In 2009 I found myself in a moral dilemma – the fancy apron company that had been sponsoring me (via giveaways and lots of free fancy aprons) up and fired the designer responsible for what I still consider their cutest aprons. That designer also happened to be a friend of mine and I had to sever ties with that company – which left me without a dealer for my sick, sick apron addiction. So I did what any girl would do – I launched an Apron Deathmatch.
I met lots of fantastic apron designers via the deathmatch – and the one who took over the role of “official apron designer for Bake and Destroy” was Cynthia from Cupcake Provocateur. Not only are her designs sweet and sexy, but Cynthia herself is an inspiration. Influenced by her mother, she built a successful cupcake and apron business that continues to thrive and grow despite all the competition out there. I’m thrilled to share her story with my readers – because if there’s one thing I’ve learned from all the emails you guys send me, it’s that I attract an entrepreneurial crowd. I hope Cynthia’s story inspires those of you who are considering going into business for yourselves and I hope I’ve helped you find your new favorite apron shop! Check out the end of the Q&A for details on how you can win a sampler of Cynthia’s products!
So how did you get into the cupcake and fancy apron business? What was your inspiration?
It all happened by chance. I always had a creative flair for food and design since I was a wee cupcake, but started to turn into something more in college. I would bake cookies and cupcakes and bring them to class/work, then the orders started coming in so I decided to make a cute apron to wear while I baked and delivered them…. and then to my surprise the orders started coming in for the aprons as well and that is how the website was born.
Did you launch Cupcake Provocateur as a cupcakes and aprons business – or did one product come before the other?
The cupcakes came first and have always been a constant, and the heart of Cupcake Provocateur. The aprons evolved out of a personal necessity for cuteness both in and out of the kitchen.
Your patterns are unlike any other aprons out there – do you design them yourself, or have a secret stash?
Good question! They are all designed and sketched by hand but of course are inspired after the classic vintage styles of the 1940’s & 1950’s with a modern twist, the modern twist being the prints used for the aprons which I think helps set us apart in the apron world.
Where did you learn to bake and sew?
My mama! She was definitely my idol. She really taught me everything and encouraged all creativity in all aspects of life. When I was a kid I would watch her in the kitchen and just study what she did. However Sundays I always woke up to Jiffy muffins, which is still my guilty pleasure today! When it came to sewing she taught me how to sew by hand and little by little my interest just grew.
Where did the name Cupcake Provocateur come from?
Right before I started professionally, I was in my kitchen at my apartment making red velvet cupcakes, thinking about what name would I wanted to represent both the cupcakes and aprons. I really liked Cupcake Couture but it has been used quite a bit and wasn’t very original anymore, and then I started thinking about word association and the word “provocative” came into my head and I was trying to figure out how to make if flow. That’s when I had the “light bulb” moment and I blurted Cupcake Provocateur and tah-dah!
Starting a business is no joke – tell us about some of the challenges you faced early on. Creating a budget? Coming up with the funds to launch?
It is definitely a challenging decision to make and not an easy one to implement. I think if you have the passion and drive it can take you a long way. But there is a certain amount of investing involved. In the beginning I had an idea and a product I wanted to produce and market which I choose to do on my own. I cut costs in my personal life (i.e. lots of ramen noodles for dinner) to help attain my goal.
The key is to start small and slowly progress to keep up with costs and always put a percent away for supplies as well as savings for personal and business. Test the waters first and see if there is a need/interest for your product and then market the business accordingly, there are so many networking resources out there now that makes it easier for start up business to gain exposure while keeping costs down. My words of wisdom in all things is “look before you leap” and once you know what you want – jump in!
Tell us a bit about production – do you have people helping you bake, sew, pack and ship?
Up until fairly recently I was doing everything as a one-woman show but, to keep up with production and my sanity, I now have in-house help with production/shipping of both the cupcakes and aprons. It is important to me to maintain a close-knit business without out-sourcing to other locations.
What’s it like to own a small business in a scary economy? Have you noticed a dip in sales, or are you still picking up new customers pretty regularly?
I think everyone has been effected in one way or another with the recent downfall in the economy but I have seen a rise in sales from woman that email me, a lot more families are choosing to stay home for dinner rather than going out to dinner all the time, so instead of the little black dress they wear their stylish little aprons instead. And yes, it is scary – but the key is to try and adjust as best you can and just ride the tide and know at some point it will get better.
How do you find your models? You have some hot stuff pin ups on your site (and no I am NOT talking about me.)
Ha ha….don’t lie!!! I am really proud of our models and have become close friends with a lot of them. Models usually contact me with their portfolio and I also sometimes find them through networking sites such as Model Mayhem.
Do you find that sexy girls in sexy aprons sell themselves, or do you advertise as well?
Definitely! What hot-blooded man wouldn’t want his significant other cooking (or not cooking) in a sexy little apron? I think they fall in the same category as the Naughty School Girl or the Sexy Secretary but for foodies. But I do occasionally advertise as well, it can never hurt to advertise.
About the cupcakes – before you started cupcakes in a jar you were selling locally, right? Where? And do you still sell there?
Yes, I used to wholesale my cupcakes in NYC for the Sugar Cafe in the fashion district when I first started. I now work from a bakery kitchen on Long Island and specialize in custom and special occasion orders as well as local deliveries for the NYC and Long Island areas. I hope to one day soon have a brick and mortar storefront in the near future as well. You can also find my cupcakes (and me) in the fall and winter starting this year as a vendor at the historic Williamsburg Federal Savings Bank for the famous Brooklyn Flea, which we are super ,excited about!
How do you make flavor decisions – do you get special requests, or do you mainly make things you’d want to eat?
Secrets, secrets he he! I try to think of different combinations of flavors that mimic my favorite foods – like our s’mores cupcakes or the Italian rainbow cookie cupcakes and such. I am also working on an arsenal of new flavors coming out in the summer. I have gotten a request to make a couple of interesting custom flavors. One that I really loved and will be adding to the menu as per one of our customers is a chai tea cupcake but one of the most interesting flavors I have been asked to make was liver pate mini cupcakes for a puppy party in NYC not to long ago.
Ok time to get personal – is there a Mr. Provocateur? Any pets?
I was wondering when I would get asked this question, lol. Yes there is a Mr. Provocateur my hubby Charlie. Ok, and this is where I get cheesy…. he is not only my best friend he is one of my biggest inspirations. He was the one that really encouraged me to make the first step to start my own business, and he is always my voice of reason in al ot of the personal and business decisions I make even though he knows most of the time I will end up doing my own thing anyway. No pets at the moment because there is no time but I do have a fondness for beagles and iguanas… weird combo, I know. And my husband and I look forward to having a little Cupcake of our own within the not-too-distant future.
What’s on your “in the kitchen” play list?
I like listening to my old school stuff while in the kitchen – really anything from Depeche Mode, The Cure, The Clash and also more recent bands like The Bravery (which are pretty awesome live) and the Muse.
What are some of your favorite small businesses to shop from? Any Etsy shops or other sites we should know about?
OHHHHHHH yes!!! I absolutely love the little hats made by Blu Zombie and Vintage Lucy’s I also love local Long Island shops such as Rockville Centre’s The Cook’s Fancy and Farmingdale’s The Chocolate Duck – and if you want a really artsy and yummy coffee shop to lounge at W. Hempstead’s Witches Brew is the place to go!
Other than Cupcake Provocateur creations, what’s the best cupcake you’ve ever had?
Hmmmmmmm I would have to say The Buttercup Bake Shop in NYC makes a really yummy Lady Baltimore cupcake!
How do you decide where to go next with your designs – do you get inspired by certain fabrics, or does your mood take you places?
My mind is always going a mile a minute with ideas, I usually have phases or moods I get in when thinking of designs and they influence allot of the design process. Right now I am really into the vaudeville musicals of the 1930’s which makes me think of bright colors and fancy fabrics that flow really well which has been inspiring a lot of more couture designs for a current line I am working on. I hope to have out by summertime or early fall.
What can we expect next from Cupcake Provocateur?
Aside from the couture line, I am working on finishing up a men’s line and expanding the children’s line. I am also working on a line of tea towels to match the aprons as well. The cupcakes are expanding as well with the addition of the Traveling Cupcake, which is our fresh baked cupcakes with frosting – all in a cute pint sized mason jar that we now offer to all our customers outside of NYC.
What an inspiration – I am completely floored by everything Cynthia has accomplished and I’m so grateful to her for taking the time to share her story with me (and you guys!) And now it’s your turn to be floored because Cynthia wants to send one of my readers a package of Cupcake Provocateur goodies (including a Traveling Cupcake sampler!) Because the prize package includes edibles, we have to limit it to those with a US shipping address only. To enter, visit Cupcake Provocateur and check out Cynthia’s sassy styles. Then leave a comment on this post about your favorite – or describe your dream vintage-inspired apron! I’ll choose a random winner on May 2nd.
I’ve just emailed our winner – thanks to everyone who commented!