On a recent weekday morning at 10 a.m., Flavor Cupcakery & Bake Shop in Cockeysville offers a warm refuge from the winter chill. A pleasantly sweet aroma fills the air: a hint of vanilla, a touch of lemon drops, the echo of chocolate sprinkles.
Display cases hold racks of cupcakes in an assortment of flavors. Trays of iced cookies and stands of push-pops call for attention.
The storefront shop makes its products fresh daily. The five-member pastry team has been at work since 2 a.m., their day almost done as they insert fillings, swirl icing and arrange toppings.
Things at the charmingly retro shop are about to amp up even more so as one of the biggest days for business is fast approaching: Valentine's Day, on Saturday, Feb. 14.
"Valentine's Day is not only our single biggest selling season but it starts our biggest selling seasons. After Valentine's Day, it's holiday after holiday nonstop until summer," Shelley Stannard, the shop's owner, said. She said a string of celebrations stretch from Mardi Gras, St. Patrick's Day, Easter, Mother's Day and Father's Day to Memorial Day weekend.
"Plus springtime engagement and wedding season," said Stannard, who also owns another Flavor Cupcakery shop in Bel Air.
She opened the Bel Air shop in 2010, Cockeysville in 2012 and, four months ago, added the "& Bake Shop" to their titles. Although the cupcakes at $3 each still predominate and account for 80 percent of sales at both stores, the product line includes custom-order celebration cakes, pies, cookies and other baked products.
Between Feb. 13 and 14,Stannard expects to sell 8,000 cupcakes from both shops, compared to the 2,500 cupcakes she would typically sell in a two-day period.
The 48-year-old Stannard, a Bel Air resident, married and the mother of three, comes from a decade-long career in marketing and advertising. She does not have a culinary/baking degree, nor was she much of a home baker when she decided to re-enter the work force.
"I wanted to do something creative and community-focused," said Stannard, who saw the popularity of cupcake shops around the country and decided to bring the trend to Bel Air. "I thought it would be a viable business."
Ten months of experimenting with and developing recipes later, Stannard was ready to open the Bel Air shop. She hired a professional management and pastry staff, and began with 15 flavors of cupcakes baked daily. Other products quickly followed.
"Some people think I'm baking all of it. They say, 'Oh, you must get up early,'" said Stannard, whose recipes are still used but encourages her pastry staff to come up with new flavors and products from their own expertise.
As popular as the Bel Air shop was with the community , Flavor Cupcakery shot to fame overnight. In a Christmas 2011 episode, it won the Food Network's Cupcake Wars against three other cupcake shops around the country.
The way Stannard remembered it, a surprise phone call from the producers led to an application process, a video and interviews. The filming in California was "very challenging and exciting," she said.
The $10,000 prize money enabled her to open the Cockeysville shop. That shop was a hit before it opened, thanks to the many Baltimore County customers who had previously traveled to the Bel Air shop.
"I didn't do anything different from Bel Air," she said of the Cockeysville shop size and menu. "Our reputation preceded us," said Stannard, who estimated annual sales from both shops and a food truck amount to approximately $1 million.
The Cockeysville shop is a long, narrow 1,200 square feet in size, with the front third devoted to selling space. The baking space is arranged in stations for mixing, baking in the double commercial-grade ovens and prepping the baked items with frosting and decorations.
"It's clean and organized, to make the work flow. Otherwise, you'd have chaos," said Stannard, whose cubicle-sized office is barely big enough for a desk and chair.
Flavors of romance
Stannard began planning for Valentine's Day six weeks before the actual holiday. This involves reviewing hits from past years and developing new flavors and products, this year including iced cookies and macaroons.
While the shop offers 15 flavors of cupcakes daily, for Valentine's Day it will offer 18. Ten will be "classic" flavors like Wedding Cake and Black Bottom; eight will be special-for-the-holiday "romantic" flavors like Strawberries & Champagne, Raspberry Cheesecake and Winter Mocha Kisses.
"It's not difficult to come up with 'romantic' flavors," said Jennifer Husser who, as baking manager for both shops, schedules bakers, oversees production and develops new products with other staffers. She has a pastry degree from Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Orlando, Fla.
Lately, Husser has been focusing on small desserts like cookies and mini-pies. At celebrations, events and parties, the trend is to dessert bars, aka dessert displays, and you need more than cupcakes to fill out the table.
"I developed most of the new recipes for pies. I've got a sugar cookie in development," Husser said. "Cupcakes are a continuing brand because people are looking for little desserts."
Jen Gauss is the Cockeysville shop manager. "We do a great job of staying current. We use social media – Instagram, Twitter, e-blasts – to stay connected to our customers. We post twice a day on Facebook," said Gauss, of Cockeysville.
Cara Ehrlich heard about Flavor Cupcakery & Bake Shop from a friend. "They are very creative with ideas for parties," said Ehrlich, also of Cockeysville. .
She has used the shop for a 30th birthday party, ordering mini-cupcakes that were easy to pick up and didn't require plates and forks. She also ordered mini-cupcakes for a Christmas party at Brightview Mays Chapel Ridge, a senior community in Timonium where her mother lives.
"I did the party for the residents. The cupcakes were pretty and manageable for them to eat," said Erhlich.
Todd Yohn heard about Flavor Cupcakery & Bake Shop through the business grapevine. "Word gets around," said Yohn, business travel sales manager for Hunt Valley Inn, who said he has used the shop to purchase gifts for clients — specialty cakes and trays of cupcakes with a company's logo.
"They have a lot of creative ideas, nice packaging and they're flexible. I may need something in an hour," Yohn said. "Plus, the clients like the cupcake flavors."
As for Stannard, she is already looking beyond Valentine's Day to the next season. "We customize our cupcakes for every holiday. Each has a special menu geared to it," she said. 'But we always carry our classic flavors because our customers still want them."