How this Oakland cupcake company survived the pandemic

Reflecting on James and the Giant Cupcake’s tenth year in business.

Eurydice Manning inside James and the Giant Cupcake’s Jack London Square flagship. Credit: Amir Aziz

Founded in 2008, at the height of the gourmet cupcake trend, Oakland’s dessert mini-chain James and the Giant Cupcake maintained its popularity even after the single-serving snack boom died down. It wasn’t until the pandemic that founder Eurydice Manning started to rethink her business, which recently celebrated 10 years in the game. 

“The biggest lesson for me was to stay trained, stay close to your craft,” Manning said. 

In the 10 years since opening James’s original location at 6326 San Pablo Ave., Manning expanded into two more locations: one at 341 17th St. at the Howden Building in downtown Oakland, and another in Jack London Square (465 2nd St.), a flagship location that opened in August 2019

Prior to the pandemic, Manning had a general manager handling large parties, a team of bakers spread around the three locations, and multiple front-of-house employees. Then, when the Bay Area shut down in March 2020, Manning and her general manager and friend, Caleigh Schrey, parted ways and Manning was forced to lay off the rest of her staff. It was a tough transition.

“I didn’t remember how to make a cake,” Manning said. “I had to train myself. It was rough. I didn’t know what was going to happen.”

With the shops closed to the public, Manning had to come up with a new business model to remain afloat. Manning relied on the moral and financial support of her fiancé during this bumpy time, calling him “my saving grace.” 

Some of James and the Giant Cupcake’s creations. Credit: Amir Aziz

“I had to teach him how to do everything,” Manning said. “He was on the phone taking orders, and handing packages to customers at the door.” 

Manning got back in the kitchen and came up with the idea of delivering cupcake kits that families could build at home. “We weren’t business owners,” she said of her two-person operation. “We were survivalists.” 

For Manning, the hurdles that came with the pandemic taught her that small business owners were not prepared to face such a catastrophic event.

“There was no small business advice. It was every person for themselves,” she said. “It was the scariest point I’ve ever faced. I’m not talking about, ‘I don’t have enough money for a month.’ It was, ‘Is the world shutting down? Can I stay in business?’”

Besides being a business owner, Manning is also a mother, which meant working at her business while her young daughter attended school online. 

“I would bring her to the shop at four in the morning, and she’d be asleep on the couch while I was in the back baking,” she said. “When school started, I was Zooming and frosting. I can’t tell you how crazy that was.”

At the height of the pandemic, Manning would whip cupcakes up in the restaurant’s kitchen while her daughter slept on the shop couch. Credit: Amir Aziz

Eventually, Manning applied for a federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan, and she managed to receive funds early on. However, she also had to negotiate with her three different landlords. 

“That’s a whole other ballgame dealing with landlords,” she said. “Some care, some didn’t care and wanted their rent.”

Before getting a second PPP loan, Manning lived on money from her personal savings, retirement funds and even her fiancé’s personal funds. “Everybody was trying to survive,” she said. Over the course of the pandemic, Manning said that she lost around $300,000 in profits.

The uncertainty during 2020 made her wonder if she needed to keep all three locations open. Manning even considered shutting down the original location on San Pablo Avenue, she said. “But then I thought, you can’t deny the customers, that location was the mothership.” 

These days, all three locations of James and the Giant Cupcake are operating, but she still doesn’t have the same number of employees as she had before the pandemic. 

“I haven’t seen an economic resurgence, yet. So how are you going to predict your income as a business,” she asked. “The winter isn’t here yet and we don’t know what is going to happen then.” 

Manning and James Irving, one of the shop’s bakers. Credit: Amir Aziz

On top of that they are worried over the debt she incurred during the pandemic. PPP loans are only forgiven by the government if the funds are used to pay staff, so she will have to repay a significant portion of what she borrowed.

“The money is used for sustainability, it’s not just going to be used to hire up the same staff like before and pretend like there isn’t still a pandemic,” she said. “I’m trying to be a mindful business owner.” 

As a Black, female business owner, Manning is no stranger to challenges. In her mind, the pandemic is an opportunity for other young entrepreneurs entering the business world to be prepared for the roadblocks they might face. 

“Stay true to your vision,” she advised. “Understand finances, because unless you’re a wealthy person and you never have to question where the money is going to come from … you’re going to want to understand what it’s going to take” to run a business, she said.

Manning hopes that the loyal customer base that supported her when she first started James and the Giant Cupcake a decade ago will continue to rally behind her as she figures out what is next for the company. 

“You spend 10 years building up your life, and then you have to start over,” she said. “Where do we go when we don’t know what a healthy company looks like in America? Everything takes predictability about the world that we just don’t know anymore.” 

“Stay true to your vision,” Eurydice Manning tells entrepreneurs. Credit: Amir Aziz
Azucena Rasilla reports on arts and the community for The Oaklandside. Email: azucena.rasilla@gmail.com.