Jody Hall, founder of Seattle's first cupcake shop, Cupcake Royale, combines her passions for baking and social justice to produce good food and good works. With four outlets and expanding wholesale and online services, her business is thriving along with her charitable work.
JUST OVER six years ago, right after Jody Hall opened Cupcake Royale — the first cupcake shop in Seattle — I made a pilgrimage to Madrona to sample her wares. Because purple is my favorite color, I chose the Lavender vanilla cake with lavender-flavored icing — and, boy, was it good!
Nowadays, with everyone clamoring for cupcakes, it seems almost incomprehensible that Hall’s friends thought she was insane when she wrote her business plan for Cupcake Royale & Vérité Coffee back in 2003.
“Of course they did, because outside of New York City, there was no such thing as a cupcake bakery,” she says.
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But after graduating from Seattle University with a marketing degree in business, followed by 11 years at Starbucks in both marketing and operations, she felt ready to follow her instincts.
“I saw many great ideas and concepts get ‘vanilla-fied’ after going through the corporate process,” she says. “I had a concept of my own that I knew would work, and I had a strong desire to reconnect with the community and get out from behind the cube wall.”
Today, it seems like we’ve got cupcakes on practically every corner from Bellevue to Belltown.
Trophy Cupcakes and Party — with locations at Wallingford Center, University Village and The Shops at The Bravern — are “full-service cupcake cafes” that specialize in beautifully crafted cupcakes, vintage party favors and whimsical cupcake toppers. In early 2008, Trophy co-owner Jennifer Shea gained instant notoriety when she wowed Martha Stewart on a television segment by preparing the Chocolate Graham Cracker with Toasted Marshmallow variety during Cupcake Week. The domestic diva lavished praise, remarking that Shea’s cakes combined “taste and beauty.”
At Wink Cupcakes, which launched in 2006 as a boutique catering operation, it’s all about size. The company’s new retail shop, which opened just last month in Queen Anne, offers bite-sized Mini Winks, little-more-than-average-sized Winks or big ones, Jumbo Winks.
New York Cupcakes at Crossroads Mall in Bellevue has just three cake flavors (white, chocolate and red velvet) but an avalanche of frosting flavors. Its cupcakes are named for New York landmarks such as Radio City Raspberry and Coney Island Coconut.
Yellow Leaf Cupcake Co. features mostly Italian buttercream frosting — made with egg whites and simple syrup cooked like a meringue then whipped with butter — versus the simpler American buttercream made with butter and confectioners’ sugar. The Belltown-based bakery is also known for its number of flavors and push-the-envelope varieties such as Tomato Soup (their signature cupcake) and Wasabi.
Hall is gracious about her cupcake competitors, referring to them as “friends.” She claims that because each has a niche that’s very different from hers, “it seems to work out just fine.”
Apparently so. With four locations, an expanding wholesale business (clients include Metropolitan Market and coffee shops such as Vivace and Zeitgeist) and online service, Cupcake Royale is booming. But what sets Hall’s business apart — and, in 2009, earned her the Mayor’s Small Business Award, Deanna Knudson Grassroots Leadership Award and Seattle’s Best Local Crusader — is the savvy way she merges a successful small-business model with strong political beliefs.
Hall has always crafted her baked goods “the way your grandma made cupcakes,” from scratch, by hand and fresh daily. But after some negative posts on Yelp.com about the cupcakes being too dry (despite Hall’s pleas to eat the cakes the same day they’re bought), Hall enlisted Seattle-based pastry consultant Sue McCown, whose work she had admired when McCown was executive pastry chef at Earth & Ocean restaurant in Seattle’s W Hotel.
McCown’s mission? To make the cakes “more moisty-er,” as proclaimed on pink-and-white lapel buttons handed out at the bakeries.
Even before McCown came on board, Hall had started incorporating sustainable ingredients — Shepherd’s Grain custom-milled pastry and cake flours, organic dairy products from Medosweet Farms, berries from Skagit Sun and cherries from Olmstead Orchards — into her cupcakes, which made McCown’s job all the more challenging.
McCown tried more than 100 recipes for each cake (vanilla and chocolate), “tweaking minor things such as the type of baking soda and cocoa powder,” Hall recounts, as well as techniques. “She was acting as much as a scientist as an amazing baker.”
Thanks to such tireless testing, last summer, when the Capitol Hill location opened, Hall rolled out the Strawberry 66 Babycake, so named because it’s made from a minimum of 66 percent locally sourced ingredients, as are all her cupcakes these days.
Besides producing the “most local cupcake,” Hall steps up to other sustainability issues. Half the trash at Cupcake Royale is composted; the cafes offer Ecotainer cups and corn-based plastic utensils; boxes are printed in Ballard using soy-based inks.
Hall distributes 25,000 cupcakes a year to local charities. She’s funded a documentary called Sweet Crude (about “the abhorrent methods of extracting oil from the earth in the Niger Delta”) and lobbied in both Washingtons on health-care reform.
“We will continue to support efforts that make our society a better place,” she says.
By blending her passion for baking with political action, Jody Hall’s cupcakes with conscience are winning hearts and minds.
Braiden Rex-Johnson is a Seattle-based cookbook author and food and wine columnist. Visit her online at www.NorthwestWiningandDining.com. Steve Ringman is a Seattle Times staff photographer.