There is no “typical” Wesleyan graduate. Yes, we have a bevy of alumni in the film industry and other creative artistic careers; some renowned graduates even claim renown in the music world, or, like Wesleyan’s golden child, on Broadway. There’s even one with the enviable title of New York Times wine critic. But I think it’s fair to say that launching of the cupcake revolution in the 2010’s breaks Wesleyan’s norm. And yet, Candace Nelson ’96 did just that, through Sprinkles Cupcakes, a brand she founded in 2005 that’s grown into an international phenomenon, now with 23 locations that span from the original in Beverly Hills to Dubai.
To us, Sprinkles embodies everything that a cupcake represents—the layered dots, the rich, saturated color scheme, the spray of vibrant concentric circles that spreads itself across the display case of their midtown New York location, which also boasts one of the brand’s many cupcake ATMs in what has now come to be known as millennial pink. But before Sprinkles, cupcakes were not considered chic. They were not consumed by adults, except perhaps in private or with their children on birthdays. It was Sprinkles that both brought about what many people call the cupcake craze and completely dominated in popularity throughout this craze. Their success rises from an expert combination of being acutely aware of the context in which they exist and knowing what to ignore in that context—when to stay in their own lane and stick with what works, and when to take advantage of certain opportunities for expansion.
But for Nelson, it’s not the trend that matters. And Sprinkles is still going strong, despite the ongoing decline of the cupcake craze and the emergence of other trendy desserts like the cronut and Thai rolled ice cream (the latter of which even Middletown has embraced). And last month, Nelson hopped on the phone with The Argus to talk about what inspired her to open a cupcake store during the height of the low-carb craze, what made it work, and why she and her husband like to “embrace the crazy.”
The Argus: Can you start by telling me how the idea for Sprinkles came about and how you conceptualized its beginnings?
CN: So, I started my career in investment banking. I was recruited out of Wesleyan to go work at an investment bank in San Francisco working with high-tech companies, and then I kind of moved over to internet companies. I was basically out of a job because all of those companies were going bankrupt overnight. So I was in my mid-20’s, and I call it my early mid-life crisis, because I had just gone from these high-paying jobs to really no prospects, and I wasn’t alone. I was part of this general larger trend, at least in the Bay Area and tech-heavy areas, and a lot of my friends at that time were going on to get their masters’ and going to business school, that would have been the next logical step. And I decided I didn’t want to take the next logical step. I wanted to pursue a passion and that passion was baking. So I went to pastry school [in San Francisco], and started just making sweets, desserts, cakes, and other pastries out of my own kitchen. I’d always been entrepreneurial by nature, and I knew I wanted to open something or do something entrepreneurial with my love of baking. So I started with special occasion cakes and would make these very elaborate, multi-tiered special cakes, and they’re kind of stressful. If you’ve ever made a wedding cake, they’re pretty stressful, they take a lot of time, and by the time you’re done with them, the cake itself isn’t really that fresh because you’ve had to work on the filling and the frosting and the decorating for days on end. And I also realized that special occasion cakes didn’t have a huge market because, by their very nature, people were only ordering them for very special occasions. I wanted to create something that could be more of a daily indulgence, but what I was drawn to in the special occasion cakes was this idea of being more artful and using beautiful ingredients. So I kind of started toying around with the cupcake, which at the time was still really for little kids. It was, like, you got your cupcake at the supermarket, the frosting was made with shortening and the decorations were plastic cupcake picks. So very unsophisticated. But something that we all grew up with in America and they were a beloved treat. And I decided to marry the idea of a special occasion cake with the lowly cupcake, elevate that cupcake, and it really started to take off, and that was when I thought, “Wow, this could probably stand on its own. What if I were to open a cupcakes-only bakery?”
A: Had you done any baking before pastry school?
CN: I grew up baking with my mom. That was what we did together. And we had a history in our family—my mom’s grandmother, was a restauranteur in San Francisco during the Depression years, and so I always grew up hearing stories of her and her wonderful food, and my mom was known for her dinner parties—she always made these show-stopping desserts. So I grew up loving banking, but my main priority coming out of college was to support myself, and so there wasn’t really a model for me to follow where I could look at baking and say, “Oh, I’m just going to pursue my passion,” and still pay the bills. I didn’t really think that that was possible. So I had to be challenged into it.
A: What do you think changed that allowed you to accept that challenge?
CN: Well, I had a little bit of money saved up from my few years of working, and I also had just gotten married and had the support of my husband. It was partially passion and partially fueled by not wanting to have regrets, and also realizing that it was a very free time in my life when I was unencumbered, and I could take a risk that I might not want to take later.
A: What do you think has stayed with you from your time in the world of internet finance?
To be opening a cupcake bakery with the business experience that [my husband and I] both had really set us apart. In particular, working with tech companies gave us a lot of perspective to see things in a different way, for example protecting the intellectual property of Sprinkles. We trademarked that modern dot, which appears on top of our cupcakes. That’s probably something that most people wouldn’t think of when opening a bakery, but going into it, we thought we want to protect what we’ve built. If you have a buffet full of cupcakes, how will people be able to tell the Sprinkles from the other ones? And so we really thought long and hard about how to differentiate ourselves, and also protect ourselves. And then in terms of the business stuff, we built the infrastructure to build a bigger business. So even though we started with one 600-square-foot store in the heart of Beverly Hills, we invested in everything. We invested in our people. We invested in the best point of sales system. We invested in a great website. We invested in everything to the point where we could’ve been making a lot more money than we were, but we wanted to build that platform to be able to have multiple Sprinkles.
A: And you and your husband work together on Sprinkles, right?
CN: Yes, absolutely. I’m the baker, and the recipes were mine and the idea was initially mine, but Sprinkles wouldn’t be what it was without him. We work together well because we know our lanes. I’m more recipe development and marketing, and charitable contributions, and he’s real estate operations.
A: How did your time at Wesleyan influence your approach to Sprinkles?
CN: I was really focused on other things when I was at Wesleyan. Food was more sustenance. But Wesleyan was really more about—I had friends at other schools that knew their path. And Wesleyan is sort of the opposite of that, for better or worse. I came out of their thinking, “I have no idea what I want to do, but also everything is a possibility.” So, whereas a lot of people might have been cowed by the idea of leaving this high-paying prestigious job environment to go open a bakery—and just remember, when I was doing this, it wasn’t cool. Now it’s cool to do it, but this was before that. So people thought it was nuts, people thought it was super risky and just not a good idea. But I am comfortable living in that space, and I think anyone who goes to Wesleyan is, or has to be, because there isn’t really a right lane in that school environment. Everybody has their own lane. So I think that’s how it’s affected me most, in being able to stay strong and do something different than what everybody else would consider to be safe or cool or smart.
A: Did you have a favorite place to eat at Wesleyan?
CN: Thai Gardens was definitely up there, and then there was this pizza place that was amazing. And I can’t remember the name.
A: How has the food from your growing up affected the way that you bake with Sprinkles?
CN: I grew up in Indonesia, Singapore, and Hong Kong. But because I was sort of a million miles away from home, I really gravitated towards baking the things that reminded me of home – classically, American baked goods. You certainly couldn’t go down to the local store in Medan, Sumatra and buy chocolate chip cookies, so I had to make them. So that’s where it all began. It was baking with my mom in the kitchen to recreate those flavors of home.
A: Why the name?
CN: It’s funny, that’s one thing my husband and I always argue about, because when you’re kind of one brain, it’s hard to remember who came up with it, but I PROMISE you it was me, and I say it came to me in a vision. Honestly, I’ve since dismissed it because I never want Sprinkles in a food court, but I had this vision of sprinkles in a food court. And the moment we landed on it, it was, like, “Oh, of course it’s our name.” It’s fun to say, it’s the top of the cupcake versus the bottom of the cupcake, and we got so much great feedback when we were going through and doing all of our inspections and everything. People just love to say it. We got really lucky with that name. The fact that we could use it, and nobody else was using it – we’re very grateful for the name.
A: What do you think specifically made Sprinkles work in contrast to all the other cupcake stores that followed it?
CN: I think it’s been the fact that we are focused on making a quality product—we’ve always been baked fresh, all day long, on site. And never underestimate your customer. They know what’s good, they can taste what’s good. So it’s been a focus on the quality of the product and the experience of the customer, and I think that all comes back to the philosophy that we laid out for ourselves when we first started Sprinkles. Those philosophies have never changed and we’ve stayed true to those. We also did a really thorough and effective job with the branding, because it’s a Sprinkles experience through and through, from the moment you enter the store to the time you get home and open your box. People call them Sprinkles, they don’t call them cupcakes. They’ve really become a brand. We were early adopters of social media, we’ve been really on top of our marketing game. We started with great word-of-mouth, and we have really devoted customers and have just been lucky to have their promotion. It’s hard to sum it up. I think it’s passion, it’s staying true to who we are, it’s the whole package. And certainly some really important plugs, in the beginning, didn’t hurt, but those don’t give you lasting power, so I don’t want to give those too much credit because I think that would be unfair to all the work we’ve done.
A: How did the Sprinkles look develop, and what went into the decision to create such a unique, modern-meets-classic visual theme?
CN: The look has been integral to the brand’s success and it was highly deliberate. There were a lot of things at play. One was, we were the first cupcakes-only bakery. So this was a new idea, and for a cupcake to be able to stand on its own, it has to be really special. So it starts with the recipes and the ingredients, but beyond that, it needs to be an experience. So we put a lot of time and energy into the look of the cupcake as well as the display case as well as the overall store. For one, we wanted to fly in the face of what people consider to be traditional in terms of a bakery design, which is, you know, pink and frilly and doilies and sort of Grandma’s kitchen, because we were a new idea and we wanted it to reflect that. So we kind of said, “We’re gonna do what people don’t expect from a bakery and make it almost like a boutique.” It’s a chic, understated, very sophisticated but playful look with a neutral backdrop and warm wood, punctuated by color but not in a way that’s overwhelming. And something that didn’t feel overly feminine. Our cupcakes were modern and chic and special, and the environment should reflect that as well.
The second part of this interview will be published on April 11.