W hen you’re in the food business and Food Network calls, you answer. In June 2010, the mother/daughter team Carol Vollono and Brenda DePonte at Sugar Bakery in East Haven received a call out of the blue with an invitation to try out for an episode of Cupcake Wars. “We never sent them anything,” Carol says. “They told us we had 48 hours to make an audition tape, so we did.”
The dynamic baking duo went on to win the competition. They have no formal training, but they still had advantages. Carol had been baking in her mother’s kitchen since she was 8 years old. Brenda polished her marketing skills as a graduate of the Laboratory Institute of Merchandising in NYC and her decorating skills while working at Magnolia Bakery and Dylan’s Candy Bar there.
In retrospect, Carol says they should have been intimidated, but there wasn’t really time. “We never thought we would win, because the competition really is the best of the best in the country. But the one thing we did have in our corner was that we work together every single day. We never talk to one another, we can just look at what each other is doing and tell what the next step is. There’s so much unsaid when you are baking together.”
That unspoken communication skill bought them time and speed in the second round, and enabled them to finish faster than Carol thought possible. The chocolate peanut butter ball cake was the one that won it all, but credit also goes to the hard-working cupcakes they submitted in the first round, such as the cannoli, the strawberry cheesecake and the sweet potato infused with apple cider and topped with marshmallow frosting, all bestsellers and still available in the East Haven store.
You can taste why they won: each cupcake I tried was moist and packed with flavor, the frosting creamy without ever feeling sickly sweet. Many varieties are stuffed with fillings like strawberry mousse, blueberries and maple cream, mint cream and banana and graham cracker.
But the real story is how Carol and Brenda survived their success after the cupcake wars. “The Food Network warned us; they told us to hire more people,” Carol says, but the shop was still overwhelmed by the cupcake frenzy that ensued after the show aired in December 2010.
“The next day, it was like somebody died, there were so many flowers in here!” Carol says of the shop. Though they were prepared for the usual holiday rush, the congratulations and curiosity of customers old and new cleaned out their cupcake, cookie, and cake supply each day.
They got visitors from Germany and South Africa, and Carol in particular remembers asking a couple from Norway who they were in town to visit. They said, “No one, we came here to see you!”
It all started with the launch of Sugar’s previous iteration, Mrs. Sweetza’s, in 2004. The operation was comprised of one oven and four family members: Carol, Brenda, Brenda’s sister Jenna, and Carol’s mother (now 82 and working full time at the East Haven store). They made a modest $15,000 investment in a commercial kitchen installation in their home and a state license for a home bakery, selling custom cakes to local restaurants and decorative cookies for special occasions. A couple years later they leased a storefront down the street and changed their name to something more easily understood. “We never get asked how to spell ‘Sugar,’” Carol notes.
Before enlisting in Wars, Sugar had two full-time pastry chefs, but it wasn’t enough to keep up with demand after the competition aired. Carol and Brenda spent six months finding enough qualified staff to join their team, which now numbers 22.
It’s a good thing they did. In an average week Sugar sells 10,000 cupcakes, 1,000 cookies and dozens of custom order cakes ranging from $40 to $1,500. Daily, the store offers 36 varieties of fresh cupcakes, with 24 everyday flavors and a dozen in rotation. Carol and Brenda have more than 75 recipes to pull from, many of them smaller versions of popular cakes from the days of Mrs. Sweetza’s, and new recipes are always in development. Sometimes they result from customer suggestions. “One woman brought in a chili chocolate bar one day and said, ‘Make this a cupcake!’” Carol recalls. They did and it’s been selling for two years now.
If it takes you some time to decide on which cupcake to order with all those varieties, the store is a pleasant place to deliberate. It’s what Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory would look like if he had hired a really great interior designer. Three-tiered stands flaunt colorful candies in shiny packages tied in silk ribbons, and rows of pastel frosting cupcakes line three display cases. Walls painted a Tiffany-box blue add a touch of class and sophistication to the confectionary wonderland.
Their custom cakes are known to make people cry happy tears when they come to pick them up. They really are works of art, and words don’t do them justice; better just to check out their extensive photo gallery. For gift givers or hopeful gift receivers, Brenda created a cupcake registry where you can log your favorite flavors. (Genius!) And they’ve got a Sugar food truck that makes frequent visits to downtown New Haven, cupcakes at the ready to get you through that mid-afternoon work slump.
Carol and Brenda continue to innovate, and keep up with demand. When Carol turns her back to fill a cupcake tray for a customer, her T-shirt says it all: Keep Calm and Bake On.
422-424 Main St, East Haven (map)
Mon 9am-3pm, Tues-Wed 9am-5pm, Thurs 9am-6pm, Fri-Sat 9am-5pm
Written and photographed by Jane Rushmore.