Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Crave Cookies and Cupcakes

From great recipe to great store: growing a business one step at a time

Carolyne and Jodi Willoughby grew up on a farm near High River, Alberta. The house was always full of home baking. In fact, store-bought goodies were a treat because they were so unusual. Both of them loved to cook, particularly Carolyne who has a degree in Food and Marketing Management.

And they had some great family recipes – their mother’s recipe for vanilla cake and their great grandmother’s recipe for chocolate cake.

In 2004, Carolyne suggested that they start a cookie business in Calgary. They hit dead ends at first when they were turned down by the local farmers’ market. But a large retail space became available in Kensington, so they opened a store instead. Crave Cookies and Cupcakes was off and running.

They now have four and a half locations in Calgary (one spot is tiny and doesn’t have its own kitchen) and they opened a store in Edmonton in February. And last, but certainly not least, they’ll be opening a store on Broadway Avenue in Saskatoon in August.

Is it a craze?
Carolyne and Jodi wanted to offer single-serving desserts. Their initial idea was cookies, but there were lots of cookie boutiques at that time, so they decided on cupcakes instead. Cupcakes are really popular nowadays, but seven years ago when Carolyne and Jodi were doing their research, they only located three cupcake stores – one in New York, one in Toronto and one in Vancouver.

I asked Jodi if she was worried that cupcakes were just a fad and would go out of fashion. She said, “No. Any time you have a really great product, it won’t be a fad. Just look at coffee shops or pizza places.”

Baked from scratch
Crave prides itself on having a fantastic product. First of all, they value their recipes, which have stood the test of time and have been fine-tuned to give them a Crave edge.

Secondly, all their products are baked fresh every morning, from scratch, using quality ingredients. They use real eggs, real butter, real cream. When they make jam thumbprints, they make their own jam. And they source their ingredients locally as much as possible.

A glass wall separates the kitchen and the retail area so customers can watch the cookies coming out of the oven and the cupcakes being iced.

Cupcakes, cookies and more
Crave offers chocolate and vanilla cupcakes with a variety of different icings – strawberry, coconut, peanut butter, and more. They also have cookies (double chocolate pistachio, ginger snaps, oatmeal raisin, chocolate chunk, peanut butter).

According to Jodi, “The whoopie pies have the perfect cake to icing ratio. The chocolate with raspberry butter cream is mouth-watering.” There are also mini cupcakes and you can order full-size cakes.

The regular line-up is supplemented with seasonal and monthly specials. There are squares and Christmas baking in December, pies for Thanksgiving, and ice cream sandwiches made to order in July and August.

There’s also a Craving of the Month, which is currently banana cake, but my mouth was watering at the description of lemon meringue cupcakes with lemon curd in the centre and meringue on top. In the summer, they offer s’more cupcakes – and even the graham crackers are made from scratch.

Growing the company
Crave has grown from one store in 2004 to seven in 2011. “We’ve grown fast,” says Jodi, “but we’ve grown as we could, and we knew we could manage it.”

One key ingredient is the employees, who Jodi describes as “lifelines.” They spend a lot of time recruiting staff who will be a good fit for the company and who share their passion.

Every staff member goes through a training program with Carolyne and Jodi, and the sisters continue to work closely with their store managers and pastry chefs. They pride themselves on low staff turnover. Their original pastry chef, who they hired six years ago, is still working for them.

Staff contribute ideas for the monthly specials, and Jodi and Carolyne continue to work in the stores.

Customer service
Jodi says she still loves cupcakes and hopes that her customers will enjoy them so much that they want to share them as well. “We strive to live up to people’s expectations and to make them feel special,” Jodi says.

Customers are greeted as they enter the store and employees make a point of finding out what customers are looking for and for what occasion.

The cupcakes are sold in pretty boxes tied with a ribbon so you’ll feel happy carrying it down the street and unwrapping your treat.

Is there a life outside of work?
Carolyne and Jodi are married with young families. Jodi has two little boys aged 4 and 6, while Carolyne has a four-year-old son. Jodi enjoys running and yoga, while Carolyne is training for the Penticton Iron Man.

Jodi says that she doesn’t believe in work/life balance. Rather than trying to give little pieces of herself to everyone and everything, she focuses her energy on whatever needs her attention the most at the moment, whether it’s her family or one of the stores.

The Saskatoon connection
Jodi and Carolyne are looking forward to opening in Saskatoon. They like the small-town feel of the city, and they like the Broadway location.

But they also have a personal Saskatoon connection as Susan Echlin of Living Sky Winery has been a close friend since they grew up together in rural Alberta. I suspect that we can look forward to some awesome wine and cupcake pairings. Cherry port and chocolate cupcakes perhaps?

Welcome to Saskatoon, Carolyne and Jodi. We’re looking forward to tasting your products!


Jen said...

I wish they were here now :o) Looks delicious!

Stephanie V said...