More than one classic country song tells the tale of a dreamer cashing in her savings, hitching a bus to Nashville and hitting it big on Music Row. Gigi Butler’s song might have started that way when she left college to chase Nashville music dreams, but the chords ended being less harmonic when she found herself cleaning houses to make ends meet. Eventually Gigi came to the realization that tidying up after Taylor Swift was paying off a lot better than becoming Taylor Swift, and began to focus entirely on her cleaning business.
And then Gigi’s brother called. While cleaning a bathroom, Gigi listened to her brother’s story of waiting in a very long line for very average cupcakes. Bolstered by her brother’s opinion that her cupcakes were better, Gigi changed course once again and opened her first bakery in 2008, with even less money than when she moved to Nashville. It was a big risk, but armed with her own advice that, “what we do with fear defines us,” she knew it was one she had to take.
Now, nearly 100 locations later (with plans to hit 250 in the next five years), it’s pretty obvious that Gigi’s brother was right about her cupcakes. And while her country music dreams didn’t pan out, Gigi’s bakery success is its own sweet song.
As an entrepreneur, you have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.
You have quite the fascinating background! What led to your baking passion and you founding Gigi’s Cupcakes?
I grew up in a family of entrepreneurs. My dad was an entrepreneur, and my aunts and great aunts owned and operated bakeries. In fact, my entire family loved to cook and bake, so I grew up around it. My Aunt Bennie owned a bakery and catering business and I would spend summers with her – helping her bake, cater events and then I also read her cake decorating books. I loved to bake and had a passion for it at an early age, but my dream was to become a country singer.
In 1994, I packed up and moved to Nashville with less than $500 in my pocket. I decided to pursue a country music career instead of going to college. During the day, I operated my small cleaning business and at night, I would sing at the bars and honkytonks near Music Row. In my early thirties, I realized that my music career was unlikely to take off, so I decided to focus entirely on my cleaning business. A few years went by and then my brother called me while I was cleaning a home and told me that he had waited in line at a cupcake bakery in New York for hours. He said, “Your cupcakes are better than these. You should open up a bakery.” I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror and decided to go for it.
I opened my first cupcake shop in February 2008 with only $33 left in my bank account. Now, seven years later and against the odds, Gigi’s Cupcakes has grown to become the largest cupcake franchise company in the nation. We just opened our first international location in early 2015 in South Korea and hope to continue to expand in other countries.
I think back fondly on those summer afternoons with Aunt Bennie, who is now part of the Gigi’s team, working on product development in the kitchen with me. We have more than 300 recipes at Gigi’s Cupcakes, and many of them have a rich personal family history originating from my grandmother, great aunts, my mother and other relatives.
What’s the one thing your business is known for over your competitors?
Gigi’s Cupcakes was founded before the “cupcake craze” began and now has nearly 100 locations across the country in addition to adding its first international. We focus on creating a full sensory experience at Gigi’s Cupcakes, providing fresh items baked with attention to detail and finished with an artist’s touch.
We are best known for our signature swirl: icing piled high on top of a freshly baked cupcake. In addition, we have a diversified product line that includes 300 cupcake flavors, but also offers stuffed cookies, muffins, cakes, cheesecakes, pies and specialty coffee. Each handmade cupcake is made with the finest and freshest ingredients like Saigon Cinnamon, Madagascar Vanilla, farm fresh butter, hand-selected fruits and nuts, along with a variety of seasonal treats.
What are your days like at Gigi’s Cupcakes?
There is never a dull day at Gigi’s Cupcakes. From meetings to product research and development, creating new products, flavors and seasonal menus, training new owners and their management teams, product photo shoots, attending grand openings and having various speaking engagements around the country – I’m just trying to balance it all.
What is it about Gigi’s Cupcakes that makes you feel it’s the right fit for you?
Baking is in my blood. I love to create a homemade experience that takes you back to a childhood or family memory. I knew that Gigi’s Cupcakes was the right fit only a few weeks after I had opened my bakery. A woman drove over an hour to visit us to purchase a Scarlett’s Red Velvet cupcake. Unfortunately, I had to break the news to her that the flavor was not on the menu that day. She was so upset that we didn’t have it and informed me that she’d driven to my bakery specifically for that one cupcake. I realized that someone was actually upset and emotional about a particular cupcake flavor I’d created. Her heart was set on that flavor and nothing else would do. This was a revealing moment for me as I knew that I had created something special, a product that people were passionate about and really wanted to buy.
What advice can you offer aspiring Leading Ladies to find their career direction?
The best advice I can offer is to not be afraid to fail. Everyone has scary moments – sometimes you fail and then you learn from your mistakes, but other times you succeed. You have to step off the diving board and rely on your talent and faith. You won’t know until you try.
The scariest moment in founding Gigi’s Cupcakes was when we first opened back in 2008. I cleaned three houses just to pay the plumber for the shop, and my contractor came in the store to deliver a $15,000 dry wall bill. I had a total meltdown, but I just made it work. This was my dream, I truly believed in it and I was not going to fail. I continued with my cleaning business well after I had opened Gigi’s Cupcakes. It was only when I had 13 locations that I gave up the cleaning business. You have to find a way to make it work. There’s nothing wrong with hard work; nobody is going to hand it to you.
What challenges keep you awake at night?
There’s a lot to think about in this business. As an entrepreneur, I often tell people that you have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. That’s really a true statement. I’m uncomfortable every day – we are pushing ourselves to try something new, do something different, set ourselves apart from the competition, make our process better, expand into new markets, etc. Business can be uncomfortable and we all fear the unknown. It’s what we do with fear that defines us. We try and don’t always get it right, but we learn, adjust and modify. I have an incredible team, and together, we are trying to make the best product and culinary experience available on the market.
Is work/life balance ever a problem with you? If so, what is one no-fail tactic you use to create balance?
Yes, definitely. I’m a single mother, so it’s a constant struggle. It’s something that every working mom or dad struggles with. I always read my Bible and exercise regularly to help keep myself sane. For a long time I thought I could do it all – be involved in every aspect of my business, have a social life and care for my 3-year-old daughter. When your company grows to a certain size though, that’s no longer a real possibility. By hiring others to help me manage and grow the Gigi’s Cupcakes brand, I’ve learned to trust in others’ expertise and experience. My business’s evolution has really helped me set aside time for my daughter and my life.
For those interested in franchising, what do companies look for in applicants?
It is almost impossible to describe the ideal franchisee as their backgrounds are all a little different. We look for owners who are not only passionate about our brand and our product, but are really business savvy. We realize that a successful franchisee will have to know more than just baking, they need to know business.
What qualities does it take for someone to be a successful entrepreneur?
Becoming a successful entrepreneur requires persistence. Not only in your passion for your product or service, but also in following your dream. As I’ve already said, you can’t be afraid to fail, and you have to be comfortable being uncomfortable.
When I first decided to open a bakery, I chose the ideal location for the shop, but it had a steep rent. The landlord refused me quite a few times before he eventually agreed to the lease just to get me off his back. After he saw the amount of people coming into the bakery for cupcakes, he too became passionate about the business. Today, that landlord is now CEO of Gigi’s Cupcakes.
Where do you see Gigi’s Cupcakes in five years? How are you planning on achieving this?
In the next five years we plan to grow to 250 U.S. Gigi’s Cupcakes locations.
We also hope to roll out a new bakery prototype this year allowing us to better present our product, increase seating capacity and add digital menu boards without significantly increasing the cost of the store. As far as the menu goes, we would like to further diversify it. We already have pies, bread, muffins, cheesecakes and specialty coffee, so we will likely expand on those product lines.
What one piece of advice do you wish you could tell a 21-year-old version of yourself?
I would tell the 21-year-old version of myself to not take out $100,000 in cash advance loans from my credit cards to open my business. Looking back on that decision, it was a humongous risk to take, but luckily it was one that paid off.