Jessica Beebe wanted to open an ice cream shop. What she got was a cupcake empire.
Three years ago, Beebe took a spontaneous vacation to Pennsylvania with her daughters Alana, then 7, and Amaya, then 3. There, she fell in love with Hershey's Ice Cream.
"I came back and I said, 'I'm opening an ice cream shop,'" Beebe, 38, said.
She knew she would need to sell something else at her shop. Pies were too inconvenient, so she set her sights on cupcakes.
"Little did I know that my ice cream shop was turning into a cupcake shop," the New Port Richey entrepreneur said.
Sugardarlings Cones & Cupcakes has been a smash hit in the local cupcake scene. On a busy day, the three locations in New Port Richey, Palm Harbor and Lutz sell more than 2,000 cupcakes. Sugardarlings' cupcakes are known for their moistness and creamy, not-too-sweet frosting. The shop offers traditional cupcake flavors, as well as more adventurous and savory options such as ginger, wasabi, bacon and lavender.
One of Beebe's personal favorites is Exotic Bliss, which is filled with pineapple and cranberry and topped with hibiscus frosting. Her other favorite is the Sugardarlings take on the Hostess cupcake.
When she started, Beebe wasn't even a baker. She didn't have a passion for baking, and she surely didn't think she would bake full time.
She called on some co-workers at Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club in Palm Harbor, where she worked overseeing the pool, bar and grill. She assembled a taste-testing team of elderly ladies and started baking. She found basic recipes and tweaked them over and over until the taste-testers loved them. The hardest cupcake to master was the simplest — classic vanilla.
Once Beebe mastered cupcakes, it didn't take long for her to master the art of business.
One year after Sugardarlings opened its doors, Beebe opened a Palm Harbor store. The Pinellas location will soon become the sole baking site for their gluten-free cupcakes, which are already being sold alongside the store's traditional cupcakes. Last August, she opened a Sugardarlings in Lutz, and she isn't stopping there. She hopes to expand into Carrollwood or Tampa and northward into the Spring Hill and Brooksville areas.
Her New Port Richey store is still the hub of the enterprise, baking 1,000 to 2,000 cupcakes per day to be sold at all three locations.
In order to more efficiently accommodate the large commercial orders that Sugardarlings has come to attract, Beebe is in the process of opening a 3,000-square-foot warehouse. The warehouse, set to open the first week of July, will alleviate the space constraints of the New Port Richey location, which has little room for customers to dine in and limited space for coolers. Beebe wants to use the space for more than just baking. She hopes to host tours, school field trips, and bridal expos and tastings.
The most important benefit of the warehouse, though, is that it will give her more free time to spend with her daughters.
"When I first opened, (my daughters) loved the business, and then it took Mom away," Beebe said. "Especially for my older one, she went through a transition where she didn't like my business. But just recently, she was writing a big speech for school ... and it was all about my business," she said, choking back tears.
In 2011, Sugardarlings won the Great St. Pete Cupcake Contest with a peanut butter s'mores flavor devised by Beebe's daughter Alanna, and the shop was voted Best of Suncoast for the past two years. Beebe's success has surprised everyone but her and her father. Beebe's dad, Bennie Sacco, gave her $2,000 to start the business.
"Even if it was crazy, (he said), 'I know you can do it,'" Beebe said.
Beebe knew she could too.
"There was no doubt in my mind that I would be successful because I firmly believe whatever you put your heart and soul into, you can make successful," she said.
Still, there were a lot of skeptics. One was her husband, Cory.
"I really didn't know what to expect," he said. "She pursued this and she really in all honesty proved me wrong. She's very outgoing, she has a lot of confidence in herself, and when she does something, she keeps with it. She has a lot of belief, a lot of faith in herself."
Linda Braithwaite has been the Beebes' neighbor for eight years, and she taste-tested so many cupcakes that it spoiled her weight-loss efforts. As a lawyer, she was concerned with how many small businesses fail, especially during the recession.
"I had a great fear that this was not going to take off, but I'm just amazed," said Braithwaite, who practices at The Family Law Source in Trinity. "I didn't expect it at all to take off like it has."
Beebe thinks her business thrived during the recession because people always celebrate, even in hard times. Still, she wanted to make sure to keep her sweet treats affordable.
Basic cupcakes start at $2 each, and it's 25 cents extra for specialty flavors.
Samantha Fuchs can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6235.