Lila Owens had always liked the Virginia Bakery. She considered it a Berkeley institution, a legacy bakery and “a staple experience for the community” that everyone living in the city should have. Owens, a Berkeley resident, is the owner of Southside gourmet cupcake store Cupcakin’ Bake Shop on Durant Avenue. Just around the time that Virginia Bakery owners John and Anne Erdmann were thinking about retiring, Owens had expansion on her mind.
“I knew that we were outgrowing our old space,” Owens said. “The capacity to bake there was just limited. I would visit the Virginia Bakery and, knowing it was around for a long time, I wondered if any time soon they were going to want to transition out.”
Then one night in April, a friend called her with the news that the 65-year-old bakery in the Gourmet Ghetto was closing.
“It was 10 o’ clock at night. I got out of bed, I got dressed, I drove over [to the bakery] and I was just peeking through the windows and was trying to feel the energy of the space to see if I felt like it was something I should consider. The next morning, at 7 a.m., I went to the bakery and spoke to John. He was like, ‘Give us a little time to figure things out. But definitely come back, we’ll see if we can work with you.'”
As the days passed, Owens knew she wanted to lease the 3,725-square-foot space at 1690 Shattuck Ave. “The capacity for baking, the location, the parking, the fact that it’s already a bakery and it has the infrastructure and it has the reputation. It’s the perfect opportunity for us,” she said. She was determined to be the next tenant and, in July, the lease for the corner bakery was hers.
Owens grew up in Oakland but left the Bay Area to attend Howard University, where she studied architecture as an undergrad. After school, she returned to Oakland and worked for her family’s real estate business for about 10 years, but her heart wasn’t in it. In 2007, right around the time the housing market crashed, she did some soul searching to find out what she really wanted to do. That’s how she got into cupcakes.
She started baking at home as a hobby, trying to perfect recipes for cupcakes, her favorite dessert. “If there’s something I like to eat, then I want to learn how to make it,” she said. She started to share her bakes with friends and family, and soon realized she was not only passionate about cupcakes, she was really good at making them too. She used high-quality ingredients to make her moist cakes, presenting them with fun, artistic designs. Owens started her own dessert catering business out of her home, making cupcakes for birthdays, baby showers and other events for friends and family, but eventually, word spread and her business grew.
Owens took on the challenge of becoming a small business owner with savvy. She took courses at the San Francisco Baking Institute to learn how to work in a professional kitchen She also took business management courses at the San Francisco Small Business Development Center and Impact Hub. By 2014, she was ready to open a storefront. Searching for a space in a high-traffic area, she came upon an affordable 557-square-foot space, a former hat shop, at 2435 Durant Ave. She opened Cupcakin’ Bake Shop in June of that year.
Although being near UC Berkeley helps, social media has been the main driver for Cupcakin’ customers. Owens already had a good following on her personal Facebook page, and many of her friends started following and sharing her business page too. Her social media presence was so robust that Facebook took notice and invited her to its small business council. Through that experience, she learned even more on tips on how to maximize Facebook and Instagram to grow her business.
Cupcakin’ offers about 10 flavors a day (one is always vegan, and another is gluten-free). All are baked fresh daily, made with local ingredients, like Giusto’s Flour, Clover dairy and fresh produce sourced from C&L Produce in Oakland. Red velvet and key lime pie are the most popular flavors, but Cupcakin’ is also known for its creative combinations and limited seasonal flavors, too. On a recent visit, Cupcakin’ offered lemon blueberry and vegan chocolate strawberry cupcakes, both of which had fresh berries on top and inside.
While cupcakes will always be their main product, leasing the Virginia Bakery space means that Cupcakin’ can offer other treats too.
“We’re going to expand our line,” said Owens. Along with standard and mini cupcakes, the shop will sell full cakes, cakes by the slice and cookies. And we have some good news for Virginia Bakery fans. When Owens secured the space from the Erdmanns, she also got the recipes for some of Virginia’s most popular desserts from the former owners.
“I’m super excited about that. I think it’s kind of essential to continue that legacy,” Owens said. She had visited the bakery’s Facebook page and spoke to the Erdmanns to find out what desserts fans would miss most and plans to resurrect a few. At this time, Owens is still deciding which fan favorites will return at Cupcakin’ Bake Shop, but she’s exploring bringing back the well-loved pink champagne cake and sugar sprinkle cookies.
There’s even more big news for Cupcakin’. The original Durant Street location will move around the corner to Telegraph Avenue, in the former Body Time storefront, a spot which gets a bit more foot traffic and has better visibility. This new space will open on Sept. 14. Then in early October, Owens will open another Cupcakin’ Bake Shop in Swan’s Market in Old Oakland, taking over the space formerly occupied by Hen House. The Virginia Bakery branch, which will open sometime in late fall, will serve as the commissary kitchen for all three spots, as well as her catering business.
Owens is excited about the upcoming Oakland location at Swan’s Market, where she hopes to expand her customer base to people outside her current network and make connections with the tight-knit group of small business owners in the area. She also said her friends and family in Oakland are looking forward to visiting the Old Oakland outpost.
“I know that my Oakland base is super excited that they don’t have to come all the way to Berkeley to get a cupcake,” she said.
If all goes well, Owens hopes to open more Cupcakin’ Bakes Shops outside the Bay Area, and maybe even outside California. But for now, she said she’s taking it slow. She recognizes the challenges of being a small-business owner, especially securing financing in a tough market. When asked whether she thought being a person of color has affected her business and growth in any way, Owens dismissed the idea. “Because we might be underrepresented in this industry, [people have been] supportive to see a small, minority woman-owned business growing.”
Cupcakin’ Bake Shop is currently at 2435 Durant Ave. (between Dana and Telegraph), in Berkeley until Sept. 14, when it moves to 2391 Telegraph Ave. (between Channing and Durant), in Berkeley. Stay tuned for opening dates for its Swan’s Market spot (538 Ninth St., Oakland) and second Berkeley location (1690 Shattuck Ave.).