Philly Cupcake business rising

Posted: October 05, 2012

As co-owners of a Philadelphia sweet empire, Philly Cupcake and Philly Chocolate, Johnny Columbo is the fashionista and Michael Lewis is the foodie.

Columbo can't walk through a store without turning the tea bins just so and pointing out needed candy bags, wearing shined shoes and a well-fitted knit shirt. Lewis strolls into the store in jeans, polo shirt, and sneakers and simply nods hello.

"He's the dreamer, looking at the forest, and I'm on the ground focused on the trees," says Lewis, as the two of them sit in their fourth store, Philly Vintage & Consignment shop - their only nonfood business.

In the last four years, the couple - in both professional and personal life - have opened Philly Cupcake and Philly Chocolate and plan to open their second "cupcakerie" on South Street on Oct. 15. Their next five-year plan, they say, is to open cupcake stores in Atlantic City and on the Main Line, as well as an expanded cupcake and ice cream store in Center City.

Go ahead, roll your eyes, another cupcake place? But Lewis and Columbo said it's more of a perception than a reality. In Philadelphia, there are plenty of bakeries that sell cupcakes, but, unlike New York, few dedicated cupcake bakeries or dessert-only destinations. Buttercup Bakery? Closed. Cupmakes? Closed.

Aside from the Buttercream Cupcake Truck (which is doing so well they plan to open a cafe, according to its website), Lewis and Columbo are standing firm where so many others have crumbled. Philly Cupcake has sold more than 500,000 cupcakes in the last three years, with sales increasing about 30 percent per year, Columbo says.

Their success is a mixture of good timing, great locations, a variety of products, and a lot of special attention.

"We spend a lot of time on everything from the design of the truffles to the icing toppers on the cupcakes," said Columbo.

The biggest challenge of both cake and icing? The chocolate Massacre, a 4-inch-high chocolate cupcake with a tinge of peanut butter inside and a peanut-butter buttercream frosting (in an objective Inquirer taste test, the Massacre was a slight favorite, with a tie for the all-chocolate Coma and the Strawberry Lemonade cupcakes for second).

Not too bad for two 43-year-old guys who knew nothing about the food industry five years ago.

When they started talking about creating a business, the couple had barely been together a year, but each felt ready for a big change. They wanted to do something different. Columbo had owned two day cares, a coffee shop, and the vintage store Forbidden Planet (which closed, and then reopened as Philly Vintage). Lewis had been working for the city as a public relations director. Neither of them had any background in commercial kitchens, but they wanted to do something they enjoyed doing together.

"We love to bake, and we love to bake together and for friends," said Columbo. "So it was a natural progression."

In December 2009 they opened Philly Cupcake, a tiny slice of a store on the corner of 11th and Chestnut. There the wall shelves beckon with four-bite cupcake temptresses: Strawberry Lemonade, Banana Split, chocolate Massacre - with red velvet the most popular. Some 5,000 cupcakes per month headed out the door.

By Oct. 15 they plan to open a second Philly Cupcake at 1944 South St. It's been a long learning curve from making cakes in their kitchen, Lewis said. From the vocabulary of sugar saturation to hiring a chocolatier just to create confection toppers to the cupcake, it was a whole other kitchen.

"You start working with people who are professionals and have degrees and you figure out that your hand mixer isn't going to work," Lewis said. "You need a 20-quart mixer and refrigerators that hold a certain amount of product.

"It's quite a different show."

They have 25 employees with 12 more coming on with the South Street store. Lewis still comes up with flavors - like the recent Sweet Potato Pecan Cupcake inspired by baking with his grandmother in New Orleans - and Columbo likes to work on the designs. They've become comfortable letting their employees make suggestions as well. Their chocolatier recently came up with a Port Wine Cherry Truffle as part of a new Bring Your Own Wine night.

They also have ice cream and a variety of candy, from chocolate-covered fudge to old-fashioned treats - for both you and your dog (really, the dog cupcakes are a big seller). Erotica cakes and treats can be had as well, by special order.

Their work is not without controversy. The cupcakes range from $3 to $6 per fist-sized goodie. The frosting is more of a sweet whipped buttercream topping than an icing. Some people love it, others violently do not.

Lewis and Columbo say they accept that they can't please everyone, and that people definitely have specific tastes in frosting.

Sometimes it's hard not to let online comments creep inside, Columbo said. He's been known to lash out at commenters and competitors who post particularly harsh statements.

"If someone has a legitimate concern, we will print that off and take it to the kitchen and we'll find out what happened and try to make it right, right away."

One of the biggest challenges in the food business is to keep customers both satisfied and intrigued. Once they took Black Velvet (dark chocolate with a habanero kick) cupcakes off the menu and, although they weren't one of their biggest sellers, faithful eaters let their feelings known. It's now back on.

Opening Philly Chocolate in May 2011 was a way to bring in the new and expand their brand.

"We were already doing chocolate work at Philly Cupcake, but it was more confections - things with sprinkles and toppers for cupcakes," Columbo said.

"This brought our chocolate up to a whole other level. We're creating truffles and everything is homemade. We're trying different combinations and looks."

Some are inspired by items at Philadelphia Vintage & Consignment, just around the corner from Philly Cupcake. An etching on a truffle might resemble the beading on a chiffon gown, the couple say. Or a color combination might be just right for the top of a new cupcake.

While they're at full throttle opening up their new store ("at least we don't have to argue about the colors anymore, that took forever," Lewis said), they are trying out a new line of stuffed mini-cupcakes and truffles, for both humans and puppies.

But as they dream big, personally they are downsizing, moving into a smaller apartment in Rittenhouse Square and trying to separate life in sweetland and life in homeland.

"Home is a refuge and we try not to bring work in," Lewis said. "But we're thinking about maybe a cupcake doormat."

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