The line at Swan's Market Cupcakin’ Bake Shop is at least five people deep. A good sign since its opening at the end of February. The sweet spot is the newest addition to the historic building’s offerings of diverse eateries that gather the community for lunch and dinner in the Old Oakland district. It is the second Bay Area location for owner Lila Owens and so far, it is a hit.
“I was eating lunch there [Swan’s Market] on a Saturday a few months again and I realized they didn’t have any dessert options. They didn’t have a bakery. They had all these wonderful eateries but they didn’t have anything for your sweet tooth,” says Owens. She asked the folks at The Cook and Her Farmer, where she was dining—they are now also her neighbors—about her observation only to find out the market's management was actually in the process of interviewing bakeries. Although she joined the search late, she still beat out eight other contenders; a testament to how good her cupcakes are.
Mixing sugar, flour and other ingredients to create the small artisanal cakes that are turning taste buds upside down, in a good way, wasn’t always a part of Owens’ day-to-day. The former real estate agent followed into the family business until the market crashed in 2008. Taking the opportunity to do a little soul searching, she knew she wanted to do something different.
Inspired by the Sprinkles bakery concept at the time, Owens started to tap into her baking skills testing her own recipes. “I was more of a taster than a baker growing up. I didn’t start baking until my 20s,” says the cupcake connoisseur. Furthermore, she says, “I would go around tasting people’s stuff at other bakeries but I just wasn’t ever blown away.” Feeling that there was an opportunity to offer something different in the Bay Area, she continued testing recipes with her sights set on opening a retail shop.
She started a home-based cupcake catering business before eventually finding a location to showcase her passion for baking to a broader audience at her first bake shop in Berkeley, California. With more than ten flavors on the menu and other flavors that seasonally rotate in and out, Cupcakin’ has become a premier bake shop for moist, melt-in-your-mouth cupcakes that have never met a nonbeliever yet.
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“The lemon blackberry will make you slap yo’ mama,” says one customer on Owens’ website. “I brought your cupcakes to my boyfriend’s mom’s house and now I am part of the family,” says another.
Available in gluten-free as well as vegan, Owens' passion and creativity come through with flavors that include snickerdoodle, chocolate raspberry, salted caramel, vegan chocolate coconut and caramel mocha. It’s no surprise that her red velvet and key lime pie are best sellers.
With the Swan's Market location finally open, Owens' attention will now turn to her third location scheduled for later this year in Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto area, not far from the UC Berkeley campus. Once occupied for more than 65 years by the Virginia Bakery, the space will serve as a commissary kitchen and the flagship store for all three Cupcakin' Bake Shops.
With no formal pastry training, Owens is proving that having a vision and solid concept, believing in yourself and the willingness to work hard while building on a dream are a recipe for success.
I am certainly doing my part to get the word out about her growing empire. And as I leave Swan Market with a cute box of 12 minis in hand, I am thinking about who I can share them with. I give three away and for the next couple of days try to savor the remaining nine. Unfortunately for them, they didn't last that long.
Experiencing the same love as Owens’ customers, I may add my own comment to her site as I clutch my imaginary pearls in pure bliss while taking my first and last bite of the key lime pie. “Get ready to have every taste bud in your mouth come alive as the flavors and layers make them want more and more and more.”
Visit Cupcakin' Bake Shops at 2391 Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley and 907 Washington Street in Oakland. For the full menu and to place orders, visit www.cupcakinbakeshop.com. You can also see what Owens and her team are baking up next by following them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.