August 21, 2018

Transparency In All Aspects Of Your Small Food Business (PODCAST)

Transparency is all the buzz in the food industry these days. Sheila Griffin, owner of Houston-based gourmet cupcake shop, SheCupakes, takes that to heart in every aspect of her business. As you’ll see in today’s interview, Sheila believes in being open and honest in all things.

Jennifer: Thanks to feedback from you, our listeners, we know that some of your favorite podcasts are the ones where we talk to everyday ordinary food entrepreneurs, the folks who are starting up small food businesses just like you and managing and dealing with the day-to-day challenges. So today we are talking to just that type of food entrepreneur. We’re talking with Shelia Griffin, who along with her husband, Dwayne, owns She Cupcakes, a gourmet cupcake business. You can find out more about their business at

Jennifer: Sheila, thank you so much for joining us today.

Sheila: Thank you, Jennifer. I’m excited to be here with you.

Jennifer: Well, as I was mentioning in the introduction to today’s podcast, one of the things that listeners really love is hearing these real life stories, and you are a real life food entrepreneur. So, just to kind of build a little bit of the background for us so we know a little bit about you, when did you first get into baking, not even professionally, but just when did you decide that you loved baking? And then second to that, when did you decide to turn that into a business? How did that evolve?

Sheila: Okay. Well, I think my story probably sounds like so many other women who are bakers now, but I did start off with an Easy Bake Oven. That was my first start into baking. And as I got a little bit older, I was always in the kitchen with my grandmother, who at the time had a barbecue business. But in addition to that, she was an excellent cook and prepared huge family meals on a regular basis. So I kind of grew up in the kitchen with her, just watching her, following her directions. And that was very important, even when she wasn’t giving recipe instructions, she was just giving so much good information that even today now, I can recall those things that she said to me even at 10 and 11, and those things are … that’s information that I use in the kitchen today.

Sheila: So I always baked, always baked pound cakes for family gatherings and things like that, always baked peanut butter cookies. But what took me into I guess baking professionally and really trying to grow a business, in 2009, I was working in corporate America as a counselor. And I was always baking on the side, and sometimes I would bring sweet treats to work. But I was doing my research on opening up a business or starting a business baking nothing but pound cakes, because that’s what I baked for my family all the time, 7-Up cakes. But in my research, I came across all this information about cupcakes. Now, I’m here in Texas, so at that time, I think it was maybe like one or two cupcake shops that I know of in Houston, but I saw all this traction that the cupcake industry was gaining on the east coast. So I knew it would be coming this way, I just didn’t know when.

Sheila: And so I started doing my research on cupcakes and went into the kitchen and just started playing with some of my cake recipes, making them into cupcakes. And that’s how that got started in 2009. And October 2009, I lost my job so I was at home going crazy trying to find another job. And nothing was happening for me. I have a master’s degree in education, extensive customer service experience from the oil and gas industry. I was in Rose City for 14 years. So I knew I had some skills that I could take into another company and do well, not only achieve my personal goals, but achieve the company goals as well. I was in management. So, I knew I was a viable candidate for any company. But I guess God saw fit to do something else because he turned me and my ideas and my plans on its head.

Sheila: And it was like no door would open for me. I had sent out over hundreds of resumes, applications, and nothing was happening for me. But in the meantime, I’m still doing all this research. I’m still in the kitchen working on cupcakes. I’m still learning how to frost a cupcake. I did not know how to frost a cupcake. I did not know how to use the frosting bag. So I was so new, I was going out to cake supply stores just trying to find a tip that I liked that would work for me to make what I call my signature swirl on my cupcake. And it was a journey because as much as I loved baking, I still wanted to be in corporate America, I still wanted to utilize my education because I have a heart for people and I definitely have a heart for counseling.

Sheila: So, at the same time I was baking, I was still trying to figure out how can I mirror or couple this, my love for education and counseling, along with baking. And again, nothing came my way. When I say absolutely nothing came my way, not even an interview. And I really had to laugh at God and say, “God, you know, your sense of humor is amazing.”

Jennifer: That’s a great attitude because I have to say, not everybody would put that spin on it as opposed to the woe is me … that’s hard. That’s hard emotionally.
Sheila: It was. It was very hard. So what I had to do is really, really embrace this baking thing. I always loved baking, but if it was something that I was going to pursue on a full-time basis, I thought it would be on my timeline and me pursuing it the way I wanted to while I was working full-time, baking in the evening and slowly growing the business and using my paycheck and resources to funnel into the baking business, and it didn’t work out that way. I never got a full-time job to this very day. I never had anyone to call me for an interview or anything. And so God put me in a position where I had to pursue this thing. And I think the biggest thing about it was me coming out of fear, me coming out of fear and stepping out on faith to pursue it. And so I kept baking the cupcakes. My family was my taste-testers.

Sheila: And I just kept going with it. And then eventually, I got a booth at a farmer’s market. And so when I did that, it really started picking up traction for me and my customer base really started picking up. I had built my own website and my social media pages. And so from there, I just started really pushing the business. And little by little, a lot of work, people were starting to recognize me and become familiar with me and becoming my repeat customers at the farmer’s market. And my family started placing more orders with me, even my church members. So, it was a process. And it’s still a process today.

Sheila: But how we took the business a next step further, in the midst of all this baking, something major happened in 2015, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Jennifer: Oh, I’m sorry.

Sheila: Thank you. Thank you, I appreciate it. I was diagnosed with breast cancer, but what happened during those nine months of surgery, chemo, and radiation, it was still a lot of research, and when I was feeling good, I would still do some baking, I would still take some orders. But during that time, that’s when me and my husband, we were really planning for the next step in our cupcake business. And before that diagnosis, we had looked at a couple of retail spaces to lease out, and we couldn’t come to an agreement on a space. It was either I liked the space, my husband didn’t like the space. Or he didn’t think it was the right location. So we just kind of but that on the back burner for peace sake.

Sheila: And so when the diagnosis came, it was like, okay, this blocked us from our … or kind of saved us from signing a retail space. Because had I signed a lease for a retail space, I wouldn’t have been able to operate the business, trying to go through the treatment. So during that time, we started talking about a cupcake truck. And we were both online looking at cupcake trucks, and actually he was online more than I was when I didn’t know. So it was pretty shocking some days when he would come in and say, “I was looking at some trucks,” just kind of nonchalant about it. Because in my mind, I kind of thought, “Oh, it’s not a big deal to him. He doesn’t care. He’s not bothered.” And it was totally the opposite.

Sheila: And it’s a cupcake bakery in San Francisco, I’ve been following this cupcake shop for, at that time, it was about 10 years. And I saw one of her cupcake trucks online that they had it listed for sale. And so I showed it to my husband, and he looked at it, in excellent condition, but he didn’t really show … he wasn’t excited about it or anything like that. He was like, “Yeah, that’s nice.” So, he came home one day, and he said, “I talked to your mentor.” Now, I’m still going through the cancer treatment. And I’m like, “Who?” And he said, “The lady you said you’ve been following all these years.” He said, “I talked to her husband today.” I’m like, “What?”

Jennifer: Wow.

Sheila: Yeah. And it was just a total shock. He said, “I’m going out to San Francisco.” I’m like, “Don’t play with me.” He said, “Yeah.” He said, “I put some money down on the truck for them to hold it for me, and I will fly to San Francisco. And if the truck is what they say it is,” he said, “I’m driving it back to Texas.” And at that moment, I’m just going crazy.

Jennifer: Oh, of course.

Sheila: I’m just going crazy. Even knowing that I was wrapping up my cancer treatment, knowing that I’m about to get a cupcake truck, that was like just so much to look forward to, so excited about. He took a relative of mine to San Francisco with him. He called and this excitement that my husband had was just amazing, because when you’re trying to verbalize your vision to someone and it’s not their vision, so the excitement I had initially trying to get this going, he didn’t. He couldn’t see it. He couldn’t see it at all because the only thing he could see at that time, I think, was a 9:00 to 5:00, Monday through Friday, and I just don’t see how you could even make a living with a cupcake … you’re telling me people are gonna buy enough cupcakes to make a living off of?

Jennifer: Yep.

Sheila: And for so long, it was trying to get him to buy into this vision, because I’m like, “You have to know this is God. I have a master’s degree and no one has called me for a job. You have to know that God is in this plan.” And so when he called me from San Francisco, he called me with the owner’s of this company, and they are well-known, she’s been on Cupcake Wars. San Francisco is their … that’s their area with all of their stores. And so she got on the phone and I’m on the phone with her screaming, excited. So she was just giving me a little bit of information about the truck and how [inaudible 00:15:25] loved the truck, and how they made a lot of money with the truck. And so when I talked with my husband, he was like, “Baby, they have a cupcake empire here.” He said, “It’s just amazing here.” He said, “I’m gonna bring you back here to see what they have.” Because they have 10 stores. They have several trucks. And he was like, “This is amazing, their corporate office …” And he was just like a totally different person that day. And I guess seeing what they built, hearing their story, because she started, she left a corporate job and started off baking and just started building from there and opened up one store. And it grew from there.

Sheila: So, we got the truck. And this past May makes one year that we’ve had the cupcake truck. So I’m no longer at the farmer’s market. I’m in the cupcake truck now and I do corporate events, schools. We do food truck Fridays throughout different neighborhoods. We go to corporate locations, pretty much anywhere. We go to churches. And it has definitely been a journey thus far, still learning, still working hard to grow the business. But it’s still exciting and I love it.

Jennifer: So just to make sure that I … so initially, this whole journey started, let’s say, 2009.

Sheila: Yes.

Jennifer: And then did you open up … When did you get into the farmer’s markets?

Sheila: I got into the farmer’s market probably about seven months later.

Jennifer: Okay, so roughly early 2010.

Sheila: Yes.

Jennifer: And then the cupcake truck … Because, I mean, five years later, so that’s five years of building the business to that point.

Sheila: Yes.

Jennifer: Okay.

Sheila: Yes.

Jennifer: And then you said … so right now you basically take the truck out to corporate events, to schools and churches and catered events.

Sheila: Yes.

Jennifer: And then do people still, let’s say, place orders with you to-

Sheila: Yes.

Jennifer: Pick up a dozen or something like that?

Sheila: Yes, they do.

Jennifer: Okay.

Sheila: Yes, yes.

Jennifer: Okay. You know, one of the things that I wanted to talk to you about today, and to listeners, you might have heard it come up a little bit already, which is … So this idea of transparency and the idea in the food industry, this is a really hot topic right now, but I wanna take a different twist on it because one of the things that I was really impressed with you, Sheila, in looking over your website and when we had talked initially prior to this, is how upfront you are about multiple things in your business, with a big one of those being your faith and the role that it plays in your life. And a lot of business owners, and this is food and elsewhere, kind of hesitate to make their faith so prominent in their messaging, and that’s something that you’ve decided not to hide, that you’re gonna be very upfront about that. What was your … I’m gonna ask what was your decision to be so upfront about that, but I’m almost wondering, talking to you now, whether that was … it doesn’t even sound like it was a decision, that that was part of who you are and so you continued that into the business.

Sheila: You are absolutely right. My faith is the foundation of who I am. And so it was never, and it has never been, a conscious decision to say, “I’m going to talk about my faith,” or, “Should I hide my faith?” My faith makes me who I am today, so I never second guessed or I have never doubted, “Should I talk about my faith? Should I display anything about my faith on the website?” That’s never been a decision. That’s never been a decision to hide it or anything like that. When my customers get to know me, or even placing an order with me or even coming to the truck, you would not believe how many times I’ve had customers come to the truck and say, “What’s your story? I wanna know about you?” And so I always know, “Okay, that’s a divine God moment,” because I don’t have scriptures or anything like that displayed on the outside of the cupcake truck. So when you come to the truck and you say to me, “What’s your story?” Or, “It’s something about you that I like. It’s something different about you.” I just kind of chuckle like, “No, it’s not me. It’s the God in me. It’s my faith walk. It’s my love of Jesus Christ and it’s my love for people, so that’s what you say. That’s what you’re feeling when you come to the truck.”

Sheila: And I get that all the time. I get that all the time, even customers that I’ve never met who place an order online, when I deliver the order to them, it’s, “Wow, it’s something different about you.” Or, I’ll get a customer who’ll ask me, “Do you love Jesus?” “Yeah.” “I kind of felt that from you.” So, yeah, it’s never been … it’s never been a time where I had to say, “I don’t know if I should do this,” or, “Yes, I’m gonna display my faith.” That’s just who I am. And I know for a lot of people in this climate, I know a lot of people struggle with that or they try to make sure nothing comes out of their mouth that sounds like, oh, I’m a believer, or I love God, or I love Jesus. I know a lot of people try to make sure that that’s something that they shy away from, but that’s something that I cannot do. I am who I am because of my faith. I don’t apologize for it. Never try to hide it. And I’ve never had, or even encountered, anyone in business who even felt like, “Well, I don’t know if I wanna purchase from you. She’s a Christian, she loves God.” Never. I’ve had people of all faiths purchase from me.

Sheila: I have a customer who travels back and forth to Saudi Arabia, and there are times when they are in Saudi that they call me from Saudi to place orders for their family who lives here in the area where I live for me to deliver orders. So, you know, my faith hasn’t closed any doors on me at all. People just naturally embrace me, and I think God for that. And like I said, I don’t apologize for my faith. I don’t hide it. And that’s just who I am, and I’m grateful for that.

Jennifer: You know, and it is really good to hear, I think especially if there are others listening who do have a very strong faith, and whatever their religious affiliation may be, just that it can be something that you can stand true in because it is … You know, we talk a lot also about authenticity, as you as the small business owner, being authentic so that people can understand who you are and connect with you. And as you’ve said, it might be somebody of a different faith, but they can still connect to you as a human being and as a person because you are being so upfront and authentic with them. So it is good to hear that you haven’t had pushback. Because I had wondered that too in today’s political climate, if you had gotten pushback from customers around that.

Sheila: No. I haven’t. I haven’t at all.

Jennifer: So, you also mentioned in the very beginning that kind of how your business grew organically, which is kind of the friends and family first, and then … you specifically mentioned through churches. So, how did you, when you were starting up, how did you work to kind of grow that word of mouth about your business? I’m sure the farmer’s markets helped too, in the beginning. And then what are you doing now to continue to build that word of mouth and those repeat customers?
Sheila: You know what? I’m doing the same thing now that I did in he beginning. And I use all of my social media, of course.

Jennifer: I’m sorry, what social media channels do you use? I’m just curious.

Sheila: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. But my customers have sent me probably 90% of my business. I get a lot of referrals.

Jennifer: That’s the best marketing you can do.

Sheila: Yes. I get a lot of referrals. And I’ve just been doing it the old-fashioned way. I still utilized email. I still send out emails introducing my business to churches, to different companies, to hospitals, to schools. I still send out emails introducing my business. Of course, you know, on Facebook and Instagram, Instagram shows a lot of my work. But on Facebook I’m posting as well as Twitter. So I get customers that way. Or I’ve had someone to share something from my Facebook page and someone will contact me. But it’s definitely not … it’s not easy. It’s not easy because when you’re not baking, when you’re not at an event, that’s what you’re doing. And being a small business owner, it’s you building the business. You don’t have a social media team or anything like that. You’re sitting at the computer and you’re sending out letters, and you’re looking for events to sign up for. So, no, the process hasn’t changed at all. It’s still the same. I may be doing a little bit less posting than I was initially, but the process has still been the same. And I think that if I’m not in the kitchen baking, then I have to be on the computer or something, posting and seeking out events.

Sheila: And so I think that part of growing a business scares a lot of new business owners and entrepreneurs because I think that’s something that a lot of people fret about. “Well, how will I get my name out there?” And not realizing you will be the person getting your name out there. So if you’re not doing the dirty work behind the scenes, no one will know that you exist. And sometimes my mom, she’ll call me if I’m at home, and she’ll go, “Well, you’re not doing anything.” And I’m like, “Yeah, I am. You think when I’m not in the kitchen baking I have all this free time and I can come hang out with you. No I can’t.” Because when I’m not baking, I’m working on the next event, or I’m working on next month’s calendar. I can’t stop. I have to keep going. Because when I go to one event, that event is over. At that moment, I’m already thinking about when is my next event.

Sheila: Or when customers come to the window and I’m talking about the business and giving them a business card and thanking them for their purchase, I’m letting those customers know, we come out for any occasion, we do birthday parties, we do corporate events, we do family reunions. So I’m selling the business and I’m trying to book the next event with a customer who’s at the window. So I don’t know which customer it’ll be, but one of these customers will probably be my next event. So you’re always in that mode. You’re always working on your next order or your next event.

Jennifer: Yeah. I’m reminded of that old movie where there was the saying of, “Always be selling,” which is just this idea of you always have to be marketing your business. And you brought up a great point too that it’s not just that social media and sending out emails, but also those face-to-face interactions with customers and making sure that they do know that they’re appreciated and other services that you offer and how can you keep bringing them back, and keep your name top of mind for them.

Sheila: Right. Yes.

Jennifer: You know, one thing, again, kind of going back to this transparency topic, one thing that you are really upfront about as well is your pricing. So, I wanna … I encourage folks to go take a look at your website. One of things I love is that you explicitly state, you’re like, “Hey, we use quality ingredients, and as such, our price point is going to be higher than kind of the lowest price competitor in my market.” And you tell people, if you’re just price shopping for cupcakes, you’re gonna need to go somewhere else. So, how did you determine what would be the right price for both you as a business owner to make a profit, but also one that you know customers were going to pay, so it’s not $20 for one cupcake?

Sheila: Right. Well, one of the things I did, the first thing I did, I had to add up what my cost is for all of my ingredients, from the vanilla to the butter to the cupcake boxes to the labels that I put on the boxes, I added up the cost for all of my ingredients. Then I added in my cost as far as my hourly rate. And then I kind of looked at what’s the … I looked at the market. I looked at the area. Because of course, since 2009, several cupcake shops have came up in the Houston area. So I kind of did a comparison to the prices of a lot of the shops. And I didn’t want to be the lowest person in town, but I also did not want to be the most expensive cupcake truck. And so my prices fall in line with … in this area, $3 is common for a cupcake. The highest cupcake shop in this area is $44 a dozen. Then there are some shops who charge $26 a dozen, or $28 or $30 a dozen.
Sheila: So my price for a dozen cupcakes is $36. For the average consumer who doesn’t buy cupcakes, you will look at that price and think, “No, I’m not paying $36 for a box of cupcakes. I can go to the store and buy me a cake mix and bake some at home.” But, once I identify who my customer base is, I’ve never had any problems with my prices. So that’s why I can list all of my prices on the website. You don’t have to call me to ask me, “How much is a dozen of cookies? How much is a half-sheet cake?” All of that is laid out on the website. So when you take a look at the website, you already know if you want to purchase from me. Because I know who my customer is, I identified my customer years ago. And so that’s never an issue for me.

Sheila: And I’m never on the phone negotiating my prices. I don’t negotiate my prices at the truck. When customers place an order with me, I never negotiate my prices. I never have a customer haggling me about wanting something cheaper, because first of all, I’m an all scratch baker. There are a lot of cupcake bakers. There are a lot of cake decorators. But a lot of those shops use cake mix. And I’m not judging them for that, that’s their style of baking. I’m an all scratch baker. So, people who grew up with a grandmother like I did, or they grew up around aunties or great-aunties or what have you who were bakers, they understand and they know what quality, all scratch baking is and what it tastes like. When you bite into a scratch cupcake versus a cupcake that’s been made with a cake mix, you will notice a difference.

Sheila: For some of those bakers, it may be, “Well, you can’t tell. We add sour cream. We add buttermilk, a bunch of flavor, whatever.” None of that, I do none of that. So when customers order from me, they know. And when they get their product, “Oh, you’re a real baker. Oh, this is a scratch baker.” From my frostings, everything is scratch made. So I don’t apologize for the prices, never trying to hide them. And like I said, I identified who my customer base is a long time ago, so if you’re looking for cupcakes that cost $22 a dozen, well, you’re not my customer.

Jennifer: Well, that’s a really important topic too, or a really important point, which is you’re not trying to be … you’re not trying to service every body. That is, you said you’ve identified who your market is and those are customers who appreciate the skill and the qualities that you bring to the product and are willing to pay the price for that because they understand there is a cost component to that.

Sheila: Right.

Jennifer: And that’s really important. That’s really important for all food entrepreneurs to understand, because I feel like a lot of times we got caught up in this, “I’ll just be everything for everyone,” and that’s not sustainable.

Sheila: Right. It’s not at all.

Jennifer: It’s worth mentioning … So you’ve taken your experiences, and I saw on your website, you’ve turned it into a book titled, “Ten Ingredients for Success in Your Cupcake Business or any Business.” And so what would you say has been the biggest lesson you’ve learned since starting this business?

Sheila: You know, my faith definitely has sustained me thus far, and it will continue to sustain me, but holding onto my faith and walking this business out, that has been the thing to sustain me. Because you have the months that are slow, you have slow months like June, July, the summertime, those are slow months, and everything starts picking back up in August prior to school starting. But during the slow months, my faith is what sustains me because just from having interactions and conversations with other entrepreneurs, you can go into panic mode. “Well, I haven’t had an event. I haven’t had a food truck event this month.” You can easily go into panic mode being a small business owner. And what I’ve learned is during this slow time, it shouldn’t be slow time. It should be you recognizing, “Okay, right now I don’t have any events on the book. So, this is my time to really ramp up more Facebook postings, sending out more letters, going out introducing myself to some new companies who’ve never had an opportunity to purchase from me.” Everybody at my church is not aware that I have a cupcake business, so as many times as my church has purchase from me, well, we have new members joining our church every week. So I just had a conversation with a member on last week who did not even know I had a cupcake business.

Jennifer: Yep.

Sheila: So, this downtime is for me to keep talking and keep building up the business and keep introducing the business to people who’ve never experienced any of my sweet treats. And so that means me getting out opening my mouth, still handing out business cards. I think that’s something that all entrepreneurs and business owners should never get out of the mindset of having your business cards with you and handing out cards and introducing yourself. So that’s what I’m doing still in the downtime.

Jennifer: Yeah. As you said, taking advantage of that downtime and not panicking, because it is pretty easy to panic.

Sheila: Yes.

Jennifer: Well, Sheila, I wanna thank you today for coming on. I really appreciate you sharing your story and your journey and the little bit about your business and how you’ve been working to grow it. So thank you very much.

Sheila: Oh, thank you, Jennifer. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you.

Jennifer: Thanks.

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