Gigi Butler, founder and Chief Brand Officer of Gigi’s Cupcakes, turned family recipes into the largest cupcake franchise company in the nation, with more than 100 stores. This year Gigi was given the opportunity to appear on CBS’ “Undercover Boss” where millions of people were exposed to the successful cupcake chain. Gigi talked to us about the Undercover Boss experience, challenges to growing the business, and what it means to be the face of a brand. And of course we had a cupcake, or two.
Q: Have you always wanted to be in business for yourself?
Yes! I grew up in a family of entrepreneurs. My dad was an entrepreneur and my aunts and great aunts owned and operated bakeries. I started a cleaning business at the age of 15 so that I could have flexibility. When I moved to Nashville in 1994, to pursue a country music career, I operated my small cleaning business during the day and would sing at the clubs downtown at night. I’ve always worked for myself and I don’t know any other way.
Q: What was the impetus to begin a cupcake business?
My entire family loved to cook and bake, so I grew up around it. My Aunt Bennie owned a bakery and catering business and I would spend summers with her. I’d help her bake, cater events, and read her cake decorating books. I loved to bake and had a passion for it at an early age, but my dream was to be a country singer.
In my early thirties, I realized that my music career was unlikely to take off so I decided to focus entirely on my cleaning business. A few years went by and then my brother called me while I was cleaning a home and told me that he had waited in line at a cupcake bakery in New York for hours. He said, “Your cupcakes are better than these. You should open up a bakery.” I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror and decided to go for it.
I opened my first cupcake shop in February 2008 with only $33 left in my bank account. Now, seven years later and against the odds, Gigi’s Cupcakes has grown to be the largest cupcake franchise company in the nation. We just opened our first international location in early 2015 in South Korea and hope to continue to expand in other countries.
I think back fondly on those summer afternoons with Aunt Bennie, who is now part of the Gigi’s team, and consults on product development in the kitchen with me. We have over 300 recipes at Gigi’s Cupcakes and many of them have a rich personal family history originating from my grandmother, great aunts, my mother and other relatives, many of whom are bakers.
Q: How many cupcakes do you sell daily?
The average store sells about 500 cupcakes a day. Here are some other fun facts that you might be interested in. In 2014, we estimate that all of our stores used:
1.8 Million Pounds of Powdered Sugar
965,000 Pounds of Butter
600,000 Pounds of Flour
63,000 Pints of Vanilla
67,000 Pounds of Cocoa
33,000 Pounds of Cream Cheese
Q: Your Undercover Boss episode is ran again this month on CBS. How did you make the decision to participate in Undercover Boss?
It was a once in a lifetime opportunity that I just couldn’t turn it down. We were one of the few small companies that they have ever highlighted. I had to do it and I’m so glad I did.
Q: What was the most surprising thing you learned from your Undercover Boss experience?
Filming Undercover Boss was an amazing experience that I will always be grateful for. Two things that surprised me during this experience were: 1) I was surprised by how many passionate and wonderful people work for us. It’s not just a job to them, they truly care about the business and the brand. 2) I was also surprised that we were consistently inconsistent. We didn’t have the exact same procedures from one store to the next. I knew we needed to address that immediately.
Q: Did the experience benefit your business?
Yes, the experience greatly benefited us! We learned a lot during my journey and we haven’t been the same since.
Q: What has been the biggest marketing challenge in growing your business?
Staying relevant and continuing to think outside the box. We don’t just do cupcakes, we have a lot of products. While we’re best known for our signature swirl – icing piled high on top of a freshly baked cupcake, we strive to have a diversified product line that not only includes 300 cupcake flavors, but also stuffed cookies, bread loaves, muffins, cakes, cheesecakes, pies and specialty coffee.
Q: What have you learned from your role as the face of the brand?
It’s only been fairly recently that I’ve truly had to make a transition from behind-the-scenes to being the public face of the company. Sure, it’s always been Gigi’s, but as we’ve grown, my role as the spokesperson for the brand has also grown. It doesn’t allow me as much time working diligently behind the scenes as I’m accustomed to, so I’ve had to adjust and find appropriate balance. We have a great team of people working for us, and I have learned to let go (at least I’m working on that) and allow our seasoned veterans to do what they do best. I’ve also learned that people like knowing that there is authenticity to our brand and that there is actually a real person named Gigi that started the company.
Q: Where do the new cupcake ideas come from?
I used to wake up in the middle of the night with song ideas and lyrics. Now I wake up thinking about new cupcake flavors. I still use my creative spirit, just in a different way. Our new summer menu includes Bubble Gum and Cotton Candy because we wanted to focus on summer fun flavors. I remember going to the state fair as a kid and eating cotton candy. It was one of my favorite things. We wanted these flavors to bring back those childhood memories as soon as you taste them. It’s like tasting a memory.
Q: What do you want your daughter to learn from your experience as a female business owner?
I want to leave a legacy of love for my daughter. I want her to know the power of hard work. I also want her to know that there is strength and a sense of community when you give back to people. That’s what’s most important.