Fighting the Recession...With Cupcakes?

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Published September 14, 2009

| FOXNews

Despite a less than stimulating economy, some of life’s little luxuries are still there for the taking, even on a tight budget.

Few people understand that better than Rachel Thebault, head confectioner and owner of Tribeca Treats in New York City. Armed with nothing more than cocoa beans, a business plan, and a sweet tooth, she is waging war on the recession and winning, one Black Velvet cupcake at a time.

“We’re not just a chocolate shop or a cupcake shop. We’re innovating the corner bakery, making it modern, gearing it towards urban families and professionals,” Thebault says. “We have smaller portions. We’re more style-oriented.”

Part patisserie, part made-to-order bakery, part high-end stationery and gift store, Tribeca Treats opened in January 2007 and offers an enticing and eclectic assortment of chocolates, cookies, cupcakes and birthday cakes. Best-sellers include Peanut Butter and Jelly cupcakes, heavenly chocolate sandwich cookies filled with caramel or vanilla cream, and graham cracker cookies stuffed with marshmallow cream and dipped in chocolate.

Hindsight being 20/20, few entrepreneurs would have chosen to start a business at a time when sub-prime mortgages were about to crumble like the proverbial cookie, and no one would have expected that business to thrive. But the timing worked out almost perfectly for Tribeca Treats, because, in a troubled economy, it makes sense to sell something that people are not likely to give up. And cocoa-philes don’t give up chocolate unless they’re dieting, or have their jaws wired shut.

As a former Wall Streeter, Thebault knew how to budget, and was well aware that many small businesses run out of working capital quicker than they expect. So, while her shop was only eighteen months old when the economy toppled, a sound business plan positioned it to withstand the slings and arrows of an outrageously contracting economy.

And it helped that she loved what she was doing. Her avocation was her new vocation. As the adage goes, if you do something you enjoy, it never feels like work.

“Growing up I had two hobbies, baking, starting with an Easy-Bake Oven, and playing ‘store’ i.e. loading up and selling things, being a kind of entrepreneur,” Thebault recalls. “I had these parallel paths all through childhood and into adulthood but couldn’t figure out how to marry them.”

While an economics degree led her to high finance, she began making truffles as a hobby. Friends soon placed orders and created a buzz. Then came the ‘A-ha’ moment.

“I had no kids. I was doing well at work but it wasn’t too much to walk away from. I felt I had succeeded at my job and wasn’t leaving anything on the table. So I left and went to culinary school.” Thebault got degrees in both pastry and management, and completed an externship at Chanterelle, one of New York’s premier restaurants.

At the same time, Thebault launched a website selling made-to-order sweets. She had no inventory that could go to waste, and advertising was strictly word-of-mouth. It was a smart way to start a business while simultaneously honing the craft behind it.

Thebault slowly developed a line that now includes chocolates flavored with hazelnuts, ginger, café latte, espresso, Chambord and pink peppercorns. After graduating she exhibited at the Chocolate Show in New York (yes, Virginia, there is a wholesale chocolate show). Using that exposure as a launching platform, she started making chocolate gift boxes for trunk shows, which allowed her to reach even more potential customers while experimenting with the stylish presentations that are a hallmark of her business today.

Despite the faltering economy, Thebault says that she “found that people still wanted the affordable luxury of treating themselves to chocolates, cupcakes, birthday cakes. Yes, there’s more cooking and baking at home, but most people are still going to want to buy a birthday cake rather than risk ruining it.”

When the recession hit hard in late 2008, she and her team regrouped. They increased revenue by offering baking classes that are now wait-listed, adding the names of attendees to targeted mailings lists, and creating $1 Frosting Shots, single servings of frosting that are the cupcake equivalent of muffin tops. Elegantly presented, the shots are made primarily of vanilla confectioner's frosting or chocolate sour cream frosting.

Thebault also did something that sounds counter-intuitive in hard times: she hired more people.

“You’d think you’d want to cut down on labor and have a bare-bones staff,” she says, “but that was way too hard on me. I’d just had my second child. We decided to upgrade the staff and invest in human resources. Literally. No, the pay-off wasn’t immediate and it did cost more upfront but by the spring we had everyone in place to train so that we’ll be ready when our big season starts in the fall.”

Through planning, happenstance and luck, Thebault has created a successful, post-modern bakery.

“When I started we made chocolates, cakes and cookies and we had no idea what would take off. We added cupcakes, but we’re not just another cupcake destination.” Cakes and cupcakes make up 50% of her business, chocolates and cookies another 30% with revenue from other products and services making up the rest.

“What we sell, it all has to make sense. It makes sense to me. We’re not a random emporium of stuff. The invitations, paper products, specialty baking tools, the cookie cutters, meet the needs of our customer.”

And who is the customer?

“I am my own core customer.” Thebault says that if she knows what she wants, she knows what they want, too.

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