Moms

Small-town cupcake bakery goes big time

HUDSON OAKS -- Manhattan was on the line, asking whether Tony and Malgosia Monje could supply 100 cupcakes for a theater party.

Then the caller added, "You're in New York, right?"

Actually, no.

The Monjes' website, www.ultimatecupcake.com, gave no hint of their whereabouts.

The couple were hand-producing gourmet cupcakes at a friend's doughnut shop after closing hours far from the Big Apple -- in the small Parker County community of Hudson Oaks, between Aledo and Weatherford.

It was May 2008, and their fledgling business was 6 months old. The Monjes were still a year away from opening their own storefront after transitioning out of jobs as managers at the local multiplex cinema.

But they had a professional-looking website that showcased the end product of countless hours perfecting six flavors.

Research and development included jetting about the country -- Florida, Colorado, Nevada and several stops in California -- sampling and deconstructing some of the niche industry's best. Then there were countless rounds of taste tests by young movie house employees, put on suborbital sugar highs until Malgosia got it right.

"I didn't stop until each cupcake scored 10 out of 10 points," she recalled.

By the time of the New York call, the Monjes were convinced they had created world-class cupcakes -- even though the miniature treats were foreign to Polish-born Malgosia until well into her adulthood.

The cupcakes, shipped by FedEx, were to be given at a cast party for the Broadway revival of the 1925 show No No Nanette. An assistant to Rosie O'Donnell placed the order on the actress's behalf.

They were a hit.

Rosie's response was to post a photo on her website of the richly flavored cakes, each topped with tight curls of Belgian chocolate -- white, dark or pastel-colored.

When fans asked her about the cupcakes, she dished unqualified praise: "The best I ever had."

Few things beat celebrity endorsements, especially when they are unsolicited and heartfelt, the couple learned.

"You always have doubts," said Tony Monje, 44, who grew up in Fort Worth. "But when Rosie -- a person with access to anything in New York -- said how good they are, it was a real validation. It told us we were on the right track."

Unlikely origins

The couple were planning their exit from running the local cinema -- Tony was general manager, Malgosia the concessions manager -- when they latched onto the epicurean-cupcake business concept.

Thirteen years ago, they had met in Lodz, Poland. Tony was visiting friends who ran a small business academy when they asked him to sub for an absent English teacher. In the class was Malgosia, then the personal assistant to the director of a local pharmaceutical distributor.

The trans-Atlantic romance blossomed during her visits to Texas. They married in Weatherford in 1999.

"I ended up here -- making cupcakes!" Malgosia said with unfeigned disbelief. "It's insane."

Inspiration for their business came from the 2006-07 ABC series What About Brian.

In one episode, two characters open a cupcake shop that's so swamped that they draft loyal customers to handle the crowds.

"It seemed like so much fun, and everyone loves cupcakes," she said. "But I didn't know how much work it was."

Malgosia's first cupcake recipe was only fair.

"It didn't take my breath away," she acknowledged. The Monjes knew they had to craft a memorable signature cupcake if they were to be successful.

They borrowed against their cars and drew on savings to raise startup funds. In all, they invested $50,000 to $60,000, Tony said. Coining the name Ultimate Cupcake, they hired a photographer and website designer. Tony's half brother Jonathan Moreno crafted the fanciful logo.

"Tony is kind of the creative guy," said Malgosia, 34. "I can work hard -- but I'm funny."

And work they do. They scaled down from three employees to just one to ensure quality. They lose fewer batches this way, they explain, and fewer imperfect cupcakes are tossed.

Tony handles deliveries in the Metroplex -- a $10 charge for Tarrant County, $15 for Dallas. Some customers have hand-carried Ultimate Cupcakes onto flights to Mexico and Singapore. But they ship directly -- overnight, in custom insulated boxes -- to the lower 48 states. Shipping two or three dozen is a steep $40 by FedEx to Texas addresses, $70 to the rest of the country, but cupcake fanciers are willing to pay, and they reorder.

Opening up during a recession in small-town Parker County was a clear challenge. And not everyone shared their vision.

In fact, Tony recalled: "Many people around here thought we were crazy. They didn't get it. They'd ask, 'All you do is cupcakes?'

"One guy suggested, 'Maybe you could put some meat in them.'"

Southlake and other cities were considered, but the Monjes decided to open up shop in Hudson Oaks, where they live and have many contacts.

Eventually, they might open satellite stores in North Texas or possibly offer franchises, but they are taking their next move cautiously.

"We want to grow," Tony said, "but we want to make the right decisions."

One quick decision was to protect the brand when a Tyler store worked "ultimate cupcake" into its name. A letter from the Monjes' lawyer persuaded the East Texas baker to alter it.

Celebrity endorsements

Ultimate Cupcake's bestseller is red velvet.

"Rosie told us that she personally prefers them to any other red velvet that she has gotten in New York," Tony said. The drummer for Seal said they were so good, "that we must be putting 'illegal substances' in our red velvet cupcake, which we deny."

The Rosie endorsement was complete serendipity. But the resulting buzz spurred out-of-state shipments, creating a revenue stream as the couple built local business by showing up at banks and offices bearing dozens of free cupcakes.

Smitten, recipients would invariably drop by the shop, at 3316 Fort Worth Highway, the next day, ready to order more, Tony said.

The Monjes also pursued celebrities said to be partial to cupcakes. They're fans of Lisa Loeb, so they showed up with their wares when the singer signed CDs at a Barnes & Noble in Dallas, and they snared another endorsement.

They got more free publicity by appearing on WFAA/Channel 8's Good Morning Texas.

Ultimate Cupcakes turned a profit their first full year at their storefront on gross sales of "about $200,000," Tony said. About half of sales are large, advance orders, 30 percent are walk-in, and the remainder include both out-of-state shipments and morning deliveries by Tony to Tarrant and Dallas counties.

Prices range from $2.75 to $3.25 apiece, depending on quantity.

The relatively stiff price didn't deter Ramalou Prince of Hudson Oaks, who teaches English at a Weatherford middle school. Tasting a sample, Prince said: "I love the icing -- and I'm not an icing fan. I usually scrape off the icing and eat the cake. I have to say, they're better than my own. These are very good."

One of Ultimate Cupcake's most regular, if not biggest, customers is 33-year-old Jennifer Taylor of Fort Worth, a convert after a client urged her to stop by a year ago.

"I wasn't really into cupcakes until I had their strawberry cupcake, and I've been addicted ever since," said Taylor, who uses them as a marketing tool to drum up new business and keep current clients for her employer, Prestige Diagnostics.

And we're talking healthy numbers.

"Omigosh, for this one account I order at least 100 every two weeks. I am known as the Cupcake Lady. I am picking up two dozen right now," she said. "I make at least two trips a week from Fort Worth.

"I crave them so much that I've driven out there on weekends for one cupcake."

Barry Shlachter, 817-390-7718

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