The Bay Area’s very own cupcake queen is going national.
Lila Owens, the owner of Cupcakin’ Bake Shop, which counts Steph Curry as one of its supporters, is gearing up to open two locations in Atlanta as part of the business’s expansion out of California.
More than a decade ago, the business itself started first as a type of therapy. Owens was working as a real estate broker when the market crashed during the Great Recession and baking became a soothing outlet amid the large financial upheaval.
Inspired by the success of Sprinkles, which launched in Beverly Hills in 2005 as the world’s first cupcake-focused bakery, Owens started to take classes on entrepreneurship and the logistics of running a professional kitchen. She dates the founding of her company back to 2010, when she got herself an official Facebook page and printed out a stack of business cards.
At that point, her kitchen-based catering business largely functioned as a side hustle spread via word of mouth. Referrals got her larger corporate clients and events like Christmas parties and internal meetings.
Using her real estate background, Owens started scouting locations and negotiating with landlords to find her first brick-and-mortar location, which opened in 2013 near the University of California Berkeley.
“We targeted that audience because, well, kids love cupcakes,” she said with a laugh.
From that first store, Owens has steadily grown Cupcakin’s footprint to include five locations in the Bay Area, including an outlet at the Chase Center, and now employs around 70 people. The pandemic actually provided growth opportunities for Cupcakin’ as prices on real estate dropped dramatically.
The business took advantage of the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program to help keep workers employed and pivoted to home delivery as foot traffic fell. Cupcakin' did its own deliveries, took orders over social media and cut delivery fees to near-zero.
“Our customer base still wanted cupcakes. A lot of people were at home with kids, and it was serving as an outlet,” Owens said. Although the business had to reduce hours, no employee was laid off.
As the pandemic has waned, Cupcakin’ has gone back to its bread and butter, catering for events like birthday parties, graduations and weddings.
Now Owens' taking her talents—and her assortment of airy and delectable baked goods—to the East Coast.
The two Atlanta locations are slated to open in the fall in time for the holidays at Colony Square in Midtown Atlanta and the Shops of Buckhead. Owens specifically looked for locations that were previously used as bakeries, which helped save on buildout costs and created a core customer base to build on.
The new locations were aided with $600,000 in equity investment from ICA Fund, which specializes in support and mentorship for small businesses. Owens took part in the nonprofit’s 12-week accelerator program and credits it with helping boost her confidence when pitching to investors.
“Lila’s dedication to quality and her clear growth strategy make Cupcakin’ Bake Shop a shining example of the kind of business that contributes positively to our local economy,” ICA Fund CEO Allison Kelly said.
The Atlanta expansion is also a major step for Owens as an entrepreneur, stretching her muscles when it comes to scaling her business and overseeing operations across multiple states without falling into micromanaging.
“It’s really a trial to see if we can expand nationally without the small business mindset,” Owens said. “There’s some sophisticated palates here, so we're excited to put Cupcakin’ to the test outside of the Bay Area.”
As for what’s next? Owens said she plans on growing through the acquisition of other bakeries in the Bay Area and elsewhere. A potential deal to bring Cupcakin’s products into grocery stores is also in the works.
“I don’t know if we’re quite an empire yet,” Owens said. “But we’re definitely striving for that.”
Kevin Truong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org