Dallas' love affair with cupcakes continues. The force is strong in those miniature desserts, and a new aspirant has thrown its hat into the oven. And after having met the queen bee of the newest addition to the cupcake craze, I'm not so unsure that I didn't just shake hands with the next Rachael Ray.
While I was in Inwood Village last week, a distinctive pink and green striped awning stuck out like most bright pink and green awnings would. The sign above read Gigi's Cupcakes. It had never been there before, and I (wrongly) assumed it was just another solo-proprietor's crack at the Dallas cupcake game. "ANOTHER cupcake store in Dallas?" I thought. "Are these people nuts?" Not until I reached home and opened up my laptop for a quick search did I realize how wrong I was about Gigi's.
The website is a marketing tour de force, complete with bright colors, inviting fonts and tantalizing pictures of cupcakes. The most intriguing part of the website, however, was a small photo in the very top center part of the page...Gigi.
Again, my internal dialogue started up, "This woman can't be for real. She looks like a friggin' brand. Where did they find her?" Seriously, I wouldn't be surprised if this woman is what the people over at Betty Crocker had in mind when they were thinking of an ideal spokesmodel. To confirm in my own head that this perfectly "messy" coiffed, peachy skinned and '80s modelesque woman was an actual, breathing human being, I clicked on a tab that read, "Gigi's Story."
What I read led me even further into believing that this woman was some sort of mythological domestic goddess, albeit a very ambitious one. At the age of 15, Gigi started her own cleaning company. She then decided to move to Nashville to pursue her dreams of being a singer/songwriter. There, like some plot to a perfect country song, she waited tables and cleaned houses in the daytime, while singing in bars at night. When chances of her making it into the country music big time started looking bleak, she turned to the two things that had always been a constant in her life: baking and God. Gigi accounts much of her success to her faith, and there's much mention of it on her website biography.
Gigi is, in fact, Gina Butler. Although I had to contact some people who got me in touch with some other people in order to get to Ms. Butler, I eventually reached her. Rather, she got a hold of me. As I was sitting in a business meeting a few days ago, an unfamiliar area code appeared on my cell. I answered it quite brusquely and was immediately embarrassed when the voice on the other end responded sweetly, "Hi. This is Gigi. I'm so sorry for not calling you back yesterday."
After all the emails with corporate-types and the left voice mails, Butler was surprisingly accessible. Understand, this is a woman who has opened 28 of her eponymous stores nationwide in less than two years. This is a woman who recently signed with the same New York City public relations firm that launched the careers of Guy Fieri, Rachael Ray and countless other Food Network regulars. This is a woman, who I would soon find out, has an almost cult-like following. I've had a harder time getting Dallas-based chefs and owners on the phone.
Our phone interview was erratic and cut short because of Butler's unenviable busy schedule. While on the phone answering my poorly concealed questions about God and cupcakes (she didn't bite), she also was driving through Arlington, searching for her store's next DFW location. All of the Gigi's in Texas -- Midland, Houston and Dallas -- are franchises. Arlington would be her first corporate-owned store in the state. This does not mean, however, that Butler doesn't take an active interest in the Gigi franchises.
She travels to every store opening across the nation. She personally trains every franchise owner during an intensive two weeks session in Nashville, the base location of operations. After all, she has a lot invested in these cupcakes. They are all recipes passed down to her from her mother, aunts, and grandmothers. She has ties to North Texas (her parents live outside of Denton), so she would be in town for a while if I wanted to come into the Dallas store and meet her. I would.
Before I would go to visit her, however, I wanted to find out more about the Gigi's cupcake brand, and it's incredibly rapid growth. Several things puzzled me. I'd never heard of a Gigi's and neither had most people I asked. Out of all the 28 stores, 23 are independently franchised. Who were these people, and how were they so confident as to invest in such a young brand? I especially wanted to question the person who felt brave enough to bring Gigi's to Dallas, a city always almost on the brink of cupcake exhaustion.
Katie Ruppe, a recent SMU graduate, is responsible for bringing the Gigi's concept to Dallas. A journalism major in college, Ruppe, like most undergraduates about to enter the real world, was questioning the next step in her life. During a family-visit in Midland, she walked into a Gigi's, where, she said, "I just felt happy." She consulted with her parents about the business opportunity and off they trekked to Nashville to proposition Butler into letting them open up their own franchise. Despite having little to no experience, her father now looks over the baking responsibilities while Ruppe and her mother watch over the front of the house.
When asked whether she fears a cupcake backlash in Dallas, she asserts, "Everybody loves cupcakes," and makes a comparison to the city's continued affair with frozen yogurt. Beyond her fervent belief in the product, itself, it's clear through all the superlatives she uses about "Gigi," how much she admires and believes in the woman behind the cupcakes.
I found out during my visit to the store's opening day, Ruppe isn't alone. On an early Wednesday afternoon, the store already was packed with customers of all kinds -- from the predictable clientele of soccer moms with their kids to the unpredictable likes of businessmen and their briefcases. Butler was in the kitchen, making cupcakes. As I waited for Gigi herself to come out, I eavesdropped in on several of the customers waiting in line. Apparently, everyone was ecstatic.
"I couldn't wait for you guys [Gigi's] to finally open," was the general consensus. When I asked Butler during our phone interview why she thought her store was so popular, she had explained that Nashville, being a tourist hotspot, had much do with it. When she opened her first store with $33.00 left in her checking account, there was still nothing like her cupcake shop in town. Tourists would visit and be bitten by the Gigi bug, bringing their enthusiasm back to their hometowns. Hence, the fast rise of the many franchises. Seeing her concept's popularity, Butler, ever the entrepreneur, wanted to create more than just a cupcake shop. She wanted to create a brand. Her description of her cupcakes, alone, as, "Homemade, but not mom-and-pop" reveals something of her ambitious nature.
She's self-aware enough of her image to know how to use it, but she wants to differentiate herself from being a run-of-the-mill baker. Judging from the reaction in the shop, she just pull it off.
As soon as she walked out from the kitchen for our meet and greet, I could hear whispers of "There she is," and "Is that her?" I waited quietly in the corner as customers clamored to pull her aside to gush. With a bright but tired smile, she walked up and shook my hand with a firm, yet feminine grip. Even covered in flour and with a swept aside ponytail, she is as attractive in person as the picture on the website and the enormous poster on the shop's wall. After returning from the ladies' room to "freshen up," she put on a Gigi's apron and self-deprecatingly joked about her baby bump. Butler is expecting her first child, but there are no signs of her slowing down just yet. Her goal is to open one hundred stores nation-wide. She, admittedly, will have to go at a slower pace, however, switching from opening two to three locations a month to only one a month.
Despite having a "team" behind her, she still travels with her brother doing most of her own legwork. In fact, her brother was behind the counter that day, in an apron, serving cupcakes. For a woman who poses in her posters as decorating cupcakes with children in an idyllic kitchen, she's in the early stages of just expecting her first child, and a steely and competitive determination is apparent in every word she speaks. Still, she wanted to make sure she didn't come off as threatening to the other cupcake establishments in Dallas.
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Therein lies the secret to all the successful female domestic "types" in media, from Martha Stewart to Oprah to Rachael Ray. All three women share humble backgrounds, and all three women used their images to create an empire. Yet, ask any staffer that works with the persistently perky Ray what she's like in the office, and there would be a different picture painted. Not that there is anything wrong with being savvy, and Butler definitely has that on her side.
Along with her cupcakes (which are denser, borderline angel food cake texture with a mountain of stiff and pretty icing) she's already starting a merchandise line. Most important, she photographs insanely well. Even mussed, as soon as I clicked the camera's button, she immediately turned on that crazy photogenic gift of hers.
Which, forgive me for saying, naturally reminded me of a certain someone from Alaska. How could my mind not wander there, given the faith references, her all-American good looks, and her devoted following? Not wanting to inaccurately label anyone, I slapped that thought aside and made my way to leave the store, thanking her and Ruppe for their time and wishing them luck on their ventures. Without prompting, Ms. Butler ended our interview with a quote that brought my confusion full circle. With intent in her eyes, she leaned in and said, "I just want people to know that with God, ordinary people can do extraordinary things. I think I'm just an ordinary person."
Gigi's Cupcakes 5450 West Lovers Lane, Suite 130