10 Questions about Sweet By Holly with Hollis Wilder
1. Tell us about Sweet by Holly.
Sweet By Holly came out of Good Golly Miss Holly, my catering company in Los Angeles. Good Golly Miss Holly first became Sweet! By Good Golly Miss Holly and a retail dessert destination was born! We opened what we believe to be the first cupcake and frozen yogurt store anywhere.
…were you making cupcakes as part of your catering in Los Angeles?
Absolutely! My food has always been comfort food with a twist, and what's more comforting than a cupcake?
2. Why did you choose to move to Florida?
My children were young and I wanted to take a break from making food for others to focus on my family. Of course, in the back of my mind I knew Florida was a growth market, so I guess I was already planning my exit strategy from domestic bliss, which happened when I got the itch to get back into business.
3. With your background in catering why not just start with catering in Florida?
Cupcakes were something different. I had been doing savory for a long time. I know what I like to eat and I know how to create flavors that make people feel like they're going home. The creation of the cupcake store was an offshoot of taking all my childhood family favorites that my family had been making for generations. I just took all our traditional desserts and put them in a cupcake pan. It was very hard work. My neighbors were relieved when I finished six months of testing, as every day they would find cupcakes on their stoop, which are pretty hard to resist!
4. How long was your store open before Cupcake Wars happened?
Cupcake Wars happened when I was about a year and a half into the store. We were building the business the old fashioned way, one happy, satisfied customer at a time. The media exposure on Cupcake Wars blew that up overnight. The second Cupcake Wars sealed the deal. We are blessed with loyal local customers and visiting customers from all over the world - the power of the media is incredible.
5. Did you start with the idea of growing to multiple stores?
Our plan was not to stop at one. Of course it's the customers who ultimately decide if a brand should expand. We didn't take any chances and tried to create the very best product with the absolutely finest ingredients and not worrying about how much it was costing to make individual cupcakes. We charged what we think a cupcake should cost and backed our way into profitability by doing high volume and negotiating good pricing from vendors, based upon our volume. For example, we use the finest Madagascar bourbon pure vanilla extract in the world from Neilsen-Massey and buy it in cases of 4-one gallon containers at maybe a sixth of the price you might pay buying a 4 oz. bottle of the same product from Williams-Sonoma.
…how do you manage quality control, now that you've grown to two stores?
I have head chefs and managers who have been with me from the beginning - and we're on the same page. Most of the time I'm working on the business, not in the business. I'm not micro managing what I know my team can do. My job is to grow a successful brand and a company and have harmony within the company so people feel they are a part of something - that they're building something. So now I am not alone when it comes to dreaming about cupcakes. I have lots of company. We are very collaborative. For example, we have a collection of cupcakes coming out for the holidays and they're the result of much give and take and back and forth amongst front of the house managers, chefs and ownership. When we get to the finish line we all know it and everyone has a part in the result. I have over 50 employees now between the two store and it may sound corny but it really is a sweet family.
6. Where does yogurt fit into the business?
People like something sweet in different forms on different days and having both the yogurt and the cupcakes lets us offer choices. Our customers seem to enjoy the freedom of creating their own self-serve froyo creation combined with the pleasures of our beautifully finished cupcakes.
7. Where do your savory items fit into the business?
The brand has always flowed from me, Hollis Wilder, and then to Sweet By Holly. That helped to get me on Cupcake Wars for my 15 minutes of fame. I knew when I went on Cupcake Wars for the first time, that it wasn't about just making another cupcake. I knew it was about creating something that's never been done before which is why I made the salmon cupcake for George and Ann Lopez. I won making the salmon cupcakes because I convinced the judges and the viewers about the idea of an hors d'oeuvre in a cupcake pan. That's how the spark happened and everything changed. When I came back from being on Cupcake Wars the phone rang and it was Abrams, a well respected publisher known for putting out high profile cookbooks. After seeing me on Cupcake Wars they wanted me to make a cookbook with meals cooked in a cupcake pan. That is just crazy. Of course then the real work began that took two years to complete.
8. Are you introducing many new recipes in your book?
Yes, hundreds of them. Breakfast, lunch and dinner - all made in a cupcake pan. Let me be clear. There's no cake. No paper. No buttercream or frosting. These are meals that come out of the pan. You can hold them, you can walk around - they're hand held size. You can use a fork and knife if you want. I have 25 different edible wrappers. We're using the cupcake pan but in a savory way. It's all about living life in portions!
9. Who's the audience for the book?
Abrams will release the book in May (2013) to coincide with Mother's Day. It will target female shoppers - Moms, who can use it to bring families back together around the kitchen table. This is a perfect way to do it because children can make the meals in the cupcake pan if you help by putting out all the elements needed. It's very easy for them to do. We have personal pan pizzas and burittos and nacho stacks. It's endless. Everything you already make but now in the cupcake pan and in perfect portions.
10. With everything super sized today what drew you to mini cupcakes and now mini meals in a cupcake pan?
I found for myself that premium foods in the right portion can be satisfying without a downside. Everything I make, cupcakes or Savory Bites, is the real deal with premium ingredients. It's more like the way Europeans eat - perfect portions of satisfying food. Everything that you love to eat. It's just about size. Size really, really does matter.
But I didn't start out to make things mini. That part was an accident. That's why it's so fun to be in business. Opportunities come along and you need to be prepared to make things happen when the phone rings or someone knocks on the door. If you're not prepared to make it happen the deal will be over.
…what do you mean an accident?
I opened my first store in Orlando and made classic sized cupcakes and then the bigger ones, which are also known as originals. Then I got a call from a local spa who wanted mini cupcakes for their grand opening. We had made some special orders of minis but never in such a big quantity - around 1,000. Sadly, the customer called to say their spa had burned down in the night and they couldn't take the cupcakes. I had 1,000 mini cupcakes to sell. I didn't know what I'd do with them. So, I put them in the case and they just flew out of there like crazy. That changed our business.
11. You have a saying "minimize to maximize." What do you mean by that?
It means to minimize the amount you eat but to maximize the pleasure in what you're eating. For the Savory Bites it's also about minimizing the amount of time and stress in the kitchen so you can maximize your mealtime and have the maximum amount of time enjoying a meal with your family. That's what it's really about. I'm showing you how to do it so you can bring the family around the table and have portion sized meals that are delicious while also minimizing the time and stress of being in the kitchen.
12. What makes Sweet By Holly special? There are a lot of cupcake places around but Sweet By Holly continues to stand out. Why is that?
You want our secret? Actually, there is no secret to buying the best ingredients, making it all from scratch daily, and doing it with excellent customer service. Our staff has total commitment to providing customers with a superior experience and I think that pays off. We never take the easy way out, whether it's a shortcut with the baking or not providing ample choices. We offer over 30 flavors daily in the mini size cupcake, all made from scratch and many with crusts and fillings. For the true answer though you would have to ask our loyal customers* why they keep coming back.
*EatDrinkJax: So we asked MeLo this very question -
“As Hollis says, the cupcakes taste fresh and uniquely different. Each flavor I've encountered stands alone. If the name is key lime pie ... it tastes like key lime pie! My favorite? Toasted coconut. Fresh flavor of coconut radiates in every bite. This can be said for each flavor I've tried. Each flavor is as distinct as its name suggests. Life is too short for a mediocre cupcake. I choose Sweet By Holly because it lives up to the standards my taste buds demand.”
13. What makes a phenomenal cupcake?
All the things we've been talking about. And also the ingredients and the care and time it takes to make it. Of course what's phenomenal to you is different than what's phenomenal for me, which is why we have over 30 flavors offered daily as well as many seasonal favorites during different times of the year.
14. If someone is new to Sweet By Holly what would you recommend to help them get a sense of what you are all about?
If a few people are coming together they should get a dozen minis. That way they can sample a lot of different varieties. They can try something fruity, something chocolatey and something simple like a Plain Jane or Red Velvet. They should also try cupcakes with crusts or fillings like the S'mores or the Peanut Butter and Jelly. Everyone has an opinionated palate. When you walk into a cupcake store those cupcakes better represent the opinion of what your customers want. Not everyone wants the same flavor. And by all means come on Monday's for Mini Mania Monday and that dozen will only cost you $12!
15. Do you change your flavors very often?
During our Mini Mania Mondays, which is one of our busiest days, we bring out our Chef's Choices. These are chef driven flavors like Caramel Apple or Cranberry White Chocolate. They come up with fabulous flavors. Those are the stars on Monday.
Every day we have 30 flavors but Monday is the day we showcase and try out some new flavors.
16. Is there a most popular flavor?
It's ironic but Red Velvet is one of the most popular by far. Cookies and Cream and the High Hat are also very popular.
…what's a High Hat?
It looks like an old school ice cream cone. It's chocolate cake with vanilla butter cream and it's dipped in chocolate to give it a hard chocolate shell on the outside.
17. Do you have a favorite?
I'm currently eating the Black and Gold because I love chocolate and caramel together and I love our yellow cakes.
18. Are there any flavors that have really surprised you by their popularity?
Oh yes! The White Cap. It's the opposite of the High Hat. The cake is chocolate cake but instead of vanilla butter cream we use chocolate butter cream and then dip the whole thing in white chocolate. That cupcake is insane. People freak out about it. The term White Cap came from when I opened my store in Jacksonville. I stay in Atlantic Beach when I'm there and was out on the dock and was looking at the ocean. There were lots of whitecaps and I thought "wow, that would be an awesome name for a cupcake."
19. Is there a difference between what people like in Orlando versus Jacksonville?
Yes! In Jacksonville people love Peanut Butter and Jelly. We can't keep them in the store. In Orlando they like Peanut Butter but they don't react to the Peanut Butter and Jelly cupcake in nearly the same way.
20. What brought you to Jacksonville?
My store in Orlando is in a Simon Shopping Plaza. My store in Jacksonville at St. John's Town Center is also owned by Simon. They're incredible landlords. What they've done at St. John's Town Center is amazing. Those stores are built for females who shop and appreciate nice things, including cupcakes. That's where the traffic is in both those markets.
21. Can you tell us a bit about your background? It doesn't sound like you went to culinary school. How did you learn to cook? And how did you wind up cooking for all those celebrities?
I'm self taught. Both of my parents did a lot of entertaining and were incredible in the kitchen. My mother cooked sweet and my father specialized in savory. They also listened to amazing music and had great decorating skills. All put together I was raised in an environment that exposed me to this incredible flair for how to make things look and taste beautiful. When my parents retired they bought a restaurant in Vermont and I became a partner in a small restaurant called TJ Buckley's which is a diner but with food that wasn't classic diner food - it was elegant and well prepared. All the food was locally grown and purchased in Vermont. In addition to that I did put myself through six years of college but I mostly bounced around from school to school. I'd get financial aid for a semester and I'd take my classes then take myself to Europe. When I travelled through Europe I would try food and I'd learn how to make local cuisine. I would stay in hostels and would meet the families running them. They'd teach me about making food. I was doing what I loved - studying art and English and traveling to Europe to learn how to make food. I didn't know that would end up with cupcakes and everything else that's happened. I had no idea.
22. Did you have a particular influence in your style of cooking or for your decision to make it more of a career?
Not really a particular person. I love the way Jean Georges cooks - he's an amazing chef. I love how he upgrades the country peasant meals and I love how he takes sophisticated dishes and simplifies them. I like dining and entertaining that isn't fou-fou fussy. I like the idea of taking something with a fancy name like a cassoulet and a little intimidating and then making it mainstream. That's who I am as a person and that's what I do with food.
23. How did you turn your enjoyment of cooking into a catering business for famous people?
That came out of complete necessity. I was living in New York City where I was studying theater. I had been a stage actor in my childhood and was in regional theater through my teens and into my twenties. I decided to bite the bullet and move to New York City to take acting classes and become the next "it" girl. I eventually moved to California and continued to study theater. I soon realized that I needed to get a job. I needed to make a living.
…everyone else becomes a waiter…
I did work in some restaurants to make ends meet. But the breakthrough was really just happenstance and being in the right place at the right time. I had a bungalow in West Hollywood. In my kitchen I had a little window that looked across the driveway to another apartment that also had a window. My neighbor and I used to talk through the windows and got to know each other. One day my neighbor, who was in the catering business, said that she couldn't do a breakfast for a family and asked if I could help out. I said "absolutely" and went and did it. I only had vague instructions about what to make and didn't really know who it was for. I showed up and it happened be for Arnold Schwarzenneger, Maria Schriver, Warren Beatty and Annette Bening. That was pretty crazy. There were a ton of other people there too. It became a weekend job I did for a while. When babies started to be born for Annette I started doing her baby showers, and then other people's baby showers. Then birthday parties. It sounds glamorous but it's a lot of work making soy free, lactose intolerant, gluten free vegan food for little babies. I learned the palates in Los Angeles pretty quickly. I still had my day jobs too. I worked in retail. I worked as a waiter. I was also a photographer's assistant.
The big break happened when Max Mutchnick, the creator of Will and Grace, asked me to make a lunch for a bunch of people working on Will and Grace. I knew that it was important that everyone really like the meal so I spent my rent check for that month and bought another refrigerator for my apartment to hold all the food. I wanted the food to be different and amazing so I didn't do a standard Hollywood lunch. I put things together like my parents had - beautiful serving platters, real plates, linen, and so forth. There was no paper and plastic in sight. I pulled out all the stops. These people make millions of dollars a year and are always working. I needed to be a bright spot in their day. And that's what happened. After the lunch Max asked me if I wanted to come and be his chef.
24. Was that the bridge to Cupcake Wars?
No. I never got a call from Food Network when I was in Los Angeles. I was so busy cooking and reality TV was just being created.
Way later when I was in Orlando and had my store Cupcake Wars was casting and they just got on the phone and called people. It was a cold call.
…with thousands of cupcake stores in LA, why not just get local people for Cupcake Wars?
Because it wouldn't make a very interesting story. People who watch Food Network aren't all in Los Angeles - they're all over the country. And there are a lot of interesting people outside of L.A. They wanted experiences from a wide variety of real people.
…so you were just cold called by Food Network?
Yes. At first I thought it was a joke. When I would come home after working for 18 hours and was dehydrated, exhausted and in my hair net I would take a moment of silence and think "how am I going to go from making cupcakes to making something really big happen?" I couldn't see how it would happen. I was working really, really hard but couldn't see the next step. And then the phone rang. It's just life.
…did you go on Cupcake Wars with a strategy in mind?
Absolutely. I knew I had an edge being both sweet and savory and knew that whatever they threw at me I'd be able to create it.
25. How did the second time on Cupcake Wars compare with the first?
It built on the first. After the second time I was on they created Cupcake Confidential which was a real boost because it made me realize that someone must think I'm interesting enough to make this into a show. You always have doubts.
…how did you do all that when you still had a business to run?
There's no way I could have gone and done all that without an awesome team in the store. I could only grow if the people who worked for me grew as well, and that they did, and continue to do so in amazing ways.
26. Do you ever think of doing more on TV?
That would definitely be something of interest as I enjoy working in front of the camera. I shot a pilot for Cooking Channel called Cupcake Confidential which didn't find an audience. However, there are talks about other vehicles that might be a good fit - nothing I can discuss yet, but you will definitely be seeing me on TV this Spring on another season of Cupcake Wars. There will also be media related to the release of the book, which may lead to something as well.
27. Do you still bake today?
I do bake, although I'm not in as a baker per se. We're always doing research and development for the next holiday collection or new flavor. I'm in there when nobody sees me - working on things and working things out. I also have a kitchen at my house that's like a professional kitchen. I work out a lot of things there as well. It's all encompassing. I have to work on the business in Orlando, then drive to Jacksonville to do the same thing. Then there's the cupcake decorating parties and custom events. I get tired thinking about all I do, but have never stopped enjoying doing it.
28. What's the most enjoyable part of the business to you?
I'm a creative person so I like thinking about how to do something that's going to be different from other cupcakes. I like thinking about how the store looks, how the cupcakes are presented, what the collections look like, the events we create around the cupcakes. I have my hands in all those things.
…how do you find the time?
I do not sleep! That's only half a joke. I wrote the cookbook at night when everyone else was asleep. The speaking engagements and everything else I do, I just make it happen. I mean, my life isn't filled with going out for lunch and having dinner parties and going on vacations. It's filled with making sure I'm spending quality time with my children and husband and ensuring that we're eating meals around the table - that we're doing things together as a family. I want to be a part of what they're doing - at school and in their extra curricular activities. That's important to me. I'm also not a social butterfly - I'm a business butterfly though. That's my life. I'm very content with that.
29. Can you tell us about the program you have that works with overweight children in Jacksonville (video)?
Yes, that's another example of where you have to be ready when opportunity comes along. Chip Cover runs the children's hospital at Nemours. He came to me and said that he thought my ideas around Savory Bites and making meals in a cupcake pan would be an excellent fit with his childhood obesity program. They have a 10 week program that brings together families with people who help them in areas of nutrition and exercise. At the end of each session we'd end up making meals in a cupcake pan. The children would make the meals. I'd assist but they did the work and would have an assignment to make meals for their families during the week. It's an awesome program. We're getting ready to start it up again in January. It showed the children how to pay attention to their portion sizes. The program teaches the children to look at the foods they already love but in a different way. For example, instead of thinking of a personal pan pizza as coming in a box that's delivered to your house, we show them how to make it in the cupcake pan. They already know what they like to eat, they just need to be shown how to make it in the proper proportions. And they need to be shown how to make a salad and some yummy vegetables or starches that go with a meal. They can have all the flavors they want with no sacrifice, just in the right size.
30. You do a lot of talks. If someone wanted to attend one of your talks, how would they find out about them?
We advertise these through our social media on Facebook. People should Like us and we'll let them know when one of my public talks is coming up.
31. What's next for you?
The book will be ready with it's final cover for pre-sale in January 2013. It comes out in May and I'll go on a national book tour. I'll start to have Savory Bites in my store using recipes from the book. I'm also working on frozen food and a line of spices. And of course there's the next book too!