‘Cupcake Wars’ launches bakery to St. Louis stardom

| Scene Reporter

“We have to kick it in full gear here,” Jenna Seibert urged. “I came here to win.”

Silver industrial stand mixers blended runny milk into a thicker mixture, creating a sticky white batter. Lids flew off canisters, and ingredients were carefully measured. A huge batch of bacon crackled in a silver skillet. Blueberries simmered in a pan, stirred occasionally with a yellow rubber spatula by Seibert’s husband, Jason. He rushed to the fridge; his long, dark hair pulled back into a disheveled ponytail as he grabbed a carton from the fridge.

“We need to make some changes on a couple of cupcakes,” Jenna says. “We have to make [the blueberry compote] thicker. I need to try to cook it down more. And we also need to make that blueberry cupcake a little lighter. And with that bacon cupcake, we need to amp up that bacon even more. Holy moly, that’s a lot of bacon.”

The Sweet Divine team started frosting. They squeezed frosting bags filled with lemon buttercream, marshmallow frosting and chocolate buttercream onto the perfectly rounded cupcake tops. The fondant and chocolate pieces of the decorations began coming together on large sheet tray, ready to be placed on top of the cupcakes.

“Bakers, in this final challenge, you were asked to create a 1,000-cupcake display in honor of the latest installment of the worldwide mobile gaming phenomenon Angry Birds Space,” Justin Willman, the boyish host of “Cupcake Wars,” said. “In the end, the judges felt that one of you truly captured what Angry Birds is all about today, and your flavors, decorations and total presentation will get the party started in Seattle just the perfect way. Congratulations…Jenna, you’re the winner of ‘Cupcake Wars!’”

The ovens at The Sweet Divine fire up early in the morning, typically around 6 a.m. In the busier summer months, it’s not unusual for the bakery’s lights to be flicked on an hour or two earlier. By 9 a.m., the South City bakery finishes baking the approximately 30 dozen cupcakes and other assorted baked goods for the day, and the frosting process is underway.

Since The Sweet Divine’s appearance on the Food Network’s “Cupcake Wars” in July 2012, the publicity of the bakery and cupcake truck has made the business a St. Louis institution. Tuesday through Saturday, The Sweet Divine bakery sells eight to 10 cupcake flavors for $3 apiece. The cupcake truck parks at various locations on the St. Louis streets Tuesday through Friday and notifies customers of its location via Twitter. With the bakery’s steady popularity, The Sweet Divine has outgrown its current South City location and will be moving to a larger and more visible location in Soulard in April.

When Jenna Seibert started The Sweet Divine four years ago, however, she wasn’t baking cupcakes in a bakery or distributing them on a food truck—she was baking cakes in her home kitchen. The elaborate cakes that Jenna made for friends and family and posted on Facebook garnered demand for her specialty cakes and custom designs. At the urging of a family member, Jenna entered an Energizer-sponsored cake decorating competition, which she ended up winning. With that win, Jenna decided that her cake decorating could be a business.

Jenna and Jason outfitted a kitchen in their basement for Jenna’s growing business. Although the bakery began with just Jenna, it soon became clear that she needed help to keep up with demand.

“I was always a hobbyist baker. When Jenna started getting busy with cakes, she got to the point where she needed help. And I was like, ‘Well, I can help you with some stuff.’ So that’s when I just started baking things for her—cakes, helping her with buttercreams,” Jason said. “I found that covering cakes with buttercreams—I was a bricklayer before I did this—and I found that I kind of had a knack for that [because] I was used to holding tools, trowels and stuff like that. I can buttercream a cake pretty slickly, I think.”

By January 2011, Jenna was ready to expand her business further. Though Jenna had been tossing around the idea of expanding by buying a food truck for a couple of months, the actual purchase happened suddenly.

“Literally, [I] was on my way home from work, and I just called to check in, and she and her mom were on their way to Georgia,” Jason said. “She had found a truck online and ‘It’s going to be perfect, and I’m going to get it, and I’m on my way right now—I’m somewhere in Georgia.’ So the next day she came home, and there was that truck sitting there.”

Jason and Jenna outfitted the truck themselves. Since the truck was for distribution, it didn’t need cooking or baking equipment, keeping the cost reasonable, Jason said, and the truck launched in March 2011. Though Jason was still working full time as a bricklayer, he would wake up early in the morning and help Jenna bake cupcakes for the day in their basement bakery. He left for work; she would take the cupcake truck out for the day. However, as one of only a handful of St. Louis vendors with a roaming vendor’s license at the time, The Sweet Divine truck faced a steep learning curve in finding the best places to park and learning what to stock on the truck. To begin with, The Sweet Divine truck followed around the savory trucks, giving a dessert option to the people who picked up lunch at another food truck.

“Nobody really knew where they could go or what they could do. There was so much room at the time that the savory trucks didn’t mind a sweet truck parking next to them,” Jason said. “We followed the savory trucks around until we came up with a rhythm and knew what places we could go, what was selling, what wasn’t.”

As food trucks became more common in St. Louis, more spots were cultivated, and The Sweet Divine truck began to find its groove. Now, the truck is out on the streets Tuesday through Friday on an approximate two-week rotation of spots. In addition, the schedule mixes in eight to 10 periodically visited spots. Every Friday, though, the truck goes to Ameren, a St. Louis-based power corporation.

“The truck is fun; it’s a lot of fun,” Jason said. “Everybody’s in a good mood. Everybody’s coming up to get cupcakes or something good to eat. And everybody’s smiling, and all I’ve got to do is hand out cupcakes. It’s fun.”

In the summer of 2011, The Sweet Divine was becoming so popular that Jason took a four-month hiatus from his job to help Jenna with the bakery, though he did go back to his job that winter. The next spring, though, the bakery’s success was further magnified by its win on Cupcake Wars. After shooting the episode in late March 2012, Jason and Jenna knew it was imperative to open a storefront before the episode aired. With the store opening approaching, Jason decided to quit his job for good to join the bakery full time, and The Sweet Divine opened its storefront in June 2012.

“I quit my job and hopped on full board. Just went to work and started baking, and I love it. I don’t miss being a bricklayer at all,” Jason said.

Since the winning episode premiered in July, business at The Sweet Divine has more than tripled. Though the increase at the store alone was impressive, business at the cupcake truck skyrocketed.

“On that first cupcake episode…our primary focus was, ‘Hey, we have a cupcake truck in St. Louis,’ and that’s kind of how they introduced us on the episode. So when we came back into town and started rolling out the cupcake truck, it went crazy,” Jason said.

During the first Food Truck Friday—the Sauce Magazine-sponsored food truck gathering in Tower Grove Park once a month throughout the summer—after the “Cupcake Wars” episode aired, The Sweet Divine storefront received so much business that people lined up out the door. Eventually, the store ran out of cupcakes and was unable to bake more due to the preparation work for Food Truck Friday.

“I physically had to lock the doors so we could finish prepping Food Truck Friday and get out the door—it was crazy,” Jason said. “And I told everybody, like, ‘We have all these cupcakes,’ I said, ‘but I’m an hour late for Food Truck Friday. It’s already started, and I have to go there with these—please come there.’ And I felt really bad, but, yeah, it went nuts.”

Ever since, business for the bakery has been steady. In addition to the “Cupcake Wars” episode, the attention from local news and media sources has added to the bakery’s visibility. The most substantial method of exposure for The Sweet Divine, though, is social media; the bakery has more than 3,000 followers on Twitter and just fewer than 5,000 likes on Facebook.

On Mondays, Jenna and Jason work with their pastry chef to set the week’s menu, and Jenna chooses the truck locations for the week. There is no specific rotation of flavors; the menu consists of whatever the team feels like making for the week. The menu and truck schedule are communicated via social media.

Though The Sweet Divine has a menu of tried-and-true cupcakes, the bakery works to incorporate new flavors. Every Food Truck Friday throughout the summer featured a new cupcake flavor at The Sweet Divine truck, and the bakery is constantly developing and testing new cupcakes.

“We grab inspiration from anywhere. That’s the beauty of cupcakes—you can do so much. You can pretty much put anything in a cupcake,” Jason said.

Their Rendezvous cupcake, for example, stemmed from a night out at Frazer’s, a restaurant in Benton Park. As Jason and Jenna sat drinking cabernet and eating a brie and fruit appetizer, Jenna found inspiration. In talking about the cupcake, they decided on a cabernet sauvignon cake with creamed brie frosting. The next day, Jason got started on it, resulting in the Rendezvous cupcake.

While Jason and Jenna conceptualize most of the flavor ideas, they consult their pastry chef to ensure that the flavor combinations are harmonious. However, that doesn’t stop them from trying out rare flavors or cooking with unconventional ingredients.

“I always tell everybody there’s too much pink in here, so I try to man it up with alcohol and bacon and stuff like that,” Jason said.

As much as possible, The Sweet Divine prefers to use local beer when it uses beer in its cupcakes, and the bakery has developed a special relationship with 4 Hands Brewing Co., a St. Louis craft brewery in the LaSalle Park neighborhood. Approached by the brewery to create cupcakes using 4 Hands beer, The Sweet Divine incorporates 4 Hands Reprise Centennial Red ale into the Centennial Red Velvet cupcake and 4 Hands Smoked Pigasus porter into the Chocolate Pigasus cupcake.

While some flavor ideas come from unexpected places, others come from unexpected and sometimes outrageous tastes, like the PicaDilly, inspired by a Lay’s pickle-flavored chip that Jenna ate. She headed into the bakery with a jar of pickles and some dill weed and came up with the PicaDilly, a dill pickle cupcake with dill cream cheese frosting topped with a potato chip.

“As far as flavor combinations, we’re not afraid to try anything. It’s all a matter of what people like if they’re not afraid,” Jason said.

With the steady business, Jason and Jenna are expanding to a new storefront in Soulard. At the new location, Jason expects walk-in business to triple due to the foot traffic in the surrounding restaurant district and the Soulard Farmers Market two blocks away. The bakery, which will include seating for a dozen people, is planning to extend hours to accommodate the new business and broaden the menu to include breakfast pastries and coffee drinks.

“We’ve incubated it in small steps,” Jason said. “We’ve been pretty successful in that respect. Just small things at a time—starting at home, putting the kitchen in the basement, the cupcake truck and now the storefront. It’s been a whirlwind.”