The Secret Ingredient
BAPTISM BY FIRE . . . AND FLOUR The First Gigi’s Cupcakes
In the predawn hours of Thursday, February 21, 2008, the day I opened my very first Gigi’s Cupcakes store in downtown Nashville, I lay in bed alone, snuggled up in the fetal position in my grandmother’s quilt, praying for the blessed relief of sleep.
I’d just been through the most stressful twenty-four hours of my life, and I knew in my bones the new day about to dawn would be even worse. My stomach was doing somersaults, I was light-headed, and I could feel a panic attack coming on. But sleep had stubbornly refused to come, and here I was, unable to relax, every muscle in my body tight as a drumhead, the gritty metallic taste of adrenaline in my mouth.
I stared at my bedside clock.
1:47. It seemed as if it had been stuck at 1:47 all night.
I closed my eyes and thought about how much I like poetry and parables and self-help phrases. It makes me feel good to
slap a Post-it up on the fridge that says “You Can Do It.” I’d read Poor Richard’s Almanac and I knew Benjamin Franklin wrote, “A watched pot never boils.” Here in the privacy of my own bedchamber I was coming to terms with that aggravating reality.
I tossed and turned, rearranged the pillows and blankets, and rolled over so I couldn’t see the clock. Maybe I could mentally transport myself someplace else for a little while. Conjuring an image of orange and gold poppies blooming in the High Desert near my childhood home, I imagined leaning into a warm breeze, the heat of the Antelope Valley floor rising up through the soles of my feet. I lay still for as long as I could, breathing evenly, trying to release the tension from my arms and legs.
After what seemed like an eternity, I finally turned back over to check the clock.
I should have slept like a log. Wednesday had worn me out. As my small team readied the first Gigi’s Cupcakes for its opening, I began the day working my “regular job” cleaning houses for Gigi’s Cleaning Company, which I’d founded in California as an ambitious fifteen-year-old.
I cleaned an apartment and a huge mansion in Belle Meade—the “Beverly Hills” of Music City. Toilets, showers, marble floors, ovens, and laundry rooms blurred together as I motored along on autopilot. At four o’clock I raced downtown to meet my plumber, who’d just finished outfitting the new store. Together we checked all the sinks, drains, water lines, and
restrooms. I owed him $350, but as I wrote him a check I told him, “Don’t cash that ’til Monday. I just made a deposit—you gotta wait for it to post.” He looked at me a little funny. He knew I was teetering on the edge financially. My homegrown plan to step up from the housecleaning business into the retail cupcake business had raised quite a few eyebrows. Gigi’s Cupcakes would literally make or break me.
After the plumber left, I looked around the store. At first glance, it didn’t look like we’d be ready to open the next morning—it really didn’t. I tried not to freak out, and I reminded myself that the biggest pieces of the puzzle were already in place. The paint was dry, light fixtures were shining on refrigerated cases and appliances, custom countertops were ready for action, there was a brand-new floor, and baking tools and ingredients were poised in my glistening new kitchen. I watched my gung ho father, Terry, putting tables and chairs together while my mother, Ann, dutifully orbited the cheery space dust-busting little spots here and there. All was clean white, soft pink, bright olive, gleaming glass, and chrome. I was thrilled and overwhelmed that my dream was about to become a reality—but I honestly couldn’t believe I had gotten this far.
My old friend Ted, a “get ’er done” general contractor who had worked hand in glove with me to bring Gigi’s to life, dropped by to wish me luck. He could see I was nervous, but he murmured some reassuring words and patted me on the back. He handed me an envelope and quietly said, “Remember, I’ll tear this up if you marry me.”
The matrimonial reference rang an alarm bell. I opened the envelope and saw Ted’s final contractor’s bill, which in all the
craziness I’d kind of forgotten about. The bill was for $15,000, but it might as well have been $15 million, considering that after the plumber’s check cleared I’d have only $33 in my checking account.
I’d already bought, begged, borrowed, and stolen just enough to open the 995-square-foot shop, and I wasn’t quite sure yet how I was going to pay my employees, keep the lights on, and buy groceries. “Stepping out on faith” was a phrase long popular in my entrepreneurially minded family, and I had staked my entire future on this new project. I had a plan A, but I’d blissfully—maybe even willfully—ignored the need for a plan B.
Suddenly everything piled up, and all the pressures that had been building just flattened me. My vision seemed to narrow; I couldn’t catch my breath. I started to feel woozy, tears began rolling down my cheeks, and finally I slumped to the floor at Ted’s feet.
He bent down to check me. “Are you okay?”
“I don’t have fifteen thousand dollars!”
Ted, my dad, and my mom just stood there, frozen. Nobody knew what to say.
I’d met Ted six or seven years before, when I was singing in a band, cleaning houses, and learning how to make my way in Nashville. He was a successful contractor with a beautiful home out in Leiper’s Fork, a rural village on the historic Natchez Trace Parkway that was home to celebrities like Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban, and the Judds. He was a popular, good-looking guy, and a favorite with various local ladies.
Ted and I became purely platonic friends, despite his best efforts to take it further. I came to his parties and he invited me everywhere because we enjoyed each other’s company. He regularly assured me that one day he would win me over, but I always told him it would never happen. I’d learned I didn’t want a sugar daddy. I wanted to earn my own way—even if it meant cleaning toilets for the rest of my life. But his pursuit became kind of a running gag. My friends and I always laughed it off, and Ted always seemed to be fully in on the joke.
Sometimes we’d visit projects he was working on, and I was always impressed by the quality of his work and his attention to detail. So in late 2007 I went to him and told him I was going to open a cupcake shop.
“Well, congratulations,” he said. “I’ll build it for you if you marry me.”
I laughed. “I’m not going to marry you. But I’ll hire you to build it.”
“Okay, I’ll build it. But at the end of this project I want to marry you.”
It never occurred to me that he might be serious.
So we built out the store together. The building, which had been part of a take-out restaurant, was gutted and reimagined as a friendly, welcoming sweet shop. I went down to city hall and stood in line to get permits and approvals and variances and waivers, and was very proud of myself for successfully navigating the city and county bureaucracies. Ted took the lead laying it out, my dad helped me design the space, and then he and my mom came in from Texas to help me out. She brought a welcome supply of enthusiasm along.
“You’re supposed to help your kids,” she’d say. So I’d load her up with research and chores and errands. We made a good team.
A few weeks before the opening, I caught up with Ted. “How much do I actually owe you?”
He smiled. “We’ll figure it out on the back end.”
I got a little concerned.
Now, just hours before Gigi’s was set to open, with his unusual offer hanging in the air, I could see Ted’s pride was on the line. He helped me up off the floor and steered me to one of my shiny new tables.
“Ted,” I began gently, “we’ve been over this many times. I’m very fond of you, I really am. But I’m sorry, I just can’t marry you because I don’t love you that way.”
Ted was hurt, but he kept his composure. He adopted a very professional tone. “Okay. Then you owe me fifteen thousand dollars.”
It felt like he was flexing his muscles, declaring in so many words, “Fine, I’ll show you.” It rankled me, but the whole situation was so weird I didn’t know how to reply.
As we watched him go, my dad shook his head sadly, like I was making a big mistake. “He was just trying to do you a favor, you know.”
“What’s wrong with you?” I snapped. “I’m not trading my hand in marriage for free drywall! I’ll pay the bill, Dad. I just need to figure out how.”
My mom chirped, “God will provide!” But I was more than a little shaken.
My parents and I spent the next few hours mopping the floor, arranging the tables and chairs, double-checking our stockpile
of ingredients, and testing and retesting the refrigerators and the oven and the pantry. As day gave way to night, we took a last look around and decided we were as ready as we’d ever be. Soon Gigi’s would be open for business—a real, living, breathing company, its shelves stocked with goodies made with love and care, crafted from family recipes handed down through several generations. Tomorrow we’d find out once and for all if this crazy idea would pay off—or wind up being the biggest mistake of my life.
I went home and tried to eat some dinner, but I could barely get anything down. Desperate to calm myself, I flopped in a chair and tried to watch TV. I picked up a book. I put on some music. I tried taking a nice hot bath. Nothing worked.
The truth was I was terrified. I was keenly aware that I’d failed before. I’d chased other dreams and come up empty—and they had all been small-bore, minor-league failures, painful but certainly not fatal. This was different. This would be big, and it would roll out in public, writ large. If Gigi’s Cupcakes tanked, it would certainly not be the kind of flameout that would go unnoticed. Not only would I lose everything—I’d borrowed more than $100,000 to start Gigi’s—but the faith, money, energies, and reputations of other people who’d helped and believed in me would be squandered. It could leave a stain that would never go away, souring things for me far into the future.
Making matters even more confusing, I kept hearing a little voice in my head saying, “God’s going to take care of you, God’s going to take care of you.” But I wasn’t so sure. How exactly would He take care of me? By making my new venture
a success? Or by letting it fail so I would learn another lesson about humility and patience?
After bouncing off the walls for a couple of hours, I finally found a mental strategy that owed a lot to my previous experiences in business: I reminded myself that all I could do was my best, and the rest was impossible to control. I decided to open the shop and make the best cupcakes I could. If it flopped, I’d still have my health. Everything would be okay. I’d pay off my debts by cleaning twice as many houses and saving twice as much money. I’d figure it out somehow.
I finally crawled into bed after midnight and flipped through my Bible for a few minutes. I tried to pray, but I couldn’t organize my thoughts. I gave up, took a Tylenol PM, turned out the lights, and started staring at that blasted bedside clock.
At 4:00 a.m. my eyes snapped open. Miraculously, I’d stumbled into a few precious hours of sleep. I rolled out of bed, stretched, and felt a little better. I gave myself a pep talk as I pulled on my clothes and headed out to the car in the predawn gloom.
“You’re going to go do this,” I said out loud. “You’re going to go bake great cupcakes and sell them to people who will love them and come back for more. That’s what you’re going to do today, because you are not a quitter.”
I drove through the empty streets of Music City. It was gray and spooky and chilly, kind of like what a metropolis would look like if aliens came and took everyone away. I thought about my mom’s cry of “God will provide,” which actually seemed like a reasonable assumption: I figured if God could deliver the
unbelieving Israelites out of bondage in Egypt and part the Red Sea, He could surely stiffen my spine and help get me through one high-stakes, red-letter day in little ol’ Nashville, Tennessee. I had faith, and I reckoned that somehow we’d make it work together, God and me. I had been scared before, and He had helped me then. He’d be here for me again.
When I first saw Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade as a little girl, one scene really hit home. Indiana was on one side of a wide chasm, and on the other side was a vast treasure. To reach it, Indy had to step out across the chasm but he couldn’t see a bridge: He had to have faith that there would be more steps beyond that would allow him to reach the other side. I thought it was a cool way to visualize your path forward. So whenever I’m really apprehensive about something, I remember that I must keep “stepping out on faith” and God will show me the path.
I had also been listening to Christian speaker Joyce Meyer, to how she embraces the concept in her own way: “God will tell you when you’re not on the right path. He’ll let you know. But until then, keep moving forward. Keep stepping out.”
So there I was at five in the morning, “stepping out.” I don’t know that I actually prayed for a sign that God was watching over me, but as I headed into the city toward my new destiny, every single stoplight turned green. I went four straight miles through the heart of town on totally empty, green-lit streets. And as every light turned over from red I thought, “Hey, that’s the way to start this day—green lights all the way!”
That morning I could feel God’s strength. I thought, “Lord, you’ve prepared me for this. People told me I wasn’t good
enough, I didn’t sing well enough, I wasn’t pretty enough. But every rejection prepared me, made me stronger. And now, the lights are all green.” I felt His hand on my back and heard His voice saying, “You can do this. Go. Go. Go.”
I pulled up to Gigi’s Cupcakes and took a moment to savor the sight. There it was, my name on the front door, a new adventure about to take flight. I wondered if the journey to this modest little parking lot wasn’t really about more than just cupcakes. Could it have been an exercise in personal growth, in finally finding my truest compass heading? I was about to re-create myself and write a new chapter in the story of my life, and I knew that not everybody gets that kind of chance. Whatever was about to happen, I felt profound gratitude.
At 5:00 a.m. sharp, my little staff showed up. We were all excited and nervous. Sharon Sweat, Leah Parker, and David Johnson all looked to me for guidance, and I was trying to be a good boss. “All right, team. We got this. Today’s the day!”
We went inside, turned on the lights, and spread out across the kitchen. Everything was new. Nothing had been used before. Now everything was about to change forever.
I pulled on my apron, a beautifully handmade “good luck” gift from my mom, who’d stitched delicate, colorful cupcakes across the front. It felt good having a piece of my family with me; it was almost as if I were slipping on a suit of armor.
“Fire up the ovens,” I said. “Let’s bake. Let’s do Hunka Chunka Banana Love.”
This was one of my most beloved recipes, one that never failed to get oohs and aahs at parties and family gatherings. It
was a thick, rich, buttery banana bread that I gave to my housecleaning clients every Christmas, a foolproof crowd-pleaser based on an old family recipe. It seemed like the perfect cupcake to launch my new venture. Everybody nodded—this was a no-brainer. We got out a big ol’ bowl and started mixing it.
That first morning we baked a handful of recipes: Hunka Chunka Banana Love, Coconut, Scarlett’s Red Velvet, Golden Brown (Grandma’s Favorite Yellow Cake), Midnight Magic, and White Midnight Magic. We felt our way along about how much to mix, how much to bake, how many different flavors looked good in the cases, and what we thought people might respond to. We baked . . . and baked . . . and baked.
The sun came up, cars started whizzing down Broadway, the city came to life, and then suddenly it was 9:00 a.m.—time to open Gigi’s for the first time.
I went to open the doors, but on the way I ducked around the corner. I didn’t want anyone to see me as the tears came—tears of joy, tears of fear, tears of hope, tears of gratitude.
But I also felt a brief wave of panic: “What am I doing? What am I doing with my life?” I was suddenly shaking, ecstatic and petrified at the same time. After a minute or so I got hold of myself and thought, “We made it! We’re opening!”
I unlocked the doors, and we sat there for thirty minutes, watching the clock. Just as I was starting to vibrate from the thought that this whole idea had been a wild miscalculation, our first customer walked in. I had the presence of mind to take a picture of her. She bought six cupcakes to take to a friend who was in the hospital. “These are for the nurses as much as they are for the patient,” she confided sweetly, fully on top of how
best to grease the wheels in a hospital ward. She paid in cash, and I tacked her five-dollar bill up on my little menu board, where it would hang for years. On her way out she winked and said, “Remember, I’m your first customer.”
What an amazing morning it turned out to be. We weren’t exactly swamped, but we had a steady stream of customers, and many were curious to find out what a “high-end” cupcake tasted like. They’d stop at the door and say, “Are you open?”
“Yeah, come on in!” I had fun talking with everyone, explaining the origins of my recipes, and watching people’s faces light up when they took their first bites.
“Oh my gosh—this is the best cupcake I’ve ever tasted,” said one young woman who came in with an apple-cheeked baby in a stroller. “It’s not too sweet, but it’s so creamy!”
Now, I’d always thought my cupcakes were pretty tasty, but I wasn’t prepared to hear such glowing reviews right out of the box. It seemed we had struck a chord—and created something brand-new. Watching customers revel in the flavors and textures of my cupcakes was deeply gratifying, and it reminded me of what it had felt like to get a huge round of applause when I was performing onstage with my old band.
A little later in the morning, my mom and dad came in and worked the counter with us. They were so pleased and proud to see so many people enjoy my creations. At one point my dad leaned over and said, “Looks like you might be on to something here, kid.”
We sold 253 cupcakes that first day, which was 253 more than some folks thought possible. We got through the day without any catastrophes. We didn’t run out of anything critical, we didn’t make any glaring mistakes, and when we closed the doors
at the end of our first shift we looked at one another, breathed a collective sigh of relief, and started laughing. Most remarkably, a quick calculation told us we’d actually covered our costs for the day! We’d started off with a bang, and everybody was energized. As we headed home that first night, we agreed we were all looking forward to getting up and doing it all over again.
The next day was a Friday, and we sold 310 cupcakes. Customers told us they’d been hearing things from their friends like, “Wow, have you been to this cupcake shop called Gigi’s? It’s down on Broadway . . .”
We hadn’t even really made any noise yet—we hadn’t done any press or advertising, just a little social media. But over the next few weeks our clientele would just keep growing.
Before long, customers started tapping on the glass well before 9:00 a.m., and one morning Miss Sharon came to me and said, “Since we’re here by five, we can bake and frost four or five different batches and have them out front by seven thirty instead of nine. We can open earlier and catch the morning crowd going to work.”
I thought it was a great idea, and soon the downtown crowd was coming in to buy cupcakes to take to work. Pharmaceutical reps got wind of Gigi’s and quickly became a big part of our business, buying dozens of cupcakes at a time, taking them to the hospitals and doctor’s offices and giving them away. Turns out a cupcake is a really great tool to schmooze with.
The Vanderbilt University Medical Center community also got in on the act. Doctors, nurses, office workers, administrators, patients, and family members all dropped in for a little Gigi’s, and they enthusiastically spread the word among their
friends, clients, and patients. Now Vandy customers come in and say, “We’re from out of town and when we come to Vanderbilt we always stop at Gigi’s.” It probably happens twenty times a day now. My favorite is when a little kid being treated at Vanderbilt comes in. The mom will say, “My daughter had a doctor’s appointment and I wanted to make it special for her—so I told her if she was a good girl she could have a Gigi’s cupcake.”
Gigi’s Cupcakes was off and running.
And as for that $15,000 bill? My mom was right. God did provide and I eventually paid it off in full.
Lessons for Life and Business
Step out on faith and go for it. Don’t be afraid to take the leap. If you don’t take chances, you don’t win—period.