In this week’s episode, we talk to Mignon Francois, owner of The Cupcake Collection about pandemic pivots and how she turned a business, started from nothing, into a two location success. Yelp reviewer and creative entrepreneur, Monica S. reminds us how much joy something simple (like a sweet potato cupcake) can bring. This episode will leave you inspired and hungry.
On the Yelp Blog: Read about Francois’s entrepreneurial journey to inspire you to take your own business to new heights.
MONICA: I had never heard of The Cupcake Collection. I live on the opposite side of town. But when someone gives you a coupon, you’re going to go check it out. And one thing I did ahead of time was go online and look at the menu because I am actually gluten-free, dairy-free. I try to eat vegan whenever I can.
I was so surprised to see the menu options. They have a gluten-free option. They have a vegan option, which I’m like, okay, I’ll try the vegan option. So I called ahead of time to set the order because it was during lockdown in quarantine, and honestly I just really needed an excuse to get out of the house.
EMILY: That’s Monica, a Nashville creative entrepreneur. She’s telling me about a place called The Cupcake Collection that she tried for the first time during the pandemic. After getting a coupon and discovering they had not only gluten-free but also had vegan options, she placed an order and took a mini trip across town to check it out. Let’s hear her review.
MONICA: Three words. Sweet potato cupcake. Don’t waste your time with anything else. Sure you could opt for the rich and chewy chocolate cupcake or the creamy melt-in-your-mouth red velvet. You could even go the classic route and try a light and fluffy, delicious vanilla or a mouthwatering birthday cake. It’s your life. We all know life is short. So if you’re going to party, party hard. If you’re going to treat yourself, do it right. As overwhelmingly delectable as each and every flavor served here is—even the vegan and gluten-free—the sweet potato is the best, and it deserves to be treated with respect.
EMILY: We were immediately drawn to the entertaining way that Monica wrote her review—the story telling she did, while still being informative about options for ordering, and the variety of flavors. What really excited me though was her approval and praise for the vegan and gluten-free options.
MONICA: The great thing about this cupcake is it did inspire all the words that I wanted to use that I would normally have used on a regular, full-blown cupcake that I’m just supposed to stay away from. And I have missed out on for many years. And you kind of feel like you’re settling, you’re settling for gluten-free, you’re settling for vegan. But, people don’t realize that if you get it right, it’s actually better than the regular cupcake.
EMILY: As I listened to Monica describe this decadent experience, I already knew that Mignon, the owner of Cupcake Collection, didn’t create a gluten free and vegan option to address a health food trend… It was a creation for someone she loves.
MIGNON: So I have a goddaughter who is allergic to everything. So my friend, Jenna, and I were always looking to figure out, well, how was Jaleah going to eat, and have this enjoyment? And so I remember the struggle of that. So when this came along, I thought about her and I wanted to have something that she would be able to eat. So it was during her 13th birthday that she was able to have this for the first time. She came to town to visit me for a little while and she was so nervous to open it up and eat it because it’s just like, I’m going to suffer for this. Because no matter what people say, no matter what it is, you know it’s not going to be okay. And she was like, Oh my gosh, I just really ate that and I’m okay. And it was good. And that was really key for me.
EMILY: Many people deal with dietary restrictions, and I can imagine that it must be insanely difficult being afraid that things you eat could potentially harm you, and also having to miss out on enjoying certain foods with people in social situations or celebrations. Mignon has not only created an experience her niece never thought she could have, but also changed the expectations around vegan and gluten free desserts in general. But it took time! Mignon has been evolving this item for years.
MIGNON: When my granddaughter was born she was gluten intolerant and she had a lot of allergies and they grew up around The Cupcake Collection. So, making sure that she could have things that she enjoyed and that she could celebrate with was important to me.
As we were developing this, we had a little boy whose mom would come in and she would bring me the ingredients that he could have. He had a special milk that he could do. He was allergic to casin in the milk, so I began to learn all of the specifics around different allergies. And then I had another customer who had a miracle baby. And she never thought that she would have one and she had this miracle baby. So she wanted to be able to celebrate that and she had all these allergies. So she would talk to me about what she could have and you know, all those kinds of things.
It was my customers who helped me to get the information on what they could use and so I think that this recipe was always becoming what it was intended to be. And so when I started out to make a vegan thing, I wanted something that was going to hit all spaces that it was going to be good for somebody who is gluten intolerant, someone who’s vegan, someone who couldn’t have dairy.
EMILY: Mignon creates all of her cupcakes with care, but the story behind why she created these dietary options in the first place, as well as the time and feedback she incorporated to make them great, really speaks to her commitment to her product.
We’re going to take a quick break, but when we come back we’ll hear about the origin story of The Cupcake Collection, as well as what the experience was like for Monica during COVID.
EMILY: Mignon is the owner of a dessert destination – now with locations not only in Nashville, but also in New Orleans. When she started though. She was just getting by. Trying to find a way to get out of debt and build generational wealth for her family.
MIGNON: I had listened to this rap song and the lyrics said “they see me cause I pulled up in my other Benz. Last week I pulled up in my other, other Benz.” And I was like, wait a minute. Like he has options and they’re luxurious and I don’t have anything. I don’t have water on a regular basis and I don’t have electricity. And, God does that mean you love him more than me? You know? And I felt God saying to me, Are you willing to do what he does to get what he has? Which let me know that work was going to be required of me. That things don’t just happen to you. You have to work for them, that these things are the result of the actions that you take.
And so I began to work really hard for it. I didn’t know how to bake though. I was listening to this guy on the radio who was telling people that they could get out of debt by having a bake sale. And I thought I wanted to do it, but I didn’t know how to bake. So I put these three by three signs outside of my house. It says the bakery is coming soon. I feel like the whole world has seen it. I can’t take it out now. I’ve got to figure out how to bake.
EMILY: It’s hard to imagine that the head of this successful cupcake empire started out with ZERO baking abilities and really nothing more than the determination to succeed. It’s not like she was a long time home baker who wanted to turn her hobby into a business. She was just a mom who wanted to get out of debt and build something for her daughters to inherit.
MIGNON: I started working to get a recipe the same way I learned how to cook long distance over the phone with my grandmother. So back when I was a teenager, my mom would give me $5 to use towards long distance to talk to my grandmother for a few minutes every week. And that money, I used to hurry up and get off the phone and just get the bullets that I needed. And so that informed my future.
17 years later, when I find myself wanting a recipe, I go to one of my favorite bakers, my grandmother, and say, well, what do I need to do? But she doesn’t have a recipe. Like she’s from country town bayou Louisiana. There’s no recipes written on paper. And in fact, my grandmother doesn’t have much more than a fourth grade education anyway. So it’s like, you know, writing those things down and that kind of thing, wouldn’t be what she would do.
So she basically walked me through the same way. She taught me how to cook food, pinch your fingers together, open up your hand. And it was the time that we spent together that, let me know how to do it. But the aha moment that I had was in the kitchen after I hung up the phone with grandma. That what she taught me was I had had it all along. That this was science and that when I had gone to college to be a physician, even though I couldn’t apply the science to the human body, I could apply it to food. And that in fact, I could make chemical reactions and I was like, Oh, this is what they meant in chemistry when they said, and I began to go into my kitchen and make chemical reactions.
And from there, I began to make recipes. And from there we began to win awards.
EMILY: Mignon took an idea she got from a radio host about getting out of debt, and turned it into a business that’s not only successful, but a shining example of what is possible. Mignon works locally with the entrepreneurship center and other organizations to help people realize what they’re capable of if they put hard work and heart into their idea.
The Cupcake Collection has become a destination for many people who are visiting Nashville in addition to being a local favorite, even during the pandemic.
MONICA: I drove down there and of course we couldn’t go inside. They had a table display outside. It was a bright sunny day. Like all the stars were in alignment. I drove down there and I got some sunshine and they have a really cute storefront there’s kind of a sidewalk drawing. A doorway entrance. It’s just really homey and really cute. And, so I picked up my order, but while I’m waiting you know, a couple people came and they said that they went there all the time and it was kind of a neighborhood favorite.
MIGNON: When we started The Cupcake Collection, there was nothing like this. People told me no one is going to stand in line for anything in that area of town. And they’re certainly not going to do it for anything gourmet. So we changed their minds about it, and we showed them that other things could come to Germantown. So listening to the reviewer, say, Oh, it’s an up and coming place. You know, yes, it is because we did that. Like we showed them that this is a place to come and stand in line and to be excited and welcoming that we’re welcoming. The reason why you feel that is because I’m welcoming you into my home. This is where I raised my children. So when you come into The Cupcake Collection, you are coming into my family home.
And so what we did at that time was what we could afford to do. It wasn’t that we were so smart. It wasn’t that we, you know, I want it to be on Western Avenue. Like I wanted to be out there. But I think that it’s so divine, how things work out. When you’re struggling to be like everybody else, and God says, you’re not like everybody else, so just go ahead and be uniquely you. What you’ve been created to be. And I thought that it was kind of like, I’ll take what I have, let me open it up in my living room. And it began to be a thing then people thought I was smart because I did this, but I was using what I had. Right where I am.
And that’s what I want people to know. You don’t have to have a big old degree and a whole bunch of letters behind your name and a whole bunch of money in the bank. I did it with no money, no knowledge of the business, no experience. I just went forward passionately with what I had on the inside of me to do every single day.
EMILY: Nearly 10 years later the entire neighborhood Mignon’s located in is an ‘up and coming area’ – a true destination. As we all know, 2020 brought some incredible challenges for brick and mortar businesses, but Nashville specifically was hit incredibly hard. Just before the shelter in place orders and COVID lock down, a tornado ripped through Nashville. Mignon told me in the face of all of this, their mission was clear very early on.
MIGNON: I think what we realized in the process was the celebration is still on. Your birthday doesn’t care that it’s COVD. Your birthday doesn’t care that a tornado came. My grand baby is going to be six in January and she’s just like, it’s almost my birthday. So I backed up and said, my grand baby knows her birthday is coming up. She doesn’t know that it’s about four weeks away, but she knows it’s next month. And every time we talk about gifts and birthdays, she’s like, it’s almost my birthday. You know, she doesn’t know anything about a storm.
And I think that’s what happened in 2020. Like whatever it was, we needed to find the joy and the positivity. That’s why I call myself the director of joy. It is my responsibility to bring it, like if I’m out here crying and I’m out here sad because of what has happened to me, then you’re going to feel that too. You’re going to be scared too, as a member of my team. But if I come in and I offer you a different perspective, then you can look to me to say, this is what we’re going to do now. They didn’t know what they were going to do. One of my team members came in and sat with me and she just started to cry. And I said, you will not cry because you have me. And as long as I’m eating, you’re going to eat. And that’s what it is. And so it’s like ‘help me clean up this place, cause we gotta get back to work.” And you know, we were able to stay whole.
EMILY: Fast forward to when Monica drove across town to try her first 4-pack of vegan cupcakes in the middle of a pandemic.
MONICA: It was really safe. I think they went above and beyond to take precautions. They had the curbside pickup out in front. So you didn’t even have to walk in to get anything. They had the people pay out front and then they would run in and get your order in and bring it back. So it kind of was a socially distanced hangout. Everybody was standing six feet apart and, you know, some people were walking their dogs and letting their dogs take a drink.
It felt safe, but it didn’t feel impersonal, if that makes sense. Everybody was friendly. It was really fast. Really my main experience was with the actual product and the storefront. So you have to call ahead and place your order.
And you know, they were very sweet over the phone. They were making sure I got the right product in the right flavor with the vegan or the gluten-free. So I felt like they cared. I felt like they were taking care of me. Even though I never got to see inside. I did think to myself, you know, I’d like to come back here when they do reopen and have another fantastic cupcake experience.
EMILY: Safety was a big theme for 2020, and businesses like The Cupcake Collection really need to actively work to create memorable experiences that are also COVID friendly. Like Mignon mentioned, the celebration is still on, but not at the cost of safety.
We’re going to take a quick break, but when we come back we’ll hear about how shipping has played a huge role in The Cupcake Collection’s COVID success, as well as talk about reviews from both Monica’s perspective, and Mignon’s.
EMILY : Like many food businesses these days, Cupcake Collection offers nationwide shipping. But that’s not something that they added to their business model in response to COVID.
MIGNON: Shipping is something that we started working on back in 2010, because we wanted people to get this little bit of joy, no matter where they were. And so what we started realizing is that students, as they graduated from all the universities that align the corridor where we are; they wanted to experience that thing that they discovered and fell in love with, that helped get them through long nights while they were in college and stuff, and so they will call us and say, how can I get it there?
So we experimented for a long time on getting that right for them. And so we’ve been shipping now for about 10 years. And I think it took us this long to really sort of perfect it. We just entered into a new agreement with FedEx to make sure that it can be, you know, more attainable for our customers. So we’re really excited about the fact that we ship nationwide with overnight and two-day shipping options. And so you can have your cupcake and eat it too. Wherever you are in the country.
EMILY: 10 years. TEN YEARS!
MIGNON: Overnight success does take 10 years.
EMILY: 10 years ago, Mignon started working on serving those same college students who fell in love with her business, and then moved away from Nashville. Fast forward to 2020, the year of a global pandemic, and she expanded her ability to make nationwide shipping more attainable to her customers. There are a lot of businesses that were suddenly forced to begin exploring options like ‘nationwide shipping’ in 2020, but Mignon has been thinking of ways to continue to stay connected to her consumers no matter where they are for a decade. It’s just one of many ways The Cupcake Collection creates memorable experiences for consumers. Experiences that are worth sharing, or reviewing.
MONICA: I want to support the businesses that do create that personal experience. When I started Yelp, my intention was to push past writer’s block and I started using Yelp reviews as an exercise, but because of my yoga practice and everything, I decided to keep it really intentional and keep it really positive.
And I didn’t want to put anything negative out there. I didn’t want the karma. So I really had to wait for businesses to inspire me to write a review. And my intention was to entertain a little bit. I like to use a sense of humor, so if I can make someone laugh or just kind of bring a personal touch to bring someone in, I just think that’s more personal. The most inspirational people get to get the review.
EMILY: Monica was inspired by Mignon. She never even met Mignon, but her feeling when she sat in her car and tasted those cupcakes, was crafted by Mignon’s care. Her expression of herself and her hope that her god daughter, and grandbaby, and the loyal customer who has a son with food allergies—and now Monica, who was inspired to write a review—all enjoy cupcakes because of The Cupcake Collection.
MIGNON: I love what Yelp offers the opportunity to do, especially when people will take the time to say, like she did, you know, oftentimes people will go out and review something because they’re mad and they want to get revenge. And they don’t understand what damage that does to a small place. But that someone would take the time to make sure that she built you up so that other people could know that this is something that brings healing to me. This is something that brings joy to me. This is something that nourishes me. It’s such a valuable asset when it’s used, to really serve other people. And that’s what she did. What I love to say here at The Cupcake Collection is if you love it, tell others. If you don’t then tell me, because I want to fix it.
This is my name and my reputation, my legacy, and my family. And when I fix it, then go tell others. But, you know what I mean? So if you love it, tell others, and that’s what she did. She loved it. So she decided to tell others and anything that she didn’t love, I would hope that she would come back and tell me. And when I fixed it, now go tell people about that because that’s what we’re gonna do. We’re gonna do our due diligence to make our name great. And that’s what we set out to do every day.
EMILY: This approach works! Mignon has over 300 reviews, and a 4.5-star rating. Her care in crafting not only incredible cakes, but also incredible cakes that meet dietary restrictions, has won the hearts of many Nashville natives, as well as those who come from all over to visit. Her care and passion resonates with customers and can be tasted in all of the cakes.