Check Twitter and Facebook for current locations. Listings below are typical but subject to change.
11am - 2:30pm Mon - Fri
665 W. Adams @ Jefferson (map)
3pm Monday - Tuesday: various
First Florida Credit Union
500 West 1st Street (map)
4660 Southside Blvd. (map)
JAX Federal Credit Union
562 Park St. (map)
Weekends: special events
Talking about Le Petite Cheri Cupcakery with owner Mama P.
1. Tell us about Le Petite Cheri Cupcakery.
We started this business because baking is in our DNA and we really enjoy bringing happiness to others. Nothing does that better than food, and in particular, sweets. Baking has always been the main focus of our families, for both my husband and I. That's what started this. We watched shows like Cupcake Wars and Top Chef and that both inspired us and made us realize that we really did want to start our own bakery. But a bakery at this time in the economy is extremely expensive. Because both my husband and I have had great experiences eating from food trucks all over the U.S. we brainstormed and came up with the concept of a bakery in a food truck. That's how we started. It's kind of a passion project. We've both had other careers but this is where we see ourselves going - being independent.
…so it's a family business?
Yes. My husband runs the business side of things. He's very business savvy. He's great with the permits, and the leasing and this and that. It's funny because he's a man's man but yet he understands the cupcake needs of the women following us. He's really savvy about different flavors. He remembers when a particular flavor was really popular somewhere so that if we go back he reminds us to bring more of that flavor. I don't know how he remembers all that stuff!
I provide the guidance for the baking and do the majority of the actual baking. As we've grown and brought on some interns we've let them do what they're paying their school to learn, which is all sides of the business - so they really understand what they're getting themselves into.
Oh, and our three children are our taste testers!
2. When did you start Le Petite Cheri Cupcakery?
We started the catering portion of the business first, back in May of 2012. We started catering for weddings and friends and things like that. During our catering we fell into two situations: one was the Jax Food Fight and following that we had the Margarita Fest. The Jax Food Fight was one of those opportunities that rarely comes along, but when it did we had to go from small catering to 2,000 cupcakes for that one event. That propelled us forward and gave us the confidence that if we could do that, we could do anything. That's where we really started. For the Margarita Fest, in keeping with the theme, we made a margarita cupcake, a lime cupcake, and a chocolate chipotle cupcake. They were big hits. After that it was a few more events here and there until we started looking at the food truck.
3. How long have you had the truck?
We just got the truck in October (2012). We had it build by M&R - they've built trucks for Gourmet Aviator, Super Food Truck, and for the majority of trucks in town. They've done trucks all over the United States too. It just so happens that they're here in Florida.
4. Do you bake in the truck?
No. We rent space in a commercial kitchen. In the South it's not wise to bake on a food truck because of the humidity. Everything would start to bloom - the flour and the yeast. So we use a commercial kitchen to bake, then we load the truck and head out for the day.
5. Did you start with the idea of a food truck even before your catering?
We did. We wanted the food truck first but we needed to find out if anyone would like what we were making. We decided we'd take the plunge and see what people thought, and take whatever criticisms they had to make improvements. As we went on we really honed our recipes to where we wanted them. The food truck was the culmination of all we learned.
6. How did you come up with the name, Le Petite Cheri?
My father's grandmother is French and she used to called everyone "mon cher" in her Frenchy-french accent. When I look back I think it was all made up, but she was French - her last name was Dubois and she lived in New Orleans, so we knew she was French, it wasn't a question of that. She used to call little kids "le petite cher" - my little love, or my little darling. When we were batting around names for our business that's what my husband finally came up with - he said "we're going to call it Le Petite Cheri," and I thought, that sounds good to me. I think in French it should be "La Petite Cheri" but we thought that if we go with "Le" then we won't be copying anything that might exist somewhere in France. It's stuck and people love it - they think it's adorable.
7. Why did you focus on cupcakes instead of something broader like desserts?
We call ourselves a cupcakery because we do other desserts like brownies, bon bons, cookies, and Rice Crispy treats. The truck will go out with all kinds of different things, depending on the locale and event. Sometimes, especially at catered events, people will want very specific desserts. So, we have branched into other things. For guys especially, when the truck goes someplace like a construction site, they don't want to carry a cupcake - they want something manly like our monster brownies.
8. Do you have a fixed menu of cupcakes, or do you rotate them?
There are 4 or 5 that have to be on the truck, or we'll hear about it.
…which are those?
The Chocolate Red Velvet, Chocolate Overload, Peanut Butter Cup, and Vegan Pumpkin. If we have those on the truck we're okay. Then every week we rotate 3 new flavors. A lot of our new flavors are by request. There's a bank we go to where they insist on pistachio and sweet potato, so we bring them every time we visit the bank. We've also started with minis, or what we call Petites, which are popular after the holiday season. Some people want a smaller portion and others like them in order to sample a few different flavors.
9. Do you have non-sweet cupcakes?
Yes. When we do breakfasts we'll have things like muffins, bagels, yogurt parfaits, and that kind of thing. The truck allows us to tailor things to our locale.
10. Do you have a particular style to your cupcakes?
Our cupcakes are really natural - we don't use anything artificial. They taste like what you'd have coming home after school to Grandma's baking. They're decorated really nice too, and they're sweet, but not overly sweet. We really focus on getting just the right amount of frosting. A lot of people don't like it when there's too much frosting and it overwhelms the cupcake. We try hard to get the right proportions. And we make it so that everything is really moist and the frostings are silky. We don't want a gritty, overly sweet, birthday cake style of cupcake. We want something that's more natural, fresh, and organic. We shop at the Beaver Street Farmer's Market for a lot of our ingredients to make sure things have that natural taste.
11. What would you recommend to someone who's never been to your food truck and wants to try something that epitomizes your baking?
The Chocolate Overload! It is wrong in so many ways but it's so right at the same time, especially if someone's a chocoholic. It's not going to be super sweet - we don't like to overload things with sugar - it's just really great chocolate. It's made with Belgian chocolate, semi sweet, Callebaut chocolate, and bittersweet. We mix the chocolates together to produce a dense, rich flavor that is very, very elegant.
12. If someone wanted to try something a little different, what would you recommend?
A new flavor we've introduced by popular demand, and mostly from men, is salted caramel. I cannot keep those on the truck. We don't even announce that we have them until we're right where we're supposed to be because it's the most popular cupcake we're doing that's off the regular menu.
13. Do you notice a difference between what men and women order?
Yes, completely. Peanut Butter Cups - all men love that. That and the Monster Brownie. Women love Red Velvet - especially Southern women. We get so many who walk up and want to see if ours is as good as what their mother used to make. I'm just crossing my fingers on that. Women over 40 also tend to love our Chocolate Overload Cupcake.
14. Is there seasonality to the types of cupcakes you make?
We really try to make it seasonal because people have special events before Christmas. This year we had egg nog, Christmas cookie, chocolate peppermint and white hot chocolate. During Thanksgiving we introduced our vegan pumpkin cupcake. Urbanites really love vegan fare, so we've ended up keeping the pumpkin on our menu. We've made other cupcakes in vegan style but it's the pumpkin that's just never left the menu. We look forward in the Spring to bringing out the lime, the lemon and some of the fruit flavors. Whenever we tweet what we're going to have for the week we get requests back. We often have one of our assistant bakers whip up a batch for those requests.
15. What made you bring on your vegan options?
I knew that for us to be successful we'd have to meet the dietary demands of people in Jacksonville. And Jacksonville has one of the most eclectic ranges of food tastes imaginable. And as a mom I've always been aware of vegan and gluten free foods. The eclectic range of demands and what I knew from myself and other moms about wanting vegan and gluten free foods is what motivated us to move beyond the normal assortment of baked goods you'd expect to find. So we always have something that's vegan and something that's gluten free.
…what's the response been?
Positive from the very beginning. On our opening day at the King's Street Farmer's Market our vegan cupcakes went very quickly. The next week when I showed up without anything vegan I really heard about it.
16. What's the most popular item?
The core cupcakes - Chocolate Overload, Red Velvet and Peanut Butter Cup - are the most popular. People are very loyal to certain tastes and expect to see their favorites when we show up.
17. Do you have a lot of regulars?
Yes. It's very interesting. We have people who take our picture when we're on the highway and tell us "gotcha!" on Facebook. We try to give people what they want. If something isn't working for someone we try to find out what will work for them. Customers really appreciate that we try to offer that level of personalization.
18. Do people buy your cupcakes to take home or for dessert after lunch?
Normally they're coming to us for dessert to go with lunch. Later in the day we get people who are looking for something to satisfy their afternoon snack attack. When we're at an office building we often get people who come with a piece of paper that lists the order for everyone they work with. Sometimes one person comes out to see what we have on the truck and then they go and get their co-workers who come en masse.
19. Do you have a regular location?
We rent downtown on the corner of Jefferson and Adams. We're right next to the On The Fly food truck. We're there every day from 11am until about 2:30, unless we have a special event. That's actually an issue for us - we really need a second truck because the demand is just so high. We're getting a lot of weekly events and that means the truck can't be downtown all the time.
In the afternoons we're usually at a second locale until about 5pm. When we started we used to go to auto dealerships and banks. But when the space downtown became available we couldn't say no. But then our previous customers wanted us back. So we pack up around 2:30 downtown and serve our other customers. We do lots of weekend events too.
20. Do you work in the truck every day?
Not every day. We've hired young interns from the local culinary schools who are looking for experience baking and working in a business. They really like taking the truck out and they're young and hip and fun, so that works out.
21. Can you tell us about your special events catering?
We get a lot of variety, depending on the event. We've done weddings where everything is prepaid and people can come up to get a cupcake and take their picture. We're doing a 5K, for example, where the emphasis is on healthy cupcakes and gluten free options. So we'll do things like our PowerBar version that's made with protein powder, granola, peanut butter and bananas. We've done events that have a lot of small kids. In those cases we make a lot of Petites. Kids love to come up and pay with their own money, then get a picture with the truck. Girls love to look inside. The 6 and 7 year olds will scream "oh my God, it's a cupcake palace! It's pink!" Every event is different.
22. When you do things for a very particular audience, how do you come up with the new recipes that work for them?
We have a lot of crazy testing. We put on the clothes we don't mind getting dirty, pin up our hair, roll up our sleeves and start experimenting. The interns are also very creative. They come up with all kinds of wacky ideas because they're young and they're hip. They're in their 20's and have their fingers on the pulse of what's new.
…what's "young and hip" for a cupcake?
Oh my gosh…for one, they want to name them with some crazy names - not all family friendly! They come up with things like a cupcake with Red Bull and a slimy green frosting. It sounds weird but when you put it together it tastes so good. I don't know how they think of that sort of stuff. Another one is the Chai cupcake, based on the tea. Another intern came up with a nice lavender infused cupcake. It was lovely and light on the palate. We did it for a wedding.
I'm very open with the interns. I have the final say but I love their creativity. It's great for them because it makes them better down the road - both as a person and as a boss - when they realize that someone gave them chances.
23. Can you tell us about your baking background?
My mom's family is from Germany and they owned a bakery in East Germany before World War II. That's how it started. For me, baking was always very special because as a kid I grew up all over. My dad was in the military and my mom was German, so we lived all over, but primarily in Germany as kids. And baking in Germany is very important - bread is important - you have bread with every meal. We always had baked goods. That's always stuck with me. And Christmas is very special. Even with my dad being gone so much he always seemed to make it home for Christmas. So I think I tied together baking with Christmas and with my dad being home. That's a good thing.
Baking in Europe is an art so the care that I watched my mom and my Oma take with everything has really stuck with me. They were very strict in their kitchen. They had speed - they were so fast at everything. They had a stool where we were perched like birds and could watch - it was fascinating. You knew you were wanted. You wanted to participate, and every once in a while you were given some raisins to put on the cookies. That's how it worked for me. That's what formed me.
24. How did you transition from that to learning how to bake, and to bake with a commercial sense of speed and scale?
I inherited my parent's tremendous work ethic. I've always had that - not complaining, just putting your head down and getting to work has always been a mantra of mine. So doing big orders or something special for a customer isn't a problem. Nothing is impossible. We can make things happen. And we do, especially if it's for a customer.
25. Did you bake commercially before Le Petite Cheri?
No, I went straight on my own.
26. Have you owned a food business of any kind before?
No, nothing. I was a high school math teacher in inner city schools, mostly in Maryland and then in Jacksonville for a year. You learn to work under pressure and to juggle lots of different skill sets when you're dealing with children who are either impoverished, beaten down, or have nobody at home. You become everything to them, and you have to help them to find a path so they can graduate. That taught me and gave me that thick skin for always saying "yes, we can make things happen." You just don't say "no" to a kid, you have to make it work. I think the challenges for baking in a commercial sense is that you have to remember that yes, I'm baking a lot, but I'm baking for a lot of great people. You can't just slough these things around, stuff them in the cupcake pan, and put them in the oven, and here we go. You have to really remember what you're doing and who you're doing it for.
27. What have been some of the surprises or challenges of going out on your own like that?
My motto is "Think big and start small." But it's ended up that we're thinking big and things have started big too. It's like we went out for a one mile jog and ended up on a 40 mile sprint!
The challenges have been things like standing on your feet all day - it's exhausting! I guess it's similar to teaching, it's a familiar type of pain. For surprises, I'd say I didn't realize how hungry Jacksonville is for food trucks. That's what surprised me the most. It's kind of like a rock star status. People are always waving and yelling to us when we're driving around. It's surprised all of us. Some of the girls who work on the truck have gotten Facebook friends, mostly guys!, because of it.
28. Has that reception developed as people have gotten to know you or was it there from the start?
The overall reception has gotten better. It's more warm. It's such a novel idea having a dessert only food truck. We are the first of our kind in Jacksonville. So people are still really interested in it. I think if we were just a storefront then the traffic would slow down when the initial hype died down. Because the truck is mobile and can go anywhere, people see it, and then they ask for it - they want it at their events. So, it hasn't slowed down, it's gotten more hectic.
29. What's next for you?
We're continuing to expand the menu. Every week we try something new. We're really focused on delivering good taste. When you offer a peanut butter and jelly cupcake it should taste like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich - things like that. We're trying to elevate our taste and what we bring to our customers. We like to listen to what our customers are talking about and then work to meet their demands. Sometimes people will tell us things like "I just tried this cupcake in California and it has this, that, and the other thing - have you ever done that?" If we haven't, and the idea sounds interesting, we'll give it a try and see what we can come up with.
Getting a second truck is something else we need to do. Meeting the demand is getting to be hectic. I'm having to turn people away and I don't like to do that. And we're having to bend our schedule all sorts of ways to accommodate the people we can. I think a second truck is really going to make things easier.
Then we'll just continue to stick to our principles of doing things with really good quality and customer service - being kind and generous. When someone comes to the truck and gives us their hard earned money they want something in return. We can't always give people exactly what they want but we can always give in a way that's kind and warm - that's our philosophy. We don't hire anyone who's negative or doesn't understand that.
30. Anything else?
Just that it's really, really hard work, so if you're thinking of getting into a food truck, know what you're doing. If it's a passion, like it is for us, and it's not a chore, then pursue it. But it's not like a restaurant - on a food truck you are everything - you're the menu planner, the menu typer, the plumber, the electrician, the auto mechanic, and it can be hairy and crazy. But if you have a passion for it, go for it! I say, the more the better. Every event we go to there are more food trucks there - it's so exciting to see for Jacksonville.