When Marya Morningstar opened the Urban Cupcake Shop on Second Avenue seven months ago, she had a secret.
All the sweets in her shop were gluten-free. But this was advertised nowhere.
Sure, if customers asked, she would tell them. But she worried that a sign on the door would scare off potential customers who have had bad experiences with gluten-free baking.
“They were trying it with an open mind, rather than with preconceptions of terrible, gluten-free cooking, which is everywhere,” she said.
Only last week, when Morningstar expanded her business to serve quiche and pizza for lunch, did she begin to advertise her business is entirely gluten-free.
Gluten is the gluey protein found in wheat. It’s what usually gives dough its elasticity.
It’s also blamed by a growing number of people for symptoms such as stomach problems, sluggishness and itchy skin.
Morningstar spent several years perfecting the recipe for her cake mix, which uses corn, rice, sorghum and tapioca. It also contains xanthan gum, a natural binder and preservative, as a substitute for gluten.
Morningstar hoped to hitch a ride on a craze for cupcakes that has swept southern cities in the past few years, as well as help feed the niche market of residents who are gluten-averse. “It’s always been my goal to make yummy, gluten-free stuff to eat,” she said.
But the store has seen a slump in sales since August. She’s not sure why.
Morningstar experienced an initial rush of orders for the custom cakes she bakes. But, lately, “it’s like crickets.”
Her store has about 30 regular clients who buy sweets at least once a week. Morningstar estimates about half of them have gluten sensitivities.
The store’s revenue has allowed her to pay off her costs. But she’s not making a killing. In fact, she’s thinking about closing shop.
Morningstar works 12-hour days. She’s her only employee. At present, the business doesn’t earn enough to hire another worker.
She’s convinced that her gluten-free recipes are valuable. But Morningstar wonders whether a gluten-free retail store may be ill-conceived for a small market like Whitehorse.
In September, she put a For Sale sign in the shop window. But, faced with outcries from regular customers, she took the sign down after several days.
Morningstar appreciates the support. “I love the baking and I love the customer service,” she said. “I feel I’m a part of people’s lives. I really appreciate that.”
She’s still planning her next move.
In the new year, Morningstar plans to only open the store on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. That will give her more time to explore other options.
Maybe she’ll write a cookbook. Or teach a gluten-free cooking class. Or try launching a franchise in southern Canada.
She has reason to suspect there’s a demand for tasty, gluten-free baked goods Outside. Last weekend, a customer requested a dozen cupcakes for a friend in Vancouver. “And Vancouver is cupcake-central,” said Morningstar.
She’d prefer to stay in Whitehorse. “But this is my career, and I need to go where I’m needed most.”
Most gluten-free mixes are complicated. Morningstar prides herself on developing one that’s simple to make. “I feel this is something the whole world needs.”
Morningstar would sell the store to the right person. And she’s convinced there’s an untapped market for cake in Whitehorse – but not the sort she’d want to make.
She has no interest in spending her days drawing popular cartoon characters on cakes for children’s birthday parties, so she’s turned down many requests. “I don’t have a TV, so I don’t know what they’re talking about.”
She’s also been asked repeatedly for “normal” cakes. But gluten-free is her thing.
“There’s a ton of money in town for cake. But people want normal cake. And ice-cream cake.”
Another possibility is that Morningstar could sell her store but continue to make her gluten-free treats in another space, with cheaper rent, then sell her products to cafes in town.
Morningstar, 32, has no shortage of ideas.
The Nova Scotia native felt the entrepreneurial drive early in life. In high school, she sewed two-panelled hacky sacks from fabric, stuffed them with rice and sold them for $2.
Morningstar became a fixture at the Spruce Bog sales shortly after moving to Whitehorse about five years ago, billing herself as an “artist at random” who sold purses, chunky necklaces and other “kitschy stuff.”
Three years ago, after the birth of Morningstar’s son, she devised her Funky Baby line of apparel. Her store features a rack of the brightly coloured shirts, pants and reversal dresses, which are designed for children between four months and four years of age.
Also on offer are art cards, felted mitts and hats, and other crafts, all made by Whitehorse artists.
Her cupcakes are either made of a chocolate or vanilla base, topped with icing that comes in more than 40 flavours. Yesterday, the choices on offer were Baileys and chocolate, peaches and cream, vanilla raspberry, double chocolate and chocolate coconut.
She’s added new items to the menu, such as coffee cake, molasses cookies and granola bars—“stuff with less soy butter icing.” Morningstar also bakes bread and scones to order.
Prices have been tweaked since the store opened. A dozen regular cupcakes now go for $25, from $30, while a dozen mini-cupcakes now sell for $12, from $15.
Lunch offerings have boosted revenues. She sells individual-sized pizzas topped with either vegan fare, such as roasted red peppers, sundried tomatoes and mushrooms, or a meat-eaters option with items like prosciutto and brie.
Quiche is baked with ingredients like ham, onion, and harvarti.
Either option costs $8. Or $12, with a salad. Or $15, with a salad, beverage and cupcake.
Naturally, the dough for the pizza and quiche is gluten-free, too.
Contact John Thompson at email@example.com.