On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, Carmen Rodriguez, owner of Brooklyn Cupcake, was in Florida, looking for a location to expand the popular New York bakeshop to the Sunshine State. She’s spent the day dealing with last-minute online holiday orders, and the next few months are certain to be just as busy.
The small business owner launched the beloved bake shop back in 2011, and has since become a fixture in the borough and a resource to other local mom-and pops.
Founding Brooklyn Cupcake
In 2010, the baking-loving Brooklynite’s friends and family started encouraging her to find a way to get her baked goods out to the public after she was laid off. The economy was still in rough shape, and companies big and small were struggling, Rodriguez said. Many people didn’t have jobs.
She wanted to take her loved ones’ advice but didn’t have the funds or knowledge to dive right into opening a store, so she started small — making cupcakes for “little jobs” like baby showers and birthday parties.
That was in October 2010. Two months later, a local church put in an order for 1,000 cupcakes. A week later, they ordered 1,500 more. Brooklyn Cupcake was off the ground.
Finding a physical location was still challenging, though — they were expensive, and most wanted up to six months rent ahead of time since the business was so new. Even funds dedicated to helping Latina business owners told her she was better off turning to family and friends — so she did.
Her sister helped out, and her mother pulled money out of a savings account to lay the groundwork. They raised around $80,000 from other friends and family.
From there, things moved quickly. Brooklyn Cupcake was featured by the Food Network and the Daily News. Through a connection with the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, she secured a spot for Brooklyn Cupcakes inside the Barclays Center.
“Then, we’re very lucky. A year into it, I’m at this business expo … and with my luck, I happen to be stationed right in front of Goldman Sachs, the foundation that helps 10,000 small businesses,” Rodriguez recalled. “They couldn’t believe how many people were coming to us at our station. Of course, we had cupcakes, we were the life of the party.”
At the end of the expo, the Goldman Sachs employees encouraged her to apply for the program, which would really deepen her knowledge and understanding of business. She applied, and was accepted.
“It was just an incredible experience, because I was in the room with 32 different types of businesses — it was construction, it was a hair salon, it was me, a baker, everything you could imagine,” Rodriguez said. “It was interesting to find that we all had common problems. Employee retention, financing, obtaining financing to move forward, and things like that.”
Years later, she still reaches back to her contacts from the program when she needs help, or someone to provide florals for the shop. It got her on the right track for success, she said.
Pivoting to the internet to survive the pandemic
That training came in handy two years ago, when the COVID-19 pandemic first hit the city and shuttered nearly everything. Rodriguez told her staff to stay at home as she and her husband handled the bake shop’s online orders themselves.
After a few weeks, people started knocking on the door. As a food business, Brooklyn Cupcake was still allowed to be open, so they started making some in-person sales, though foot traffic was slow.
Online traffic, though, took off. Before the pandemic, they averaged about $3,000 in online orders per month. Rodriguez said. In 2020, those numbers skyrocketed to up to $25,000. By the time the second round of Payroll Protection program funds came out, Brooklyn Cupcake didn’t qualify, because they hadn’t been operating at a loss.
Two years later, internet sales are still high, and Brooklyn Cupcake has outgrown their space on Union Avenue. Her family in Florida said they’d help her out if she expanded there – so that’s the plan. There are still five years left on the Williamsburg lease, she said, so Brooklyn Cupcake will still be in the city for quite a while.
Staying afloat and keeping staff as a small business
Despite the shop’s success, Rodriguez “isn’t rich off the business,” she said, and she knows she can’t always keep up with the salaries and benefits offered by larger companies. In the beginning, the Brooklyn Cupcake staff was mostly made up of family members — and Rodriguez’s sister, Gina, is still involved to this day.
“What happened is I said, ‘Wow, there are a lot of great people out there,’ and I wanted to obtain some of them,” she said. “I had to figure out a way because you have a company like Amazon, and they come into the neighborhood and start offering $15 an hour when we weren’t at $15 an hour.”
When minimum wage went up in New York City, small businesses had two years to work their way up to $15 per hour. Any of Rodriguez’s employees could have left to get a higher-paying job — but they didn’t. That was when she realized she had a great time, and needed to keep them happy.
“These are moms, so they have children, and they like the flexibility of being able to be home with the child,” she said. “That requires a certain kind of schedule,” that Brooklyn Cupcake was able to provide.
She kept up that flexibility with all of her employees — some of them started as teenagers, and are now working through college or graduate school. A few are now mothers themselves. One employee, who has been at Brooklyn Cupcake for ten years, has said she’s never leaving, Rodriguez said.
She also tries to get them together for regular team outings — meals or other little trips. If she hears one of her staff members saying they haven’t been to the movies in a few years, she’ll buy them a movie ticket.
With Small Business Saturday on the horizon, Rodriguez said the most important thing for new or prospective small biz owners to do is know their competition, and differentiate themselves.
That’s part of Brooklyn Cupcake’s success, she said. At the time when she started the business, cupcake shops were booming — but many have since closed, even if they were larger or wealthier. She stayed away from what was common and used different kinds of icings and fillings, and that set her apart from the competition.
“Before you go out there and spend your hard-earned money — it’s one thing to do research, that’s great — but it’s about developing a relationship, or social media, all those are very important,” Rodriguez said. “If you can, find that one thing that makes you different.”