By Laura Aiken
Laura MacLean’s chocolate cupcakes rode first class all the way to first
place. The trip, however, was not without its turbulence.
Laura MacLean’s chocolate cupcakes rode first class all the way to first place. The trip, however, was not without its turbulence.
|Laura MacLean’s Oh My Gosh! Ganache cupcakes ended up doubled dipped for the contest after taking a tumble through airport security. Photos: Laura Aiken
MacLean, owner of OMG! Cupcakes in Alberta, entered her signature flavour – Oh My Gosh! Ganache – in the Bakers Journal Great Chocolate Cupcake contest sponsored by Callebaut, Cinelli Esperia and Mimac Glaze. The first receipt of her entry came in as a corrupted document (in retrospect, perhaps a small glimpse of the tribulations to come), but her resend opened just fine and inside was the lovely story of her mother’s dear friend who had passed on the recipe that was a family favourite – known as Laraine’s Chocolate Cake. She gave the recipe a kick up for her bakeshop by hand dipping the cupcakes in chocolate ganache to seal in the moisture and provide a shiny base for the buttercream frosting. The entry scored high and MacLean secured her position as a finalist, alongside Janet Somers, head baker at The Flour Shoppe in Ottawa, and Sarah Allman, pastry chef at the Diavik Diamond Mine in the Northwest Territories (home base is Peterborough, Ont.).
The three cupcakes were set to square off at Bakery Showcase. Given the option to ship their cupcakes or bring them personally for presentation, all finalists chose to come to the show with treats in hand. MacLean was the only one who needed to fly with her 30 cupcakes, a Grande Prairie to Toronto jaunt of connecting flights. It was a challenging compromise for MacLean, as she bakes fresh daily and the logistics of the location and competition meant she would need to serve the judges more-than-day-old cupcakes. She baked within hours of boarding the plane, and gently dipped each in ganache before packing her frosting and decorating tools in her bag and departing for the airport.
She carefully packaged her product and put a big red fragile sticker on it, but was still hesitant to put them through the bin for x-ray. The cupcakes made it through, but she was told her tub of frosting wasn’t allowed in her carry-on. Frustrated, she proceeded to check her bag and was told to keep the cupcakes with her. This meant the cupcakes would need to go through the x-ray again. Luck was no lady at this juncture, as the security woman standing behind the machine calmly informed her that the cupcakes rolled out of the bin on their way through. A total cake wreck, all tipped upside down with ganache all over everything greeted MacLean at the end of the conveyer belt. Stifling the urge to cry or scream, she boarded the plane and tucked the tumbled treats under the foot space of the empty seat next to her.
She transferred flights in Calgary and decided to try and secure an empty space beside her again but was told the flight was full. Customer service advised they couldn’t guarantee they would have anywhere safe for the cupcakes on the flight, but that there was lots of room in first class. MacLean shelled out $380 for the one-way, first-class ticket from Calgary to Toronto rather than risk having nowhere to put them in economy.
Finally arriving at her destination, MacLean was faced with how to fix her cupcakes before the contest the next day. She decided to start by re-dipping them, and with the help of product from the Callebaut booth and the Blodgett Oven booth, she rounded up a measuring cup and enough chocolate and cream to make the ganache. Her hotel gave her access to a private lounge so she could use their microwave and loaned her a scale from their kitchen. With her cupcakes all “double-dipped,” she was then ready Tuesday morning to pipe the frosting on and present them to the judges.
Over at Bakery Showcase on Tuesday afternoon, the judges and contest organizers were wondering where she was. The contest was slated to start at 1:00 pm and there was no sign of MacLean. Surely she couldn’t have come all this way and not show up? After enough time passed to warrant serious concern, a call was made only to discover through some miscommunication MacLean thought the contest started at 2:00 pm. Bakers Journal took the responsibility, and she was asked to just come on over as soon as she could. The judges would wait.
Now thinking that she’d for sure blown any hope of a good first impression, she went to find the shuttle service from the hotel to the event. There was the shuttle, but they were changing shifts and the next driver was late. Just as she was calling back to say she would forfeit, the driver showed up and she was once again on her way. She gave herself a reminder she often cites: “I’m not in the business of saving lives, it’s only cupcakes!”
Several deep breaths later, she presented her cupcake to a panel of judges who know their chocolate and cupcakes: Mandy Kan of Dessert Lady, Joseph Montinaro of Dolcini by Joseph and West Finch Bakery, Heinz Hubbert, president of Badger International and a fourth generation master baker, and Colleen Cross associate editor for Bakers Journal.
Keeping her cool, MacLean made her picks for presentation and for photography, then chatted with the other finalists (admiring their cupcakes all the while) as the judges made their notes.
After the whole rigmarole of getting the cupcakes to their final destination, and feeling they were not her best having not been baked fresh that morning, she felt she had very little hope of winning.
But they were darn good cupcakes, and win they did!
“I was just totally so shocked. I had accepted this is a series of events and I’ve got a fun story to tell but my chances of winning are probably not good. I’m not a crier but I had a few tears then. I was just really, really surprised. I would love those judges to know what it took for me to get those cupcakes there.”
And now they do, but there’s a lot more to her story and how her bakery came about.
Unburdening of the desk
Desks aren’t for everyone, and at age 46, MacLean decided that a life in accounting and small business consulting had left her tired of being stuck behind one. Raised by a stay-at-home mother that loved to cook and bake, she adopted the passion and decided to go back to school. Her parents are snowbirds, so she enrolled in the Arizona Culinary Institute where they made their winter home. After graduating, she went on to cake decorating at the Wilton School in Chicago.
She returned to Grande Prairie and landed a job as an executive chef at a local restaurant, but it wasn’t long before putting in crazy hours for someone else’s business had her itching to just put time into her own.
She spent two years researching and planning before opening OMG! Cupcakes in December of 2010 in Grande Prairie, the town she’s lived in pretty much her whole life. It didn’t have a cupcake store, so she brought it one.
“The concept was to do one thing and do it well.”
Things weren’t easy though, as they seldom are when starting up a business. In her personal life, she was going through a separation and it had left her on a shoestring budget. She sourced used equipment from the classifieds, and her father helped her build tables and renovate the space. Her marketing efforts consisted of, and continue to largely be, word-of-mouth, by donating to charities and other organizations, as well as consistent use of Facebook.
She received some early encouragement. The store had been open just a few days, and she had been functioning on only four hours of sleep for what seemed like too long already. She was in the kitchen cracking eggs in a bowl when she noticed that the yolks had formed a perfect smiley face of two eyes, a nose and a mouth.
“I was right in the nitty gritty of it, and it was like, ‘you know what Laura, I think things are going to be okay.’”
On Valentine’s Day of 2011, she held the store’s grand opening and found herself with an unexpected line-up out the door. Things were looking more than okay – they were really looking up. In her first year of business, the Grande Prairie chamber of commerce named her store the city’s best new business. In 2013, OMG! was voted best new bakery in a best of Grande Prairie competition. Now in her fourth year, MacLean says she feels a renewed sense of confidence at having come this far.
After a routine of little sleep and personal sacrifices, MacLean is striving to work more “on the business than in the business.” She is still in the store every day for the majority of hours as she believes there’s a different energy to a shop when the owner is there. She’s built her staff up to six or seven, including an administrative assistant, Tananda Popielarz, who shared her feelings about working alongside MacLean.
“Laura truly is a wonderful person, and not just as an employer, but in her everyday life. I completely believe that her business has done so well not only because she is fantastic at what she does, supplying Grande Prairie with fresh, baked from scratch cupcakes every day, but also because of her generosity, community involvement, and huge caring heart. She has taught me so much, and I am so grateful for her kindness, patience, and all of the opportunities she has offered me.”
MacLean attributes much of her success to keeping her promise to bake fresh daily from scratch. OMG! sells 12 flavours every day: 11 classic, plus one feature. She doesn’t sell ‘day olds,’ closing early if she sells out or staying open late if there are still cupcakes on the shelves. End-of-day cupcakes might also be dropped off to local places like the paramedics or senior’s home.
Estimating how much to bake each day is challenge, and she uses a spreadsheet to consider things such as weather and events going on in the city. Since the beginning, she has kept track of how many cupcakes were sold each day and what factors were concurrent with those sales.
Eventually she brought in ice cream so she would have something to offer customers if she sold out early. With capacity still available in the kitchen of her 1,600 sq. ft. shop, she decided to go the food-truck route and is getting its wheels rolling for the first time this summer. MacLean has no shortage of ideas – she is looking at introducing muffins to her morning crowd and would love to have her own coffee blend to serve at the store.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day. I have lots of ideas but not enough time to do it all,” she says, echoing a feeling shared by many of her peers in the baking industry. It is the sentiment of Laura’s true entrepreneurial spirit, whose cupcakes have now earned the right to travel first class.
Oh My Gosh! Ganache Chocolate Cupcakes