At 3:00 a.m., Laura Pekarik reaches over and shuts off her alarm clock. While the rest of Elmhurst, Illinois, remains fast asleep, she is getting up to bake. For the next 17 hours, the 27-year-old owner of Cupcakes For Courage and Courageous Bakery will not only make cupcakes, but purvey them through Chicago via her mobile food truck and retail shop.
All across the country, other women entrepreneurs are similarly competing for a slice of the cupcake business. Ever since Candace Nelson introduced Sprinkles Cupcakes in Beverly Hills and Sex and the City made them hip in New York, cupcakes were supposed to rise and fall like other food trends. Instead, they have emerged as a major industry, with craft bakers, homemakers and cake decorators selling 230 million cupcakes a day.
Most of these cupcakers develop a fondness for baking at a young age and start their businesses from home. Kathy Saks, 21, remembers having fun with her Easy-Bake Oven as a kid. After attending culinary school, she launches Kathy’s Kakery from her home kitchen. Until she develops enough business to open a brick and mortar bakery, she fulfills orders on line and through social networking.
The social connections make an enormous difference. When her sister, Kelly Saks, a fashion blogger/beauty contestant, asks Kathy to make cupcakes for a party, another fashion blogger picks up her business card and later orders 300 cupcakes for an event at Neiman-Marcus.
Kathy’s mother, America Blanca, transcribes notes for various doctors. One of her clients practices at Miami Breast Center, where Cindy Papale is an administrator and breast cancer survivor. Cindy wrote The Empty Cup Runneth Over as a resource for patients. She asks Kathy to cater a charity book signing at Brighton Collectibles in Miami, which Kathy gladly does with pretty pink velvet cupcakes.
One of Brighton’s cupcake charms hangs from the wrist of Danielle Milam, 28, a fifth-grade teacher in Sissonville, West Virginia. She bakes on the side, mostly out of personal passion. Yet so many people in her community clamor for her cupcakes that she now runs Danielle’s Sweet Little Cupcakes from a Facebook page. She always “over-bakes” orders in case of mishaps and posts any excess inventory on line for her fans to snap up. Most recently, she brings 180 cupcakes to the Sissonville Middle School, for a banquet to celebrate its football team’s undefeated season. The spread includes five different flavors, each in a football-themed liner.
The new cupcakers are always coming up with unusual recipes and designs. Kathy wins second place in a best-cupcake-in-Miami competition last year with her signature Cuban guava cupcake. For the “Final Cup” episode of Cupcake Wars, Laura competes with soccer-themed recipes. At Cupcakes For Courage, she offers 45 flavors and specializes in “pie” cupcakes, such as banana cream pie, apple pie à la mode, pumpkin pie and French silk pie.
Ultimately, it’s not flavors, but cuteness, joy and love that make cupcakes such a phenomenon. Growing up, Laura remembers coming home from school and feeling happy and loved at the sight and aroma of her mother’s banana muffins or chocolate chip cookies. “I think the great feeling that I would always get on those days has hung with me,” she says. “Baking is a way for me to make others feel that way, too.”
Her business certainly originates out of love. In 2010, Laura is working in marketing when her sister, Kathryn, develops non-Hodgkins T-cell Lymphoma. She and her mother, Andrea, drop their work to help Kathryn through her illness. Since both sisters love baking, they start brainstorming original recipes during Kathryn’s cancer treatments. “It helped take our minds off of reality and think about what we were going to do when we got out of the hospital,” Laura says.
To help with medical bills, friends and family throw a fundraiser where Laura sells 250 cupcakes. At first bite, people encourage her to start her own bakery. Energetic and optimistic, Laura decides to go for it. To pay it forward, Cupcakes For Courage donates 10% of sales to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and Ride Janie Ride, a nonprofit that helps people like Kathryn with their major medical bills.
Kathryn, now in remission, has taken a full-time job to secure health insurance. Andrea has returned to her life in Florida. They all stay in touch through text. Also, since she loves hearts, Andrea collects Brighton accessories, especially belts. To stay connected, Laura sometimes sends her mom a gift from Brighton. “I know if she wears it, she will think of me,” she says.
With the other two gone, Laura now runs the truck and bakery with the help of a very small staff. The all-consuming business leaves room for little else in her life. Driving through Elmhurst before dawn, she reflects on her insane schedule and surprising journey. “Timing is everything. My grandma always says that the things we worry most about in life usually work themselves out on their own,” she says. “I keep that line of wisdom close to me. It really keeps me sane and focused on what is important.”
For now, that means offering up little bites of happiness every day.