The Greenville, South Carolina-based Wildflower Cupcake + Dessert Bar was founded by Carolina cupcake queen Kristin Kay in August 2019. Kay is transforming the landscape of local small business and entrepreneurship at large by focusing her business strategy on collaboration over competition.
Like many small business owners, Kay was forced to face the harsh reality of potentially having to sell or close the doors to her 6-month old bakery amid the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. Trusting in her self-taught talents and experience, Kay persisted in her pursuit of the American dream by ramping up her marketing approach, launching exploratory recipes, having a direct line of communication with her consumers, and donating to countless charities and those most affected by COVID.
She also continued efforts from previous years, including participating in Fall For Greenville, wherein she won the highly coveted “Best Dessert” award with her classically southern and deliciously indulgent Banana Pudding cupcake.
Like any experienced business owner, Kay knew she must stay in her lane, but her lane was not enough. Thus began the pursuit of potential partnership. Enter stage left: Larissa Lyles and Katie Pruiksma, owners of Whisked. It was the perfect recipe.
Flash forward to 2022, Kay has seized the opportunity to expand her award-winning dessert bar by offering Whisked specialties like gourmet macarons and custom treats. By combining their sweetened superstar talents, these premier bakers and female business owners are rapidly expanding their customer base, reach, and influence.
“If you'd asked me 10 years ago if I was going to own a bakery, I probably would not have thought that that would happen,” Kay recalls. “But I had some experience when I was younger, working in a natural food setting. It was essentially a mom-and-pop version of Whole Foods. And we did a lot of baking in house. I learned a lot about allergen-free friendly baking.”
Building from scratch
Her background is art; she studied in college building pottery sculptures by hand. She enjoys the opportunity to create.
“I just have always been kind of service oriented, worked in fine dining restaurants as well as late night music venues. And I saw an opening for a new bakery in town. This way my first opportunity to learn baking. Her name was Gigi (of Gigi’s Cupcakes). I reached out and submitted my resume, and I accepted the job when it was offered very quickly.”
Ultimately, Kay progressed into management, working for the franchisees. “I had a really excellent relationship with them and there came a point in time, though, where I realized I was really investing a lot of myself into it. I decided if I was going to work this hard, I'd like for it to be for myself.”
In 2016, she purchased that location from the former owners and proceeded to operate as an owner there at that location until 2019. That August, she opened Wildflower Cupcake + Dessert Bar. And soon came the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We did the math not that long ago and about 90% of Wildflower’s life has been lived in the pandemic era. We started seeing the effects of the pandemic as early as late February. It got really intense in March. It absolutely was rough. Rebranding itself was very challenging mostly because we had a very short window of time to do it and really no resources. There were times where I think I was very much on autopilot.”
Rebounding from the pandemic
What followed was a serious staffing issue as a result of the pandemic, which became very apparent last year. Kay had begun working with another baker, who wound up introducing Kay to sisters Larissa Lyles and Katie Pruiksma, owners of Whisked, another bakery business in Greenville. “Initially it began with an introduction,” Kay recalls. The mutual friends started talking about business possibilities.
“I've always been interested in collaboration over competition,” says Kay, whose original friend specialized in macarons, which she did not do. Then her friend was moving to Austin, Texas, and did not want to leave Kay high and dry. The introduction to Larissa and Katie ultimately turned into a new partnership.
“Originally I had started baking for family and friends, and really loved it,” says Larissa, who is a self-taught baker. “Nothing compares to bringing an idea to life, especially when it’s out of the ordinary. Mermaid cakes? Been there. Geode macarons? Done that. Unicorn cupcakes? Keep ‘em coming! When I’m not baking, you can find me jumping on trampolines with my kids, spending time with family and friends, or gardening and feeding my houseplant addiction. Originally from New Jersey, our roots are deep here in the Upstate and we wouldn’t call anywhere else home.”
Such versatility and passion for the bakery business sparked a novel idea.
“They really wanted to get into brick and mortar, but they weren't quite ready for that kind of jump in the traditional sense,” Kay points out. “So, we talked about space sharing.”
After conducting their own research on the topic, they discovered the biggest challenges are communication and compatibility.
“And after getting to know each other, we realized we really were doing well with that. We're very, very, very conscientious of the importance of communicating and are extremely compatible. I truly believe this was no accident that this came to be because, you know, we're very complementary of each other. My weaknesses are their strengths, and vice versa.”
Caring and sharing
As the two businesses proceeded, the business owners recognized the value of space sharing was only the first step. They realized more and more, Kay says, that as this was evolving that their vision for their businesses was also very much in alignment.
“There was a lot that I was able to do to help them see new elements of their business. And there was a lot they were able to help me do as far as get in and help me get organized. We just realized it would be a lot better to do this together. I think the more energy you spend worrying about what someone else is going to do, the more you're taking away from what you can do and the quality of what you can do. I'm not kidding. I do feel like there was something written in the stars here.”
There are certain decisions they should not and cannot rush, Kay points out. “We really want to put some thought into it. We have done several collaborative projects already. We both stick to our core stuff as far as what people can come in and expect from us on a daily basis. But we've had some great opportunities to collaborate on new and different things as well. We're very interested in just food and getting outside of the box with food in general.”
One example is they recently competed in a dessert competition in which they created a unique cake cup, topped with fresh tropical fruit puree and made with the distinctive flavors of sesame, chili oil, and white chocolate ganache.
“It might sound a little crazy, but I was so proud of it. It was so damn good. And we placed for that dessert, and that was just such a beautiful example of our ability to put our minds together and come up with something special.”
As for financial considerations, they are moving forward with a collaborative logo and then down the road the bakers will change their signage to Whisked at Wildflower. “So it's kind of got two meanings there,” she adds.
Larissa says they are looking at holiday promotion ideas.
“We want to get all the systems down, but we are moving forward. We do holiday treat boxes and things like that and our specifically designed Christmas cake,” she says. “Moving forward we will be doing more things like that every holiday. We will do a certain treat box that has a certain amount of cupcakes and macarons and cookies and things like that, and promoting it online.”