Sweet success

Kristin Cobb of Mount Pleasant now owns four stores across South Carolina, including three that focus solely on cupcakes. (provided)

It’s a sweet gig if you can get it.

Entrepreneur goes to financial management and accounting school but doesn’t want to be an accountant. A foodie and lover of baking, she comes to Charleston after graduating from college, then makes a yearlong swing through New York until she gets laid off and still isn’t sure what do with her degree and interests.

So she returns to Charleston without much money and decides to launch a gourmet cupcake shop in the highly competitive food and beverage town.

Kristin Kuhlke Cobb didn’t think much about what would happen if she failed.

No need. Seven years later, she owns four stores across the state, employs 60 people, survived the recession selling $3 cupcakes, received national praise and now is considering a franchise.

But the stores’ success also has meant Cobb can do philanthropic work. For instance, Cupcake stores are selling Boston cream cupcakes through today to support Boston Marathon bombings victims. She’s donating the proceeds to The One Fund Boston group, which benefits those affected.

Maybe it all really started in New York when a friend served cupcakes at a birthday party.

“I hadn’t had a cupcake since I was a kid,” Cobb recalls.

Then, she and friends visited the Magnolia Bakery, a New York spot known for its gourmet cupcakes and featured on the TV show “Sex and the City.”

Still, she didn’t think of devoting her career to cupcakes.

She was researching franchise ideas when she moved back to Charleston. In need of money, she worked at a cellphone store (in the spot where one of her Cupcake stores is today).

A creative type, she longed to own a business where she could try out her ideas.

In fall 2005, she went to dinner with her best friend, Jen George. After a glass of wine, Cobb revealed her plan to open a cupcake shop.

“All of her friends and family thought it was crazy,” George says. “I didn’t think it was that crazy.”

George, who today is Cobb’s vice president, also knew her friend was ambitious and not afraid to take risks.

Indeed, Cobb took out a home equity line of credit and bought a couple of kitchen mixers and a cheap fridge from Lowe’s to start. Her dad, once a general contractor, helped with renovations.

Cobb hired a baker and brought together some of a her own recipes, a few family favorites and several new ideas.

“I wanted to have something that was high quality and would be a little more gourmet but also remind you of your grandparents’ recipes,” she says.

Cobb opened her first bakery on King Street in downtown Charleston, creating an old-timey ice-cream shop feel with the Neapolitan pink, brown and cream colors that still characterize the Cupcake stores.

And she didn’t discount the addictive aroma of real butter and sugar, the natural ingredients that greet you at Cupcake’s door with a certainty that someone is baking from scratch.

“I wanted to take that nostalgia and revamp it,” Cobb says. “I wanted it to be more than just a cupcake.”

She opened in March 2006.

“I was scared to death,” she says.

On her first day, “Good Morning America” aired a segment about how popular gourmet cupcake shops had become. Cobb gave away free cupcakes all day.

If you’ve never seen a cupcake from Cupcake, picture a swirling beehive mound of frosting atop, say, a red velvet cupcake (the stores’ top seller).

And if you’ve never stepped foot inside a Cupcake, perhaps you’ve seen a pink car driving around town with a giant cupcake on top.

The cupcake-on-a-car concept started with Cobb’s father, Bill Kuhlke (dubbed Wild Bill by loved ones), who taught his two daughters to love baking in part by making funny cakes for them on birthdays.

When Cobb painted her old Volvo pink, Wild Bill figured it needed an actual cupcake topper for effective marketing. So he started building.

“All he does is work on that d--- cupcake,” says Cobb’s mom, Carol.

That first giant cupcake rolled off the pink car downtown one day. So her dad built a second one, this time with Cupcake’s characteristic frosting swirl on top (made out of foam pool noodles).

Wild Bill died away in 2010. But today, most of the Cupcake stores’ delivery vans still have giant cupcakes on top.

As other new businesses moved to Upper King Street and as Charleston’s tourism and food industries thrived, Cupcake sales also steadily grew.

So did the national attention Cobb received, from Southern Living magazine to Martha Stewart Living Radio and The New York Times.

“It’s been a huge blessing,” she says.

In 2008, she opened a second store in Mount Pleasant. Even as the economy plummeted, her sales remained stable.

“People might not buy the big things, but they would still buy cupcakes,” Cobb says. “It’s a small treat.”

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A year later, she opened a third store in downtown Columbia. It took off and remains her most profitable store.

Finally, in 2011, she opened a fourth store on downtown Greenville’s bustling Main Street. The space was bigger than her other stores, and she wanted to try something new.

Named the Chocolate Moose, it offers a full coffee bar, desserts, muffins and, of course, cupcakes.

Most recently, she’s growing Cupcake’s wedding cupcake service and hired a full-time wedding coordinator.

Now 41, the Mount Pleasant resident isn’t sure what the future holds from here.

She and her husband, architect Darryl Cobb, stay busy with 10-month-old son Bodie and their current workloads. Among other options, Cobb is considering franchising Cupcake.

“Through the past seven years, I’ve always set a goal, accomplished it, set a goal, accomplished it,” Cobb says. “The growth is definitely my favorite part.”

Two things (other than a massive sugar intake) keep Cupcake dynamic: philanthropy and new attractions, from flavors to services.

For instance, next up: her stores will begin selling Mother’s Day cupcakes (white chocolate strawberry champagne).

However, Cupcake stores also assist numerous nonprofits year-round, including WINGS for Kids, which seeks to develop social and emotional intelligence in children; Pet Helpers; and Share Our Strength, a child hunger campaign. They support the local public library summer reading programs and many other efforts.

“It’s a big part of our business,” Cobb says.

She even sells pink cupcakes for Breast Cancer Awareness to honor her mother, who is a survivor, and donates $1 per cupcake sold to the Susan G. Komen Foundation.

“God has blessed me with a successful small business, and I hope to always remember to do the very best I can with that responsibility,” she says.

Last week, she brought in a videographer to film employees driving the store’s van around town, “delivering happiness” in the form of sugar, butter and flour. She’ll submit it to the popular Food Network TV show “Cupcake Wars” after someone nominated the store for consideration.

“I just want a business where people smile when they come in,” Cobb says.

Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563, follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes or subscribe to her at facebook.com/jennifer.b.hawes.