How Sweet It Is

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W hen you’re in the food business and the Food Network calls, you answer. In June 2010, Carol Vollono and Brenda DePonte, the mother/daughter team behind 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, where she also experienced famous confection destinations like Magnolia Bakery and Dylan’s Candy Bar.

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.”

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That unspoken communication skill bought them time in the second round, enabling 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—the first two of which are currently available in the East Haven shop.

You can taste why they won: each cupcake I tried was moist and packed with flavor, the frosting creamy and sweet but not cloying. Currently available varieties are stuffed with fillings like cannoli cream and pineapple and coconut; Boston cream and Oreo mousse and caramel.

After their great cupcake battle, “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. 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 has since swelled to 24.

It’s a good thing. In an average week Sugar sells well over 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 30 “everyday” flavors and six more in rotation. Carol and Brenda have more than 120 recipes to pull from, many of them seasonal, and some of them smaller versions of popular cakes from the days of Mrs. Sweetza’s. New recipes are always in development, and 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.

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. White cubbies flaunt colorful candies in shiny packages tied in silk ribbons, and rows of carefully decorated cupcakes line three display cases, with cookies lining a fourth. Walls painted a Tiffany-box blue add a touch of class and sophistication to the confectionary wonderland.

Sugar’s 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. And they’ve got two Sugar food trucks, one to make frequent visits to downtown New Haven and another to spread the wealth elsewhere, including at special events.

Carol and Brenda and team continue to innovate, and to 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.”

Sugar Bakery
422-424 Main St, East Haven (map)
Mon-Wed 9am-5pm, Thurs-Fri 9am-6pm, Sat 9am-5pm
(203) 469-0815
www.thesugarbakery.com

Written by Jane Rushmore. Photo #2 by Jane Rushmore; others photographed by Dan Mims. This updated story originally published on October 2, 2012.

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Jane Rushmore specializes in travel stories and food reviews. She’s published articles on topics across the globe, such as palaces in Thailand, mineral spas in the Czech Republic, and opera festivals in Northern Italy. After brief periods living in London and Australia, she is happy to call New Haven home for the past decade.

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