Ruthie and Ron Bzdewka were thrilled when their original cupcake recipes helped them win Food Network’s “Cupcake Wars” two years ago, but it’s their recent business partnership and subsequent franchising opportunities that really take the cake, they said.
The Bzdewkas, owners of House of Cupcakes on Witherspoon Street in Princeton, partnered with their old friend Steven Mandell, the founder of the Party City franchise, to build their bake shop into a mini chain.
Cupcake franchises in East Brunswick, the Bronx and Manhattan will open this spring, Mandell said. In addition to cupcakes, the stores will sell gourmet doughnuts, coffee and cookies.
Ruthie Bzdewka said she was asked several times about her plans to expand her business, but she didn’t know how to do it. Then, last summer, Mandell approached the Bzdewkas about the possibility of franchising.
“We were really excited, and mostly because we know Steve. He has such a proven track record and we knew if anybody could do it, Steve could,” Ruthie Bzdewka said.
The Bzdewkas first met Mandell 25 years ago, after Mandell started franchising Party City, Ruthie Bzdewka said. She and her husband worked in his stores, and eventually opened their own Party City franchise in Linden in 1993.
Mandell said he founded Party City in 1986 after he realized the lack of party supply franchises. He opened his first store in East Hanover and began expanding within a year. By the time the Bzdewkas opened their Party City store, Mandell had grown the company to 58 locations, according to SEC filings.
Mandell was the president and CEO of Party City until he resigned in 1999, amid a major refinancing effort after the company was delisted from the Nasdaq for failing to disclose financial information for 1998, according to SEC filings.
A cupcake is something you could put a baby’s picture on or use it as an announcement. There are so many uses for it
As part of its refinancing, Mandell resigned from his positions as president, CEO, board member and paid consultant from the then 500-store chain.
Despite his retirement, Mandell, then 54 years old, said he didn’t want to slow down.
“I tried my hand at golf but my golf game wasn’t so good so I decided I had to do something,” Mandell said.
He started Costume Supercenter, an online costume retailer in 2005. He also purchased an online birthday party supply business and an online plus-sized lingerie company.
“So basically I’m an entrepreneur, which is a very sick disease. I’m a retail entrepreneur,” Mandell said.
Since his retirement from Party City, Mandell said he was looking for a company he could franchise. He went to international franchise shows but didn’t find anything he thought would be successful.
Steve Mandell with business partners Ruthie and Ron Bzdewka at the House of Cupcakes in Princeton on Thursday, February 14, 2013. Martin Griff/The Times of Trenton
“If you’re going to go into a business you need to be sure, because the person that needs to make money is the franchisee,” he said.
A SWEET DEAL
About six months ago, he discovered that the Bzdewkas, with whom he had lost touch over the years, were operating a successful business and decided to approach them about expanding.
“They had this concept that they were doing incredibly well with in Princeton, and I have the sophistication to take concepts and grow them and explode them,” Mandell said.
Within days, the group had put a deal together to franchise the House of Cupcakes brand, Mandell said.
“Steve always has a plan,” Ruthie Bzdewka said.
He gathered his former marketing and advertising colleagues to make his vision a reality.
“It’s the same as when I started Party City. There were a lot of mom-and-pop stores out there, but not a lot of franchises. Our franchise really revolutionized the industry, and that’s what we’re in a position to do here,” Mandell said.
The House of Cupcakes store on Witherspoon Street will still be owned and operated by the Bzdewkas, but the three new locations will be company-owned, Mandell said.
“This is always going to be our main home business. Nothing is going to change around here,” Ruthie Bzdewka said.
All of the stores will begin selling doughnuts and coffee. The Witherspoon Street location already sells cookies, and will continue doing so.
“We’re bringing that in but it’s going to be a side thing. We’re still going to be mainly cupcakes but we’re trying to bring in the best of everything,” Ruthie Bzdewka said.
The gourmet doughnuts, which she expects to bring in more business in the mornings, will all be made in the shop from scratch. The stores will make their own glazes, jellies and peanut butter, just as the Bzdewkas do now.
The Bzdewkas and Mandell said they don’t know how many franchises will open in the future, but they think that their cupcakes have staying power in the market.
“It’s so much better than a cake in so many ways. You can get a variety in flavor and size,” Ruthie Bzdewka said.
Ron and Ruthie Bzdewka at work in the House of Cupcakes on Thursday, February 14, 2013. Martin Griff/The Times of Trenton
Sometimes the shop makes 10 pull-apart cupcake cakes in a week, Bzdewka said. Mandell said the shop’s ability to personalize the pull-apart cakes is what will set it apart from other stores.
“A cupcake is something you could put a baby’s picture on or use it as an announcement. There are so many uses for it,” he said.
A new website is being designed, which will allow customers to order cupcakes and pull-apart cakes online and have them delivered the next day, Mandell said. The cakes will be either hand delivered, if the customer lives close enough to a store, or delivered frozen.
Cupcake flavors at the shop change regularly, but Ruthie Bzdewka is working with a pastry chef to develop new flavors. The Bzdewkas had their family, friends and people on the street test some of the new flavors, and even Mandell had the chance to give his opinion on the new treats.
“We’re going to have the best chocolate chip walnut cookie in the whole wide world. It’s going to be really, really, really special,” Mandell said. “You may think I’m joking, but I have a box that was brought to me a half-hour ago.”
To celebrate the new store openings, the shops will have a mystery flavor that patrons can try to guess.
House of Cupcakes will make its debut at the International Franchise Expo in New York in June. Companies looking to franchise can meet with people looking to invest in companies at the expo, and Ruthie Bzdewka said she doesn’t know what will happen after that.
“It’s anybody’s guess but we’re going to try our best. I think it’s going to be around for a long time,” she said.
Contact Alyssa Mease at email@example.com or (609) 989-5673.
Ruthie Bzdewka’s ambitions were modest. Still, when the recession settled in a month after she opened her shop, she feared the worst. But, opportunity soon came calling, literally. And once the world was familiarized with her cupcakes, there’d be no more worrying.
I’m pinching myself a lot these days. Fortunately, never once has it snapped me out of my life. Though that’s done little to curb my doubt that the last few years have been anything but pure fantasy.
Back at the start of all of this, about a year before I opened House of Cupcakes, my expectations were simple. My kids were starting school and I wanted to return to work, hopefully earn some money to put toward their college funds. We were business owners for 20 years, so I knew that I wanted to open my own store, but what, exactly, was beyond me.
Not long after, I stumbled upon a booth at an event I attended with my family. A line stretched from it as far back as I could see. I crept in for a peek at what was worth the wait: cupcakes. I went home that day, dug out every relevant family recipe and began to bake. And I continued to bake for the next six months.
Once my recipes were finally where I wanted them, I headed to Princeton, New Jersey, to find a store. It was a no-brainer, really. Princeton, to me, was a place where artisan-level quality and artistic ability are held in the highest regard.
House of Cupcakes opened in August 2008. In retrospect, the timing was bad. The recession took hold a month later. People weren’t shy about telling me that I was crazy for opening such a shop. Too much overhead, they said. I was given a few months, by most projections.
Somehow I survived that first year, and greeting me at the end of it, almost like a prize, was a call from a producer of the Food Network series, "Cupcake Wars," which, at the time, was in the midst of its first season. I’d heard about it, but only in passing. I was asked to submit an audition video.
It was time, I decided, to drag my husband, Ron, into the cupcake business. He baked when I needed the help, but it was his made-for-TV personality that I needed now.
The producers loved us—Ron as the head baker and me as his assistant. We won our episode and the $10,000 that came with it, which we donated to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Life since has had a surreal feel. The appearance was a huge boon to the shop. We filmed four more episodes of "Cupcake Wars," participated in a pair of Food Network events alongside celebrity chefs and were invited to be the exclusive cupcake vendor at the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards.
Where we go from here, I can’t even bring myself to imagine.
PHOTOS BY THOMAS ROBERT CLARKE
Having their cake and eating it, too
Exposure on reality shows comes with risk, but small companies find rewards
The depictions of New Jersey on reality television are not always the most accurate portrayals of the state and its people, but Garden State businesses are capitalizing on the 15 minutes of fame such outlets present.
The most visible example is Buddy Valastro's "Cake Boss" show, which launched the business owner into stardom and created lines around the corner outside of his Hoboken bakery, Carlo's Bake Shop.
Last year, Valastro opened a 32,000-square-foot facility in Jersey City to begin national distribution of his baked goods. Since 2007, the company has grown at least 10 percent each year.
But it's not just the mega-stars that are cashing in on the opportunities for national television exposure.
Ruthie and Ron Bzdewka have owned House of Cupcakes, in Princeton, since 2008, but it was a 2010 appearance — and victory — on the Food Network competition show "Cupcake Wars" that put the store on the map and started a growth explosion. According to Ron Bzdewka, the family business has doubled its revenue since its appearance.
"Being on 'Cupcake Wars' was phenomenal for us," said Ruthie Bzdewka. "It opened up so much publicity for us. So many people found us who didn't know we were here."
The Bzdewkas, who bake more than 30 flavors of cupcakes each day, said they get international visitors who make special trips to Princeton to visit their shop. They've also expanded their kitchen, and are in the process of launching two new product lines.
"That kind of show is advertising you can't pay for," Ruthie Bzdewka said.
Word of mouth advertising and attraction to the "celebrity" of reality television can also be capitalized on by businesses that never get near a television camera.
Patty Barba owns a chain of boutique retail shops that started in Las Vegas, but when it came time to host the grand opening for a location in Englewood, Barba turned to the local stars of two Style Network shows — "Jerseylicious" and "Glam Fairy" — to pump up the event.
From Grandma’s Kitchen to Baker to the Stars
The House of Cupcakes and the woman who built it from scratch
Just three years after opening the doors of her Witherspoon Street shop, Ruthie Bzdewka’s cupcakes have become the cupcakes of the stars. At the end of this month, she has been invited to be at the MTV music awards so she can personally hand out her delicious creations to the celebrities.
The House of Cupcakes is a success story that Bzdewka couldn’t have imagined even last summer, when she received an email from the Food Network asking if she wanted to audition for the Cupcake Wars, a national bake-off featuring the country’s top bakers of the tasty delicacy.
“I thought it was spam, so I ignored it,” said Bzdewka (whose name is pronounced Bez-duke-ah). Then I got a phone call saying did you get our email? Then I knew it was the real thing.”
It was the second season of the popular show. “They told me we’ll send you two copies of the tryout tape so you know what it’s all about,” said Bzdewka. “My husband, Ron, and our two sons, we all watched and then went out and bought a camera and shot our own audition tape.”
The family’s talent for movie-making seems to rival their talent for making cupcakes. “They told us they loved it,” recalled Bzdewka. “We were shocked.”
The Food Network flew the Bzdewkas out to Hollywood –well, technically Manhattan Beach near Los Angeles – where they filmed their portion of the Cupcake Wars. Long story short: they won.
The grand finale showing their victory aired this past year on the Food Network.
“That show made it possible for so many new people to find us,” said Bzdewka. “People who didn’t even know we existed now come from all over to try our cupcakes. And they love them.”
Before their sweet success, Bzdewka and her husband, Ron, owned two retail party stores. She did the heavy lifting when it came to raising their two boys, ages 6 and 10, as a stay-at-home mom.
But she always baked cupcakes, whether it was for her son’s birthday parties, or for school events.
“My maternal grandmother was German so she baked all the time – German chocolate cake, Boston crème, chocolate chip cookies, Christmas cookies and cupcakes– there wasn’t anything she didn’t bake. And I baked with her.”
As her sons grew older and she was looking for something to do, she noticed that cupcake shops were popular. “I saw the cupcake craze coming so I jumped on the bandwagon.”
When it came to choosing a location for a cupcake store of her own, Princeton was her first choice. One of her grandparents had lived in Princeton so she had spent lots of time in town as a child. “I knew that a cupcake shop has to be in a thriving town where there’s lots of foot traffic and the kind of atmosphere that is friendly to a family business. I was right. The local people who come here and support us are amazing. International tourists find us and come here too.”
The House of Cupcakes is truly a family business. “My husband is in construction so he’s on different projects but most of the time he’s the head baker,” said Bzdewka. "I run the shop and bake. Our six-year-old does taste tests. Our 10-year-old loves to run the front and greet customers."
What is the secret behind her cupcakes and their popularity?
“We use the best ingredients we can find and go local when we can. We get eggs, butter and dairy from Halo Farms. We do candy apples in the fall and we go to Terhune Orchards for that. We try to support as much of Princeton as we can because that’s who supports us.”
Everything is baked on the premises. The cupcakes sell for $2.25 individually and then there are package deals for larger amounts. The shop takes special orders and makes wedding cakes and does corporate events.
Just three years later, Bzdewka is still a bit stunned by her phenomenal success. ”I opened this up to save money for my kids to go to college. I never imagined that all this would happen. I can’t believe it.”
BUSINESS: Princeton's House of Cupcakes has a birthday
Monday, August 23, 2010 5:45 PM EDT
By Victoria Hurley-Schubert, Staff Writer
Ruthie Bzdewka, owner of House of Cupcakes, shows off some of the merchandise. Staff photo by Phil McAuliffe
The toughest decision at the House of Cupcakes is more than chocolate or vanilla. How about peanut butter cup? Mint chocolate chip? Crème brulee? Orange burst? Boston crème? The Witherspoon Street shop is celebrating its two-year anniversary this week.
”I’d been doing cupcakes for friends and family for a long time and I’d heard about the cupcake craze starting,” said Ruthie Bzdewka, co-owner. “My business was growing at home and I decided to pick Princeton because cupcake shops tend to do better in downtowns and family-oriented areas.”
Mrs. Bzdewka, a Somerset resident, said the success of her business is built on the strong community of Princeton and how it embraces family businesses. “We opened when the economy collapsed, but the people of Princeton have been wonderful and have supported me knowing it’s a family businesses.” She owns and runs the shop with the help of her husband, Ron, and two sons.
There are more than 25 varieties of cupcakes available — from vanilla cake with chocolate frosting to coconut or Brooklyn Blackout, a chocolate cake with ganache and cake crumbs — on any given day at the store and Mrs. Bzdewka has more than 60 recipes she uses to create the treats.
”The Brooklyn Blackout is a hard cupcake to make, it takes effort,” said Rage, her 9-year-old son, who has a signature cupcake, the Chocolate Rage. “I’ve always loved chocolate, I’m not a vanilla fan.”
Riot, her 5-year-old son, also has his own creation, called Vanilla Riot, a vanilla cupcake with vanilla frosting.
The most popular flavor is Red Velvet, a cocoa based cake with cream cheese frosting. “It sells at least two-to-one to all others,” said Mrs. Bzdewka.
”It’s a big challenge to keep it interesting with new flavors,” added Ron Bzdewka. “Customers don’t want to come back five times and see the same flavors.”
For new flavors, the Bzdewkas see inspiration all around them, from candy bars to ice cream flavors. “You get ideas just seeing something somewhere,” said Mr. Bzdewka. “We do lemon, lime, mango; we rotate through what’s selling and then bring the (popular) flavors back later.”
Special seasonal flavors have included: pumpkin spice and caramel apple in the fall; Christmas cookie; cinnamon for Valentine’s Day; Mexican hot chocolate for Cinco de Mayo and beer for St. Patrick’s Day.
”We made a beer batter cupcake with a thick ale, I liked it, it tasted like beer,” said Mr. Bzdewka. “It tasted better than I thought it would.”
Developing cupcake recipes isn’t as easy as it sounds. The icings take the longest to create and match with cake bottoms. “Once you get the cake right you’ve got to try 10 different frostings to get the right one, there’s so many combinations,” said Mr. Bzdewka.
The cupcakes cost $2.25 each or $1.85 when 50 or more are purchased at one time. When customers buy five, they get one free or when they buy 10, they get two free. She sells 500 to 800 cupcakes per day, depending upon the time of the year.
The shop also offers “pupcakes,” or cupcakes for dogs for $1.49 each that are made with oatmeal, peanut butter, honey and cornmeal. “People buy a dozen and take them to the dog park for a party,” said Mrs. Bzdewka.
The House of Cupcakes has three bakers and two front end sales people. All cupcakes and cookies are baked fresh daily in store.
The store is generally open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. “I’ve been extending and extending, it’s been b