baked bread is as special as a cupcake to me.

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

Not in taste, but we are definitely in need of a reliable shipping container, with individual compartments to hold the cupcakes in place. We have shipped to all corners of the U.S., with mixed results.

Do you bake your own cupcakes? Or (even better) have someone who bakes them for you?

I bake them at home; Ed bakes them in the shop. People specifically ask for the cakes to be "Ed baked.”

What's your first cupcake-related memory?

I've tried and tried to remember my mother's birthday or school cupcakes⎯I know she made them, because that's where I learned how to bake. But, my growing up cupcake related memory continues to be Jung's Bakery in Carroll, Iowa, where they had upside down chocolate and vanilla cupcakes covered with frosting, and another frosting squiggle on top.

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

Creating this shop.

Do you have anything else to add?

Just my gratitude for this blog, and your cupcake enthusiasm!