Batter Chatter: Interview with Jennifer Shea of Trophy Cupcakes

Trophy Cupcakes is truly the full package. Not only are their cupcakes amazing--moist, crumbly and with the perfect frosting-to-cake ratio--but their entire store area in the Wallingford Center embodies the spirit of celebration and happiness that cupcakes bring us, with bright colors, happy typestyles on the signage and adorable party supplies for sale. We recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Jennifer Shea, the mastermind behind Trophy Cupcakes; over a Cardamom Chai cupcake (!), this is what we learned:

Cakespy: So I read that you are a registered dietician…
Jennifer Shea: (somewhat sheepishly) Yes…

CS: So how does a registered dietician come to open a cupcake shop?

JS: It was a long, crazy road--but I think that I've always just loved food and that drew me to become a nutritionist and dietician. The biggest thing that I learned in school was to be mindful of the quality of the ingredients you’re using when you’re baking or cooking; knowing where your food comes from. The other thing that interested me...was the psychology of food. I think that when we allow ourselves to have something very nourishing or comforting in a way that reminds us of a cupcake, and don’t feel guilty about it, and if it’s coming from good's very good for us. When you are filling yourself up on nonfat or fat-free everything, I don’t think that you ever feel really satisfied, and so you keep on eating it, and that’s more of the problem with people being overweight in this country than people eating sugar or carbohydrates. So I think it fits, even though some people think it’s weird that I’m now selling sugar!

CS: Did any bakeries in particular inspire you?
JS: I would say a lot did…I got the idea first in Manhattan when I went to the Cupcake Café with some girlfriends and just had no idea that there was any such thing as a cupcake bakery! I was already the girl in my group who was making the birthday cakes and cupcakes, and planning the parties...when we went there I was instantly like “wow, this would be something that would be so awesome in Seattle, and I could see myself doing this"; my brain started formulating this little plan. It took eight years to really make it happen.

CS: Where do you get your recipes?
JS: I would say that a lot of my recipes are tweaked from Martha Stewart’s stuff; I think that for the most part all of her recipes are well done; I started using a lot of hers a long time ago and just made little changes here and there. Some of our items like the peanut butter and jelly (cupcakes) were just a regular kind of Swedish butter cake recipe that a pastry chef who used to work with us developed by adding a new filling and making a peanut butter buttercream. But...they’re not recipes that are made from nothing like a pastry chef who’s like “OK, I’m going to see what happens if I put two cups of flour with this many of this" they’re pretty much just classic recipes that have been tweaked so that they will work in a commercial setting.

CS: One of the things we’ve noticed is your beautiful decorations. How would you describe your cupcake aesthetic?
JS: I just think that cupcakes being beautiful is part of the package; my whole thing for the store is that we inspire celebration, and so I think that everything has to have this fun look that goes along with parties. It doesn’t make sense to me to haphazardly frost the cupcakes if they’re going to be for a special occasion. They have to look really amazing.

CS: What is your most popular flavor?

JS: I would say chocolate-vanilla, the valhrona cake with the Madagascar vanilla bourbon buttercream, I just think that's a crowd pleaser type of flavor. I would say that Chai Cardamom and Green Tea sell a little less, but the people who do love those flavors are kind of mad about them, and there is a little bit of a cult following with flavors like that, because I don’t think that people can get them anywhere else. Red velvet is also very popular. That type of cake is very trendy right now, I’m not sure why, but it is!

CS: That leads to our next question. Red Velvet: Classy or Trashy?
JS: (Laughs) I think it’s classy, but I hate the word classy. I think that it’s definitely an old-school, southern traditional, loved recipe, so if you’re not from the south it might seem trashy and you might not understand it. But the recipe was borne out of the need to have a lighter cake, and it would make sense to have a beloved light cake that everyone really enjoys.

CS: What is the most cupcakes you’ve ever made in a single day?
JS: The most we’ve ever made in a day here is about 2500.

CS: Whoa!
JS: Yeah.

CS: What happens to the leftover cupcakes at the end of the day?
JS: We have a food bank that comes and picks up, and we try to figure out our pars; we know how many big orders we have per day, and we generally sell straight from the usually we only have a few dozen left over, so somebody’s always going out somewhere and can take the frosted ones, and anything unfrosted gets packaged up and goes to the food bank.

CS: Do you sell any other pastries other than cupcakes?

JS: Other than European drinking chocolate and drink-type things, no.

CS: Do you think you ever will?
JS: I don’t think so, I mean, if it slowed down to the point where it seemed like we should add some cakes or some other baked goods, maybe, but in looking at the popularity going on ten year for cupcakes in New York…they’ve just hit the west coast, so...I think that we have at least good ten years if we follow the same model as Manhattan. Obviously Seattle’s not Manhattan, but we have a lot of years left in the cupcake craze.

CS: How often do you eat your own cupcakes?
JS: Like Sit down and eat a whole one?
CS: Yes.
JS: Probably once a week, but I’m tasting cupcakes every single day.

CS: How does a baker's schedule affect your personal life?
JS: I don’t have a personal life! I mean, I have a fiancé, but we put wedding planning on hold because it’s just so nuts in here all the time. And that’s more being a business owner than a baker. If I were just working a baker's schedule like my other bakers I think maybe I could have a little bit of a life in the afternoon, because then I would just go to bed early, but right now I’m just sort of here all the time, so not a ton of social activity happening.

CS: Do you think you’ll have your own cupcakes at your wedding?
JS: No. I love cupcakes but I think that when I get married I want to have something totally non-cake, because I eat cake every day. I will have a croquembouche or something.

CS: What are your thoughts on cake mixes?
JS: I guess if you're in a super big hurry, there are some cake mixes out there that yield a good result; but to me, because cake is something that I make every day, it seems like something very easy and fast, and it doesn’t seem like it would take much longer to just measure out your dry ingredients and do it all from scratch. But I also know that people are super busy, and I think that making a cake from a mix is better than buying it from a store. I mean, at least you’re halfway making it from scratch!

CS: You've received some pretty high accolades since opening earlier this year--including "Best Cupcakes" by Seattle Metropolitan Magazine! So do you feel like you've made it?
JS: I think everything’s going really well and I’m super excited, but I’m still in those stages of being ridiculously busy all the time, and so I think when I have a little bit more free time and I can enjoy the benefits of having a successful business, then maybe I’ll feel like I’ve made it. Right now I still feel like I’m working 14 hours a day 7 days a week. And I feel like that’s part of why we’re doing so well, because I really care and I want to be part of everything, everyday, which is sometimes not a good thing, because I need to give myself a break!

CS: So what’s next for Trophy Cupcakes?
JS: We really want to launch a kind of delivery system. I mean, we deliver now, but it’s more if people call and ask; we haven’t really advertised for it. My dream is to have the vintage milk truck delivery type of thing, but I don’t know how practical that’s going to be. We’d ideally like use biodiesel in it, but it’s hard to find one of those vintage ones that are diesel, so we might just end up opting for a newer van but just paint it kind of retro. I really want to do full-service delivery, like you could send someone a birthday in a box, a dozen cupcakes with a party hat and a candle, and deliver it anywhere in the city. So that’s kind of the next thing. We’re also kind of already outgrowing this kitchen, so we’re thinking that we might need more of a commercial kitchen which all of our big orders and deliveries could come out of, and this (location) could kind of focus more on the walk-in customers.

CS: Do you think you'll open another location?
JS: We’d love to do another location. We’re trying to take it one step at a time and not grow too fast because I think that the quality is so important to me, and I think that sometimes when people grow too fast, or too big, you have to make decisions that are ultimately going to lessen the quality of your product. So, I just want to be really careful to not go too big too fast and not be able to control what we’re doing.

Trophy Cupcakes and Party in Seattle