Captivated by cupcakes: Two find sweet road to success

September 08, 2004|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN FOOD EDITOR

The Republicans held their national convention in New York last week without help from Tracy Rice.

Although Rice, a thirtysomething who lives in Locust Point, helped organize the 1996 and 2000 GOP conventions, this year she had more important things to do. She was baking cupcakes.

Rice, along with Shannon Mitchell of White Hall, recently opened the Baltimore Cupcake Co., occupying a pink building on Fort Avenue and specializing in cupcakes, cookies, decorated cakes and brownies.

For 13 years, Rice worked for the Republican Party, raising money for various groups and events. After graduating from the University of Maryland, she helped plan a gala for Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, and for a time she was the marketing director for the Republican Governors Association.

"I loved the people. It was very glamorous. I loved to travel," she says.

But the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, started her wondering about whether she really wanted to work long days far from her friends and family.

Her soul-searching intensified with the anthrax scare that followed the September terrorist attacks. A paper cut on her finger grew into a nasty infection that required Rice to undergo testing for anthrax exposure.

In January 2002, she and Mitchell decided to take a weekend trip to New York City. They went ice-skating in Central Park, shopped and saw the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes. And they stopped by the Magnolia Bakery, the Manhattan shop made famous by the show Sex and the City, to buy cupcakes.

The visit proved to be a revelation to Rice. "I could not believe there were all these people lined up for cupcakes."

In fact, cupcakes have been turning up everywhere - on tiers at wedding receptions, in upscale boutiques and on the cover of Gourmet magazine.

Rice began to wonder. She had some experience with fashion design and had always baked. Could the secret to happiness be topped with a dollop of buttercream icing?

Meanwhile, Mitchell, who worked for a real estate title company, was considering a career change as well. She had grown up in Iowa in Grant Wood's hometown; she had been exposed to art and baking from the time she was small. "It's something I've always enjoyed, but didn't think I'd make a career of it," she says.

Although she didn't hate her job, she says, "I felt like I was working every day. I wanted something I enjoyed."

So Rice and Mitchell set out to create their own version of the Magnolia Bakery. For two years, they planned their business, and over time, their plans grew more elaborate. They decided they would offer not only cupcakes, but brownies, hand-painted cookies and dainty, decadent cakes with fondant icing. And then they decided to go beyond baking to also offer gifts and candies.

The women found a vacant building on Fort Avenue that at one time had housed a restaurant, renovated it and opened their business at the end of July.

Despite America's concerns about obesity and the popularity of low-carb diets, customers are coming to buy cupcakes, says Mitchell. "Even if you're on a diet, you need to treat yourself. There's always a reason to celebrate."

Rice, who took lessons to learn cake decorating before the business opened, says they bake about 300 cupcakes a day.

While the Magnolia Bakery in New York makes 3,000 cupcakes a day, Rice and Mitchell say their business is far ahead of the expectations they laid out in their business plan. "We are very, very happy," Rice says.

Among their offerings are cupcakes smothered in buttercream icing, hand-painted sugar cookies, chocolate-covered Oreo cookies, birthday cakes, petite cakes covered in ganache or fondant and a "goddess cake" that features chocolate batter, raspberry filling, buttercream icing and edible flower petals.

Many of their treats can be decorated with monograms, painted chocolates, hand-made whimsical umbrellas and pennants with Swarovski crystal.

Ironically, while enjoying the chance to give expression to their artistry, Mitchell and Rice say their new work is at least as demanding as their old jobs.

"I've been working 16-hour days for six months," Rice says. "I'm exhausted."

But Rice says she can spend more time with friends and family members who come by the store to help her bake and decorate.

She is already planning the next step - birthday parties and teas in a room above the store, and has set her sights on more ambitious goals.

"I think there could be a Baltimore Cupcake Co. in New York or L.A.," she says.

While Rice admits to a twinge of nostalgia for her old life, especially during this election season, she's not sorry she's watching on the sidelines.

"I definitely do not regret the decision of leaving and doing something a little more whimsical and light," she says.

Baltimore Cupcake Co.

Where: 1433 E. Fort Ave., Baltimore

Phone: 410-783-1600

Hours: 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday; 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday

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