Fourteen years ago, professional baker Carolyn Shulevitz’s preschool-age son, Harley, was diagnosed with food allergies. Shulevitz, who was already using all-natural ingredients, began experimenting with dairy-free and egg-free recipes that she could make for Harley when he attended birthday and holiday parties. Her catering business took off over the years, and a gig baking for luxury dinner cruises in Miami led Shulevitz and longtime friend, Leslie Kaplan, to start a business freezing and selling all-natural cake batter and icing.
Here’s how they did it:
The big idea
Ready. Set. Cupcake! by The Piping Gourmets is a line of frozen, ready-to-bake cake batter and frozen buttercream icing. The products are all-natural and preservative-free, and come packaged in pastry bags to defrost and use. The vanilla batter and buttercream can be customized with your own flavors. The chocolate batter is egg-free and dairy-free. The batter makes 24 mini-cupcakes or one seven-inch cake and is $6.99. The buttercream icing is $7.99. The products are sold in the freezer cases at Whole Foods Markets in Florida, as well as Epicure Market in Miami Beach and Sunny Isles.
Shulevitz, of Miami Beach, graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in New York. She cooked in New York hotels before operating a bakery and gourmet shop in the Hamptons in New York. In South Florida, she has worked as a freelance baker and caterer.
Kaplan, of Miami Beach, has a bachelor’s degree in hospitality management from Florida International University. She worked in hotel management before joining her family’s business, The Carousel Yacht and Great Bay Yacht Charters.
Shulevitz and Kaplan met at a Mommy and Me group some 19 years ago and remained friends. The two were working together on The Carousel Yacht when a surge in business led Shulevitz to start freezing cake batter to keep up with demand. In 2010, the two women saw a business opportunity, and jumped in.
In October 2010, Shulevitz and Kaplan got their business papers in order. They saw frozen cake batter as filling a void for people who wanted to bake, but didn’t want the mess. "Everybody wants fresh-baked goods, but some people don’t know how to bake. They’re intimidated by the process," Shulevitz said.
They researched frozen and refrigerated muffin and cookie mix. They searched the Internet for similar products. They went to grocery stores and measured the shelves in freezer cases to see how products fit.
"We bought a lot of frozen food, and analyzed ingredients, the dimensions of the box, construction of the box and the art on the box," Kaplan said.
Shulevitz spent a lot of time freezing product at different time intervals to test product quality, shelf life and freshness. They handed out frozen batter samples to friends to get feedback, which they used to adjust recipes and baking directions. They sent samples to a professional testing lab to get a nutritional and shelf-life analysis.
The partners also tweaked ingredients and recipes, as they found some staples, such as cocoa and unbleached flour, could be found in higher quality with bigger quantities. They decided on the 24 mini-cupcake size package "because we recognized that people were eating healthier and into smaller portions. That was a hot trend," Kaplan said.
They found a production house in Hialeah, where the product is manufactured and packaged under their supervision. They put the vanilla products in a larger pastry bag, and added directions on how to customize with your own flavorings. The product hit the shelf in October 2011.
A website was launched in October 2011, followed by a Facebook page, where the partners share pictures of their demos, offer recipes for customization and display photos of consumers using their products. They show the versatility of the product by posting recipes of the batter being used for items like whoopee pies or madelines.
They’ve used MyEmma.com to create email newsletters to send to supporters, and use Pinterest to post photos of their product.
An initial public relations push resulted in some television and newspaper coverage, and the partners do demos at food trade shows to get their products into specialty markets. They also participate in community and charity events.
"We’ve done it a methodical way, because we want to grow steadily," Kaplan said.
The partners have spent about $100,000 on research, product development, packaging, testing, marketing and inventory. They sell about 100 to 200 units per week and are not yet profitable.
"Not having enough hours in the day," said Kaplan, who said she’s at it from 6:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week. "Because it’s our baby, it’s really hard to delegate."
Being a new category also is a challenge, Kaplan said. "It doesn’t exist, so educating the consumer is another challenge." Shulevitz said they had to change the original packaging, which showed unfrosted cupcakes, because consumers thought they were buying finished items, rather than frozen batter.
A line of gluten-free cake batter is set to debut in the fall. The women also are bringing in a partner with experience in frozen foods.
Kaplan rises at 6 a.m. and drives her youngest son, Jared, 14, to school at 7 a.m. She’ll hit the gym, then gets to the office by 9:30 a.m., where she handles paperwork and emails. Kaplan leaves between 3 and 5 p.m., picks Jared up, then heads home. After dinner, she checks emails or drives to Fed Ex to send out frozen samples. She wraps up for the night between 10 and 11 p.m. Husband, Ian, helps by reviewing financial documents. The kids, Lauren, 20, Josh, 18, and Jared, help with social media, demos, recipe development and sending out samples.
Shulevitz rises at 5:15 a.m. and on production days, is at the manufacturing facility at 7 a.m. She leaves between 3 and 5 p.m. to do paperwork and answer emails, which she finishes about 10 p.m. Husband, David, an attorney, pitches in by reviewing legal matters, and kids, Ilana, 20, and Harley, 18, help with editing, writing and demos.
"Have no fear. Make a business plan with a budget. Know what void there is in the marketplace. Find mentors and ask them questions," Kaplan said.
"Believe in yourself, because there is a perception that women can’t do it, and that moms won’t have the time," Shulevitz said. "But if you focus, you know you will."