How sweet it is at The Cupcake Zoo

Lindsey Pompileo caught the cupcake food trend right in time. Now her business, The Cupcake Zoo, is rising like heated batter in the oven. Zinta Aistars reports on how it all came to be.
When Lindsey Pompileo was a girl, she didn't have an Easy-Bake Oven. She didn’t want one. She wasn’t interested in baking, and as she grew up, the running joke among family and friends was that Pompileo burned everything in the kitchen.

Today, all Pompileo has to do is post a photo of her newest cupcake on the website of The Cupcake Zoo or its Facebook page, and her baked treats disappear from the shelf within hours. With an average of 10,000 "likes" and "shares" of cupcake photos on Facebook per week, her business page has been closed down more than once for "suspicious activity."

Pompileo smiles. "That happened three times this month. Facebook doesn’t seem to know what to do with that much activity."

She knows what to do. She goes back to baking.

Pompileo’s original store is located at 110 N. Farmer St. in her native Otsego, where she opened for business in 2010, but she is planning to open a much-anticipated second location at 117 E. South St. in Kalamazoo in early spring.

Her inspiration? "I suppose it was being around so many amazing chefs among the Millennium Group."

Pompileo ponders the turn in her path from non-baker to star baker. She worked as a server and bartender in some of the restaurants owned by the Millennium Restaurant Group for many years, rubbing elbows with top chefs, absorbing culinary knowledge, and developing a palate for quality foods.

"I developed an obsession for good food," she says. "Especially pastries."

Pompileo baked cupcakes and other sweet treats in her home, but it wasn’t until life slammed her to the wall that she considered turning her new passion into a career. Her fork in the road opened on a Valentine’s Day that was anything but sweet.

"I’d had a weird cold for about six months," she recalls. "The doctor kept saying it was just one of those things. My immune system was down. Then one day I passed out and woke up in the hospital. I was diagnosed on Valentine’s Day 2008 with stage four lymphoma."

Pompileo’s husband Chris had just quit his job to start his own business, BoatLiftandDock.com. With the downturn in the economy, banks weren’t lending, but with the help of private investors, he’d opened for business and even with his wife’s diagnosis, there was no turning back.

"The diagnosis changed our lifestyle completely," says Lindsey Pompileo. "We had two boys at home, and I went into a year of chemo treatments. A friend moved in to care for me and the boys, and my brother, Andre, threw a benefit party in Chicago, where he managed a restaurant. Millennium Group threw a benefit party in Kalamazoo."

Her friends and colleagues rallied around her and $15,000 was raised to help the Pompileo family get through a tough year.

"We’ve always lived modestly." Pompileo shrugs. "It was enough for our living expenses. By the time I went through my last chemo treatment, we had $100 left."

Seed money. Granted, the chemo treatments had made Pompileo feel ill, but between treatments, she was increasingly restless, longing to get back to work. But what kind of work? She found herself in the kitchen between treatments, and baking became an artistic outlet.

With her strength returning, Pompileo returned to work for the Millennium Restaurant Group. She enjoyed the people working alongside her, but felt unfulfilled with the work. Could there be a way to bring some sweetness into her career?

"Chris is good at building websites, so he built me one," Pompileo says. "We went through five names, and I have to say, I hated The Cupcake Zoo, but Chris said optimization for the name was the best. We posted five flavors of cupcakes, and it was a call-in or online-order business only."

Pompileo worked out a plan with her employer to allow her to try out her cupcakes and pastries on their customers. She gained valuable feedback. By the time The Cupcake Zoo website was launched, she had built a fan base.

"After about 6 months, I quit my job." About a year later, Pompileo realized her business had outgrown her kitchen. "My last order from home was for 2,000 cupcakes for Kalamazoo College."

When her former employer opened The Wine Loft downtown Kalamazoo, Pompileo was approached to create pastries for the new establishment. In trade, she was allowed to use the kitchen facilities after hours to bake her own increasing orders. One year more, and Pompileo had outgrown that arrangement, too.

"Chris got an insane deal on a repossessed building in Otsego," Pompileo says. "He had his business office there for about 8 months when he’d outgrown it."

The opportunity for The Cupcake Zoo was obvious. Lindsey Pompileo moved her business in, still doing only special orders, until city officials asked her to consider one day a week for walk-in business. They wanted to build downtown traffic. With an ad posted on The Cupcake Zoo’s Facebook page, Pompileo sold out 1,000 cupcakes in less than four hours. There was no turning back.

"So we did that every Friday." Pompileo needed help, and her brother in Chicago, Andre Arguijo, moved back to Michigan to help her.

The menu of treats expanded, and one line of cupcakes became especially popular. Along with cupcakes of such flavors as strawberry and champagne, pink lemonade, raspberry ice wine, Fruity Pebble marshmallow crunch cookie cupcakes, and many more of a constantly changing menu, shelves are also filled with French macaroons, an assortment of cookies and cookie pops and cakes. Increasingly in demand, however, are Pompileo’s allergen-free, gluten-free, and vegan line of desserts.

"Right now, that’s about 30 percent of our business," Pompileo says. "In our new Kalamazoo location, I expect it to be at least 50 percent. People want local, organic food more and more, and a lot of people today have food allergies. We use unbleached flour, chemical-free baking soda, Amish sweet butter, and grass-fed eggs."

Using such ingredients, however, raises prices, Pompileo notes, and customers have to be educated about why higher prices mean higher quality. The Kalamazoo location, run mostly by her brother, will feature a full line of cupcakes and baked goods.

Pompileo laughs when she hears that the gourmet cupcake craze has waned. "That’s about big cities. You trip over cupcakes bakeries there. The market is saturated and the overhead is too high, but we offer something unusual in a limited amount, and people keep coming."

Prospects for Pompileo and The Cupcake Zoo are vigorously healthy.

Most cupcakes are $2 each, $20 for a dozen, and $10 for a box of four macaroons. For other orders, including wedding and party orders, check their website or call 269.492.4654 or 269.694.1114.

Zinta Aistars is creative director for Z Word, LLC, and editor of the literary magazine, The Smoking Poet. She lives on a farm in Hopkins.

Photos by Erik Holladay.


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