Who: Keavy Landreth
What: Owner and head baker of Kumquat Cupcakery
Where: Brooklyn, New York
Inside a nondescript warehouse on a busy street in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, Keavy Landreth makes some of the most delicious mini cupcakes I've ever had. When I visited her tiny, industrial kitchen she was about to frost a batch for a wedding delivery that weekend: chocolate peanut butter, coffee caramel bourbon, peanut butter banana honey, and (her bestseller and my personal favorite) maple bacon, which is every bit as sweet and salty and scrumptious as the name implies.
Keavy, who went to art school for illustration, came into the cupcake business by way of a baking hobby. "I've always been into cooking," she told me. "My mother is a food addict and raised me, in particular, of my three sisters to know all about food. I was the most interested. She would always have me cooking and baking with her. I was always in the kitchen. It's my comfort zone." After she graduated from Parsons School of Design in New York, she did portrait paintings, landscapes, and a few "random coffeeshop shows," but there was a lot of downtime, so she started baking.
Somewhat by accident she ran across this blog ("I think it was just called 'The Cupcake Blog,'" she said) which featured a different cupcake recipe every day. "I became completely obsessed because I realized how many different combinations you could do with cupcakes," she told me. It was only when her friends told her she was wasting so much money feeding them cupcakes, and she should start selling them, that she signed up for a table at the Artists & Fleas market in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. That eventually turned into a temporary gig making cupcakes for Dean and Deluca, but now she mostly sells at Smorgasburg and the Brooklyn Flea and takes special orders for weddings, parties, and other receptions.
The Test Kitchen
The first two and a half years of Kumquat Cupcakery, Keavy baked all her cupcakes in her tiny New York City kitchen. (One epic order had her making 1,600 cupcakes in her apartment kitchen in one night!) That soon became untenable as her business grew, so she moved out her apartment and rented space in a Brooklyn warehouse. The landlord of the building, who happened to already have an oven, an industrial 20-quart Hobart mixer, and a huge marble slab for the countertop, set up a kitchen just for her. The building also hosts a few other small food companies, and while it's served her well for the last few years, she now has other ideas in the works: "I'm sort of working on a plan to get out of here and get into an actual retail space."
Friday is her biggest baking day, because that's when she makes all the cupcakes for Smorgasburg, Brooklyn Flea, and the weddings. She typically takes around 1,000 cupcakes to each of the markets, and usually 1,000 - 2,000 cupcakes to a wedding.
The Secret Sauce
Why mini cupcakes? The answer is quite practical: when Keavy started the company in her tiny apartment, regular size cupcakes just took up too much space! So she switched to mini size, and over the years she's honed a (semi) secretive recipe for them to keep them from drying out too quickly (which is a common problem for mini cupcakes). All she would divulge about her recipe is that it basically uses "twice as much butter and eggs as a traditional recipe." She was getting so many requests for the recipe, though, that she now teaches classes at The Brooklyn Kitchen or Haven's Kitchen. Sign up for a class, get the recipe!
Her website offer 16 flavors, but that's a loose number. It's all dependent on the season and what she's craving that day. Popular flavors this summer include Peach Rosemary (which she was unsure about, but it turned out to be a huge hit), a Margarita-flavored cupcake, and of course, the Maple Bacon, which is always a top-seller.
Keavy favors the equal pairing of sweet and salty, which is what makes her cupcakes so good. "I think I've gotten to the point where I've eaten so many cupcakes, I want to salt all my cupcakes!" she said. "I'm more a salt addict than a sweet one." Her flavor combos and the savory, salty additions make them truly a wonderful bite-size treat.
The Business Plan
In case you didn't already know, running a business is hard work, and for Keavy, it's been a season of trial and error: "I'm not business-minded. I've become much more, but definitely when I first started, I was an artist straight out of college at the time, and I had no idea anything about business," she told me. "I would constantly be giving cupcakes away still - whatever! All of a sudden I was like, wait! I have to make money off of this thing! It was very trial and error for me."
The first really big order she had was for Valentine's Day in 2008 when Time Out New York discovered her at the Artists & Fleas market. She had only been in business for a few months. At that point she didn't even have a separate bank account, a website, or business cards. "When an article goes up like that, no one really knows what the situation is going to be!" she said. She made 1,600 cupcakes in one night for special Valentine's Day deliveries around the city, and hired a delivery service to pick them up at 7am the next morning and start delivering. At that point she thought her work was done, but that's when the real stuff started happening. The rest of the day was spent on the phone dealing with missing cupcakes, wrong delivery addresses, etc. She calls that day "a skin hardening experience, learning how to better talk to the customers, learning that there are going to be mistakes... I'm a person that doesn't take confrontation well, so learning how to deal with people who are not happy with the product [was a big step]. Luckily there aren't that many, which is great, but it is inevitable."
But trial and error is what's teaching her how to run a successful business: "This entire thing has been an incredibly slow process just because I"m constantly learning, which I think is okay. I feel like I'm surrounded by these amazing business people who are moving really quickly, and I just have to tell myself: it's okay to be small for awhile. You have a lot to learn." Now she's at the point where she's working on an actual business plan. "I didn't have a business plan when I started Kumquat. It was , like, whoops! Look! you have a business!"
Thankfully, the flea markets are so consistent and dependable, which is very reassuring. She always knows what she's likely to sell every week, it gives her a ton of exposure, and it's a constant source of income. But the next step is a retail location. She's currently working with her friend Allison of First Prize Pies. The two hope to create an innovative dessert space where they can sell their signature goods, so look out for that!
What's it like to be a food business in Brooklyn, I asked? Brooklyn, much like Portland, has seen a huge surge in locally-made food goods, in no small part to both Smorgasburg and The Brooklyn Flea. Keavy was effusive in her response:
That's one of the best parts about this. My favorite things about this company is watching people's faces while eating my cupcakes, or surprising them with cupcakes, because cupcakes are just so happy. That's really great. The other part is being a part of this community and watching these other businesses grow and becoming friends with everybody, and opening New York magazine and thinking, hey! I know all these people. It's super fun. Going out and having beers with these people who are at the same level that you are, and being able to learn from each other, and being, like, you're making that same mistake that I made. I'm not the only one struggling here! It's really, really great to have support. Everyone's fantastic. It's a great community of people. I think people who surround their lives with food are just good people.
1. Favorite online resources for your kitchen?
For Kumquat I like Ace Natural for organic groceries, and BRP Box Shop for all my boxes. For my own personal kitchen...I'm not totally sure. I do know that browsing The Container Store website makes me feel more organized, a resolution of mine that has been around since 2001, but I'm still a physical store shopper. I like to be able to look at and touch something before buying it. So for that I love Broadway Panhandler in Manhattan, and Whisk in Williamsburg.
2. The one thing you can't live without?
My wonderful husband who keeps me up-to-date on all things not food related, but in the kitchen I would say my plastic bowl scraper. You know, those things that cost .50 cents and are flat on one side and rounded on the other? Those things are a game changer!
3. If you could spend a day with anyone, who would it be and why?
I would split my day up between two people. During the day I would have to say Alice Waters. She built up a restaurant that relied on the idea of local and sustainable food 30 years before that idea was mainstream. She's also cooked for the Dalai Lama, and is now working on an organization to help school kids learn how to garden. I bet she has some good advice and entertaining stories to pass along to a beginner like me. Once the evening rolled around I would have to say Anthony Bourdain - not necessarily because I look up to the guy, but because I bet he would be pretty fun to have arguments with over a couple rounds of whiskey!
4. What's in your Google reader?
I love Google Reader! Things I can be found reading the most: Gilt Taste, Food52, Food Politics by Marion Nestle, Serious Eats, Appetite For Profit by Michele Simon, and On The Media on NPR.
5. If you won a million dollars, what would you do with it?
I would put all of it towards my next venture into having a brick and mortar location! It's been a dream of mine for a very very very long time.
6. What advice would you give to people wanting to start their own food business
Definitely selling out of a flea market is huge. There's no overhead. When I first started, I had dreams of starting a retail location. Someone came up to me and said to put that off as long as humanely possible. That was really, really good advice. It gives you some time to let people get to know your product without the giant overhead. It gives you time to figure out what your product is like, honestly, and what other people like about your product, what people don't like about your product, [all] without spending a ton of money on a retail location.
(Images: Cambria Bold)