Turning your last five dollars into a multi-million-dollar company would meet most entrepreneurs’ ultimate goals for success. It is not enough for a mother of six plus one who has loftier plans for the future. “I want The Cupcake Collection to be the largest Black-founded franchise in America. That’s my big crazy dream for The Cupcake Collection,” says founder and CEO Mignon Francois.
The self-trained baker envisions her cake and cupcake creations sold all across the U.S., with new franchises opening where Black people were once enslaved. “My goal is to stretch it across places where we couldn’t have had ownership in the past,” Francois says.
Poverty to Profits
The Nashville businesswoman began building her dream cupcake by cupcake in 2008. At the time, she was broke, struggling to feed her children and about to lose her home to foreclosure. Francois launched The Cupcake Collection in her living room at the same time the electric company was threatening to shut off her power. So, where did she get the courage to keep going?
“I think it was just that hunger to survive. There is a knowing inside successful people that says, ‘I know that there is greater for me.’ We had already lost everything, so what do I have to lose by trying to show up for myself.”
The story of how Francois started The Cupcake Collection with no experience in baking or business is equally astonishing. She got the idea of making money with a bake sale from a radio show. When a neighbor requested 600 cupcakes to give to her clients for Christmas, the stay-at-home mom only had $5 to buy ingredients. She made enough cupcakes to earn $60 and multiplied it until her home became the location for an expanding enterprise.
“I remember when we started growing and had our employees working here. They would take their naps in my children’s bedrooms. They would stay over for dinner,” says Francois. “As we expanded, and another room was required, I remember my daughter saying, ‘We already live in the hall. Where else are we going to go?’”
Francois and her children moved out of the house in North Nashville’s historic Germantown neighborhood in 2012. The original shop is still operating there. A new brick-and-mortar location opened in New Orleans three years ago.
The cakes and cupcakes made fresh daily are sold at the two shops and online with nationwide shipping. Eat This, Not That! hooked up with Yelp to search for the best cupcake in every state. They picked the company’s red velvet cupcake as the best in Tennessee.
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The marketing and communications manager describes the Nashville shop as a destination bakery. “When people come to Nashville, they have country music at the Ryman Auditorium or the Grand Ole Opry. They have hot chicken, which has taken the country by storm but originated here. And then you have to go to The Cupcake Collection too,” says Tonisha Brown.
The stores Francois created have already sold more than five million cupcakes. The company celebrated its 13th anniversary in November after surviving the pandemic with a tremendous increase in online sales. “We saw website sales increase by 320 to 340% as far as people wanting shipments and wanting that same Cupcake Collection experience at home. People weren’t getting together to celebrate, so they were shipping cupcakes to their families, friends or colleagues,” Brown says.
Currency of Faith
“I promised God that if he made me successful, I would tell anybody who would listen what they could do if they believed,” says The Cupcake Collection’s founder. Today, Francois keeps that pledge by sharing how much she prayed and relied on faith to climb out of poverty and become a well-respected entrepreneur.
“I believe faith is a currency that will perform for you like money. It also has the same characteristics that money has. But the return on the investment is greater for less of an upfront cost,” she says.
Exercising her faith like a muscle, Francois built her business with the help of her children. She considered herself a household manager but had no credit or investment capital. Instead, she relied on her beliefs to maintain strict budgets, save for emergencies, and pay off her medical debts and school loans while expanding her company.
“My spiritual experience with God is such that He will whisper things to you that are coming if you spend time with him. I have been able to use that trust your gut instinct that says, ‘Go left right now.’”
Tennessee State University chose the bakery owner as a “Woman of Legend and Merit” and “Emerging Business Leader of the Year.” Before she decided to escape hard times with cakes and cupcakes, Francois asked the Lord why she was broke while Beyoncé, Jay-Z and other celebrities lived in luxury.
“I heard God say, ‘Are you willing to put in what they put in, to get what they get out of it?’ I realized that work was going to be required of me. The journey is not going to be easy. It will be worth it, but it will be work,” Francois says.
One of her sons painted words from a Kanye West and Jay-Z collaboration on a wall to remind the family of the work success requires. The “Otis” song talks about not being noticed driving more than one Mercedes-Benz. Joy is spray-painted over the lyrics and represents Francois’ ability to build wealth through trial and error. “The more you are able to be transparent and candid with people about the fact that you don’t always get it right the first time, the more they are willing to follow you into what it is that you want to do.”.
Recipe for Joy
From the start, The Cupcake Collection’s founder wanted her place to be so much more than a bakery where customers would get the same cakes with different icings. The college graduate put her science degree to good use, formulating recipes that captured the nostalgia of enjoying baked goodies at her grandmother’s table. It is one of the reasons Tripadvisor lists her shop as the #1 bakery in Nashville.
“I think what makes our cakes and cupcakes the best is the feeling of joy that you get to have in receiving them,” says Francois. “When you come to The Cupcake Collection, the product we’re selling is not the one you’re actually taking out of the door with you. The product we’re selling is joy.”
The entrepreneur grew up in Louisiana, experiencing elation from her stepmother making every July 4th birthday special. “She would go and gather some kids from the neighborhood to her house to sing happy birthday to me. She always made sure I had a cake. She saw me.”
Francois shares why she also felt celebrated and loved when her grandmother made a coconut cake for her. “If she had the ingredients, there was going to be coconut cake because that was my favorite. She could be tired. She could be slumped over, but she was going to make a cake because I wanted it, and she saw me.”
That feeling of being seen and loved is what Francois wants her classic cakes and cupcakes to deliver every time. They won’t have a mile-high pile of icing or a bunch of decorations. They will offer rich flavor, pretty presentation and timeless, homemade taste.
The sweet lemonade pound cake is made with real lemons. The strawberry cake has chunks of natural fruit. The red velvet is a buttermilk cake, and the signature selection is an original creation made from sweet potatoes. “That’s what I’m looking to become as a person, just a timeless part of history that will live on. That’s what I think our cupcakes are. They are a timeless part of history,” she says.
The Cupcake Collection’s ability to make everyone feel welcomed adds to the joy people of all ages, races and incomes get out of visiting the shops. Francois recalls the day she watched an elderly woman with a cane making her way inside the Nashville location. “There is a pride she has coming into this place to eat cake from me because it reminds her of what her mother did. That’s success for me.”
The Germantown bakery also attracts loyal customers from its proximity to Tennessee State, Frisk University and Meharry Medical College. “We have all of those college experiences, where students come to us to study over cupcakes. They take cupcakes back to share with their friends at their dorms. When it’s time for graduation, they get their graduation cakes from us,” Brown says.
Lighthouse to Legacy
Long before The Cupcake Collection received Black Enterprise Magazine’s “Family Business of the Year,” Francois demonstrated her ability to be a blessing to others, especially young people. Even with four sons and two daughters of her own, she found room to take a runaway teenager into her heart and home.
“We kind of took Breanne under our wing, and she sort of attached herself to us. It went from spending the night to living at the house, and then Bree just became one of our children,” Francois adds. “She’s one of the lead decorators and one of the managers on the team. The grandchildren know her as their Aunt Bree.”
All of the founder’s children contribute to the longevity and growth of the company, including Druscilla and Xavier, who work full-time. Brown started working at The Cupcake Collection as a cashier and became a marketing assistant while still in college. It was a new experience for the North Nashville native who grew up in the 37208 zip code. A Brookings Institution report identified the area as having the highest incarceration rate in the country.
“I have had family members in and out of the system, and some are still currently in the system. It was great to experience working with people who looked like me and really cared about my well-being or how my family was doing,” Brown says.
The marketing and communication manager’s savvy with social media helped her cultivate new opportunities at The Cupcake Collection. After working at another company for two years, Brown now uses her connections to other young media achievers to promote Francois’s business.
“We grew exponentially with her help on social media. People are always trying to poach her off of me,” the CEO says with a laugh. “They try to steal her away from us because they see what we’re doing.”
Francois feels so strongly about helping others succeed that she began sharing her expertise with one of her sisters and a best friend from college in 2016. The New Orleans native invested in the second incarnation of The Cupcake Collection, first as pop-ups and then a shop.
“I wanted to teach them how to fish. I saw the hard work and the ethics they had in them, and I wanted them to be able to win. I called my sister on the phone one day, and I said, ‘If I teach you how what I know, would you fish for a lifetime?’ And she cried about it. She was like, ‘I’ve been wanting something for me that I could do.’”
The entrepreneur calls her sister Alaina Theriot and best friend Aisha Faulkner tireless workers. They are willing to do whatever it takes to make the New Orleans shop profitable. They are paid as employees now but will eventually own the franchise under Francois’s sweat equity model.
The Cupcake Collection’s owner always knew she wanted to establish a legacy that extends beyond her own children to her siblings and other dreamers. “What we want to be is a lighthouse in the community to show other people what a good business looks like. We want to light the way for other entrepreneurs to know what they can do if they believe,” Francois says.
Honoring Her Ancestors
The CEO’s parents believed in following a different path toward career achievement. “My mother climbed the ladder of success from age 19 until retirement. She started as a secretary and retired with an executive-level offer on the table. My father was the same,” she says.
Francois recognizes her children could join a new generation of African Americans who inherit businesses, properties and wealth. She began to see the bigger picture more clearly after returning to Theriot, Louisiana, to bury her grandmother.
Theriot is also the entrepreneur’s maiden name. Traveling back to where slaves once cut sugar cane deepened the desire to honor her ancestors. “All those women who came before us might have been awesome businesswomen, though we will never know their names. They could have had great opportunities to sell their wares, but they weren’t allowed to because it was illegal. They weren’t allowed to because they were not recognized as humans,” says Francois.
The grandmother, who raised Francois’s father as her own child, was an exceptional baker and taught the Nashville businesswoman what she knew. They often conversed by phone as the novice baker developed her skills in her Germantown kitchen.
Knowing her team of 13 is changing the narrative on 400 years of slave history means a great deal to The Cupcake Collection’s owner. “We’re starting where we are and counting on. We might not know everything. We might not have all the pieces, but we’ll take what we have and move forward. We’re going to pick up our wins along the way and add those in. And that’s why it’s so important to us.”
Elevating Through Excellence
The Cupcake Collection earned its reputation as one of the best bakeries in the country by being committed to excellence. Last year, Francois received a $25,000 NAACP Powershift Grant for her achievements. However, she prefers to run the two shops without the hierarchy that rules most companies.
Her unofficial title is Director of Joy, and every member of her staff has a fun title, too. “The reason why we have fun titles is that my team understands that I’m not their boss,” says Francois. “What they understand is that I am their client, and they want to serve their client well because they want their business to stay open.”
Brown’s fun title is “The Voice of Reason.” She views The Cupcake Collection as a business capable of operating without Francois in its teen years. “We are intentional about not having her inside of the bakery all day, every day. It allows the new generation of leaders to thrive and the business to continue growing while she’s working on those big picture things,” says Brown.
These days, Francois focuses on opening more locations, writing a book, and getting The Cupcake Collection on grocery store shelves. She also devotes time to speaking engagements, establishing scholarships and supporting nonprofits that help homeless families and people struggling with hunger.
No matter where ambitious dreams for The Cupcake Collection take her, Francois wants to remain faithful to her core philosophy that everyone should be seen and celebrated. “And I think if we took the time to nurture that in people, they would live life more abundantly and more on purpose. The truest part of worship is to walk in your purpose, and I just want to create a platform for people to do that.”
Follow Francois’s company on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. You can also follow Mignon on Instagram or Facebook. Cakes and cupcakes can be ordered on The Cupcake Collection’s website. Online orders are accepted anytime but arrive based on overnight or two-day delivery scheduling.