by Brian McTavish
It’s good to be the Cupcake King.
That marvelous moniker is an informal one for Jeff Martin, yet also undoubtedly heartfelt by the 35-year-old founder of the increasingly successful Smallcakes franchise business.
Five years ago, Martin’s cupcakes were born in the kitchen of his Kansas City area home. Today, he licenses close to 60 Smallcakes franchise stores in 12 states, from California to Florida. Each store, including seven locally, bakes and sells 500 to 700 fresh cupcakes daily, generating a total of nearly $2.5 million in annual sales.
Reflecting on his sweet accomplishment, Martin laughs—he likes to laugh a lot—and calls those numbers “crazy.”
“It is amazing,” Martin said, “because it’s just a cupcake.”
The humble cupcake has led to appearances on “Cupcake Wars” and “The View” and turned Martin into something of a celebrity. At the grand openings of Smallcakes stores, his fans seek out his autograph and wait for him to say, “Maybe a cupcake will help.”
“It makes everything better,” Martin said of his increasingly well-known treat. “I’m telling you, we get people in here who are mad at the world, we get people who are down, we get people who are happy—but they always walk out with a smile and happier.”
Martin credits his company’s rapid rise to many things, starting with the handmade quality of his super-moist cupcakes that are available in up to 120 varieties, as well as his relentless ambition and readiness to make sacrifices, especially in the early stages of entrepreneurship.
But Martin knows he wouldn’t have gotten to where he is today—and won’t get to where he wants to be tomorrow—without his star-making origin story that continues to inspire Smallcakes franchisees and customers alike.
‘I Was All In on Cupcakes’
In 2008, Martin was visiting family in his native Atlanta with his wife and young daughter, when he noticed a crowd outside of an old cupcake store.
“We go in there and get six cupcakes and take them back to my parents’ house,” he recalled. “And we’re eating them, and we’re like, ‘These things are horrible— why was there a line out the door?’”
Martin began to mull the intrinsic appeal of specialty cupcakes—even inferior ones—as a relatively inexpensive indulgence that appealed not only to kids, but to the kid in everyone. The more he thought about it, the more he believed that he could combine his Southern cooking savvy and culinary school training to make and market a much tastier cupcake.
“We’re driving down to the beach in Florida,” Martin recalled, “and we’re saying: ‘That place was something. Why was it so busy? There’s nothing like that in the Midwest.’ And I said, ‘Why not just try it?’”
Martin was already a franchisee of a local Planet Sub sandwich shop. And his wife’s longtime career in medical supply sales was going well. So he figured he could start a tiny cupcake business on the side to see where it led.
But he wasn’t flush, either, with only $3,000 in savings to sink into the new venture. And, despite Martin’s strong entrepreneurial hunch, the landlord of the first Smallcakes space in Overland Park didn’t think much of the idea.
“He put me on a month-to-month lease,” Martin said, “so, in case it went bad, I could just leave everything and walk away.”
He baked in the wee hours at home and transported his daily product to the store until he could afford a commercial oven on site. Martin sold out of his first-day inventory of 100 cupcakes in just 45 minutes. On the second day, he sold out of 175 cupcakes in an hour. On the third day, he sold out of 300 cupcakes in four and a half hours. After a week, Martin was selling 500 cupcakes a day, and
after a few months, as many as 700 a day were going out the door.
That was enough to get him to sell his Planet Sub franchise, albeit to the disbelief of others.
“I was all in on cupcakes,”
Martin said. “And I cannot tell you how many friends and family said this was the dumbest thing ever: ‘How could you leave Planet Sub? Sandwiches are popular. Everyone eats sandwiches. Not a lot of people eat cupcakes.’
“But I felt pretty good about it,” he said. “I mean, at 700 cupcakes a day, I was selling more cupcakes than sandwiches some days.”
Then opportunity rang.
The Missing Ingredient
“Six months in, I get a phone call,” Martin said. “They say, ‘This is so-and-so with the Food Network.’ I go, ‘Hey, don’t play with me,’ and I hung up. When you’re the only employee baking and selling cupcakes, you get a little stressed out. You don’t have time for that stuff. Thank goodness, they called back.”
When they did—Martin still doesn’t know how they found him—he was invited to put his cupcake-making skills to the test on a new Food Network competitive cooking show called “Cupcake Wars.” Two days later, he and an assistant were on a plane headed for Los Angeles.
What followed has become the stuff of Smallcakes legend:
Although the show’s judges praised his pumpkin cupcake, when Martin admitted he’d actually forgotten to put in the pumpkin, he was voted off the show. Disaster? Not in the hands of the future Cupcake King.
“Well, we came home and we made a joke about it,” Martin said, “because, after you get to know me, it’s all about fun. You can win, you can lose, whatever. But we took out a billboard on I-35 that said: ‘Smallcakes forgot the pumpkin.’ We made shirts. I’ve shipped those shirts everywhere.”
He couldn’t have planned it better, he said. “I had people calling and going, ‘My kids and I watched the show. You did a good thing.’ I had churches calling and going, ‘You know, telling the truth is the right thing to do.’”
Martin caught the attention of actress, talk-show host and cupcake lover Whoopi Goldberg, who wanted “the guy who forgot the pumpkin” to be part of a segment devoted to cupcakes on “The View.” Martin didn’t appear on the show, but he watched off-camera in the studio as Goldberg and her co-hosts delightfully devoured Smallcakes cupcakes in front of a national TV audience.
“‘Cupcake Wars’ was the first step,” Martin said. “This was a lot bigger—tons of validation. We’ve been on ‘The View.’ We’re good.”
‘Let’s Franchise This Thing’
But Martin’s cupcake ambition was pushing him to be great, so “instead of being happy with just that, what was next?” he said. “Next was franchising. Let’s franchise this thing.”
In late 2010, after a yearlong stint with a business-franchising company that failed to produce a single deal, Martin decided to start selling Smallcakes franchises on his own. It didn’t take long for him to discover what potential franchisees really wanted. Yes, they wanted to be taught about the business, and they wanted to make money. But, more than anything, they wanted to bond with the man who made the cupcakes.
“What we learned is that people like the personal connection,” Martin said. “They want to talk to the guy who’s been on TV. We didn’t know that I was the face, and I was going to have to continue to be the face.”
Martin can picture a day when that face might be part of Smallcakes in-store displays and other advertising. But he won’t slap his brand on just anything.
“It’s got to make sense,” he said. “Someone wanted to make a Smallcakes vodka. Well, that doesn’t work for Smallcakes. That’s not who we are. We’re a kid-friendly, family-friendly place.”
Martin sees himself staying busy selling and promoting franchises in 2014, including the company’s planned international expansion, starting with one store each in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates and Pasig City in the Philippines.
A lot of fun for Martin still comes from dreaming up new kinds of cupcakes, like maple bacon.
“It’s the best cupcake we have,” Martin said. “People are scared, but when they taste it, they’re like, ‘Holy crap, this is awesome!’”
Could it be any other way for Cupcake King? Wait—maybe make that the Cupcake Ice Cream King. Smallcakes stores already offer cupcake milkshakes, but Martin wants to grow the combination concept into cupcake
ice cream shops.
“We’re going to call it cupcake ice cream, where we fold in cupcake crumbles and make different ice cream,” Martin said. “Some of our busiest stores are next to yogurt shops, because let’s say you’re on a date —one person might want a cupcake, one person might want a yogurt, so we can put those together. Instead of jumping off into another venture, we say, ‘We’ve got a brand, people know it, let’s build on it.’”