Saturday morning and the Ms Cupcake shop, which shares its Coldharbour Lane vantage point with the Blacker Dread music store, a Ghanaian restaurant and a “traditional gent’s barber”, is a sugar-scented hive of activity. Customers stare at the pink-blue-ivory-pistachio-peach-rainbow of candied pecan, raspberry coconut, mango blueberry, coffee crumble, and red velvet cupcakes, eyes glazed with anticipation and indecision.
In just two years Ms Cupcake has grown from an idea into a thriving shop, via a year-long stint as a popular market stall. Founder Mellissa Morgan, aka Ms Cupcake, is the smiling eye of a hurricane of activity. An entrepreneur, small business expert, master baker, author, educator, TV presenter, ethical food aficionado, and family woman, Ms Cupcake works, talks, laughs, winks and walks fast. “If I see a recipe with more than 10 ingredients, I turn the page,” she says.
Fittingly, the secrets of the Canadian-born Londoner’s transformation from a primary school educator into the Julia Childs of vegan baking can be summarised in just a few words:
I don’t have a food or business background. I just have a lot of passion. For me, [baking] is a passion. When I was tired or stressed, I would bake. It was an easy act of creation. Friends said: “You’re really good at this, you should try to sell this,” which made me think I could make a business out of it. This is how the world should be: you take something you’ve got a passion for and find a way to make money from it.
I wanted to run my own business and as a vegan, I wanted decadent cake. I love a good flapjack but sometimes I want a buttercream cupcake. I couldn’t understand why every major city in Canada and the States had vegan bakeries but London, which is supposed to be one of the culinary capitals of Europe, didn’t.
There was a massive hole in the market but I knew if I didn’t get my skates on someone else would so I had to push, push, push. I am proud to say that Ms Cupcake is London’s first vegan bakery.
I did months of research before I launched to make sure I was crossing the Ts and dotting the Is. There are a lot of steps involved and if you miss out something it will come back to bite you on the bottom. I contacted the HMRC and said: “I don’t know how to run a business but I know that at some point you’re going to want money from me, so you’re going to have to tell me what to do.” I also contacted the Vegan Society and the local council. Because I was producing food at home I had to do everything properly.
When it comes to ingredients I ask a lot of questions. Many of our customers are allergic so it is incredibly important. For example, I read that sugar isn’t vegan because it is processed using [animal] bone char. So I contacted Silver Spoon, Tate & Lyle – all the UK sugar companies. Fortunately in the EU bone char isn’t used to process sugar and each company gave me a statement saying that its sugar is vegan, so I can assure our customers.
You have to figure out what you don’t like to do and plan accordingly. I didn’t like measuring so I got someone to pre-measure my ingredients and make a mix so when I came to bake I would just add the wet ingredients. Finding shortcuts like that worked for me.
In terms of the business, we are always developing. The next aim is that within 12 months, Ms Cupcake will be made in a central factory and distributed nationwide, in addition to us having our bespoke, handmade service here at the shop. We’re also looking at franchising, and I’ve just finished shooting a TV series.
By choosing to not use animal products we are making a political statement but we’re here to provide amazing cake for everyone, regardless of what they can or cannot eat, that’s our ethos. The key is to give people what they enjoy.
Our company motto is: We don’t serve bad cake. It sounds basic but if you sell bad cake your customers won’t come back.
In terms of friends, social life, you have to give all that up. I think it was Nigella Lawson who said, “You can have two things in life, and that’s it.” If you want to work and have a family you can do that, but you can’t have a social life too.
You have to decide how much you can do. Never take on more than you can deliver. If someone orders a cake and we’re overbooked I’ll turn the order down. It’s better for a customer be disappointed for a little bit than for us to not do a good job. That way they’ll come back earlier next time instead of never coming back.
When I was running the market stall [in the first year] I would wake up at 6AM, load up the car and go to the market. I’d be there from 8AM till 5:30PM. When I got home at 7PM I would start baking and icing everything for the next day. Around 1AM I’d go to sleep for five hours. It was seven days a week, 18 hours a day, for a year solid. I’d crawl into bed crying every night out of sheer exhaustion.
People ask: why did you do that? It’s like studying or training for something: just focus on that thing. Dedicate a year of your life and get it done. I knew I was going to have a heck of a hard slog and if I’d stretched it out over two or three years I would have lost the will.
Luckily my husband is really laid-back. I promised him if it didn’t work within a year I’d give it all up. That’s why the shop opened in a year. My family is brilliant. They are all over the world – Canada, Jamaica, Italy – but they’re my strength. They support me 100%.
I also got amazing advice early on. I’m very good at asking people for information. I have no shame. I’ll say: “I need to learn this. You know what it’s about. Please, can you tell me?” Now when people ask me how I made this business happen I’m happy to tell my story because I had great people who helped me.
Pretend you know what you’re doing at all times. For example, if someone says, “Have you got this accreditation?” you say: “Yes, that is really important, it’s something I’m working on,” then you go home, Google and find out what the hell it is. People won’t buy from you if they think you don’t know what you’re doing – not even cupcakes.
Enjoy Ms Cupcake’s vegan delicacies at the following locations:
Daily: Ms Cupcake, 408 Coldharbour Lane, Brixton, SW9 8LF
Weekly: Saturday market Stall – Venn Street Clapham Common
Events: Lambeth Country Show, 15-16 September
Earls Court – Cake & Bake show, 22-23 September
Look out for the Ms Cupcake cookbook, scheduled for publication in May 2013, and her forthcoming TV show!