Lemon Bars, Wedding Cakes Help Sugarbelle Outlast The Cupcake Craze

Cake decorators (left to right) Gurpreet Singh, Kate Mancini and Lorna Molina work on cakes at Sugarbelle Cupcakes, Cakes and Confections. (Brad Horrigan)

Five years ago, when Kitten Digges and Toni Cellucci bought a Glastonbury bakery that's now called Sugarbelle, the cupcake craze was still building.

"Catching the wave at the right time, that was great," Digges said.

"It was just overwhelming," she remembered. "We had a line out the door."

Both women had taken leaves of absence from their jobs and had no paid staff. "We slept at the bakery, we never went home."

Cellucci eventually went back to corporate America, and Digges began hiring help about seven months after they opened.

"Some of those folks are still with us today," she said.

In the spring of 2011, Sugarbelle opened its second shop, in West Hartford center. The next year, they decided to open a third bakery, in South Windsor, and to make that the commissary kitchen for the small chain.

The state Department of Economic and Community Development helped fund the project, with a $100,000 grant and a 10-year low-interest loan at $150,000.

What they didn't know then was that cupcakes' popularity was peaking. The chain's top sales were that year, at about $680,000. They fell about $30,000 in 2013.

In March, the partners closed the West Hartford store. That location was break-even to minimally profitable, Digges said. Ironically, it was the strong walk-in traffic that hurt margins.

When someone buys one cupcake, especially if they pay with a credit card, that's far less profitable than when someone buys a dozen cupcakes — or six dozen — even though the bakery offers volume discounts on the one-cupcake price of $2.75.

The bakery also bakes wedding cakes and custom cakes, and in the high season delivers four wedding cakes a weekend. Brides are largely choosing cakes, rather than cupcake towers.

These bulk orders, whether cakes, a cookie platter, or a dozen or more cupcakes, are 70 percent of the chain's sales.

On a recent Friday at the Glastonbury store, Laurie Reilly and her daughter were delighted by an edible elephant on top of a custom cake waiting for pickup. Reilly said, "That's so cute!"

She bought a Pina Colada cupcake for the birthday of a family friend — her family is helping the single mother with camp costs. She resisted buying any for herself or her daughter.

"I will definitely come back," said Reilly, who had never visited Sugarbelle before that day's visit. She lives in Tolland. "I actually think I had a cupcake from here at somebody's party and was impressed with how good they were."

Even as the demand for cupcakes levels off, the owners aren't retrenching, they're diversifying. They sell cinnamon buns and scones and coffee now, as well as cookies, brownies, lemon bars and the like. They have about 50 flavors of cupcakes and rotate the offerings with about 20 flavors each day.

While fine-tuning new flavors can be tricky, the hardest task, by far, is predicting how many cupcakes to bake each day. The business starts slow on Tuesday and builds to Saturday. It is quieter in the winter. Otherwise, they can find no pattern. The sweet spot is to sell out, but not too soon that you miss sales. Digges said they hit the mark three of five days. If they have cupcakes left over, they go home with employees or in the trash. All cupcakes for sale were baked that day, she said.

"The challenge of baking enough, but not too much — that is really tough."

The owners hope to open a store in downtown Hartford, with an eye to landing corporate catering work. Projecting this year's sales are tough, because they don't know if they'll open there yet this year. But if not, Digges said, sales might be $500,000.

The shops have 13 employees, all but two full time, and the chain only cut one worker when West Hartford closed.

Digges said she doesn't earn as much as she used to when she had a government job and has to work every day of the week, but she has no regrets.

"It's a labor of love for sure," she said. "Nobody's getting rich on this."

Crumbs, a national cupcake chain which had 49 locations, including Greenwich, Stamford, Westport and Danbury, went bankrupt in July. Investors aim to reopen 25 of the stores (Danbury would not be among them).

Digges said that she was surprised but that after reading about it, she recognized maybe they grew faster than they could manage.

"I know running three stores took everything I have," she said. The partners can imagine having a chain larger than three stores, but she said they'll be cautious. "I don't want to be in Crumbs' situation a couple of years from now."

The Sugarbelle stores are at 63 Hebron Ave., Glastonbury, and at 454 Ellington Road, South Windsor. Both are open Tuesday through Saturday. 860-652-9600.