Sunday, August 30, 2009

Johnny Cupcakes: "Have you had your cupcake today?"

"I'd rather have a strong brand filled with knowledgeable customers who truly enjoy and appreciate what I've created instead of making a quick buck trying to get my shirts in chain stores across the world — being just another fad."
- Johnny Cupcakes
Johnny doesn't sell what you think he sells.  He's fooled many a' shopper who have come into his storefront shop on Newbury Street, Boston's "Rodeo Drive", the waft of vanilla as the door jingles and happy customers walk out with black bakery boxes emblazoning the name of the shop - Johnny Cupcakes - in white on the side, with the cupcake-and-crossbones logo.  I wouldn't blame these innocent victims, when you see the 1000 lbs dough mixer from the 1930s, a cast iron wood-burning oven from the 1890s, curved glass bakery cases, vintage refridgerators, stainless steel baking trays and hardwood floors.  But peer in a little bit closer into those appliances, and you'll find something much more lasting, satisfying and 'tastier' than a cupcake.

Johnny has started a multi-million-dollar business, keeping the quality of his products and the relationship with his customers first priority.  He's what some folks might call a "troublesome kid made good."  He's what everyone would call a "self-made man."  He's what us artisans, crafters and DIY people would call our dream job.  

As a teenager, Johnny was suspended from school for selling 'contraband'.  Well, let's explain the first: he was selling pranks props in school, notably 'Itching Powder'.  Selling some to a friend who pranked another, said prankee had a severe allergic reaction and was sent to the hospital.  Eventually, justice was swift and he was suspended.  Upon his return, he opted selling for candy, instead.  He'd buy candy in bulk form various 'big box' stores and resell it at school, eventually turning over a better profit than the school cafeteria.  He was almost suspended for that, as well, but he kept his head down.  He gave college a try, but wasn't able to stay focused, due to his ADD.  Most social college functions involve drug and alcohol use, which Johnny doesn't participate in.  Instead of continuing in college, he opted to drop out until he was sure of his choice of studies.

He found his artistic following playing in various bands and sketching.  He'll tell you he started the t-shirt business as a joke, earning a nickname from a work colleague at record store Newbury Comics who'd attach his first name to just about any moniker that suited it: "Johnny Appleseed," "Johnny Cupcakes," "Johnny Pancakes," amongst others.  With a sense of humour, he made a few silk-screen shirts with 'Johnny Cupcakes' printed on the front, and wore the shirt to his band's gig, On Broken Wings.

He'd also start wearing the shirt to work, receiving compliments - and requests - for the shirts from the most unexpected people.  Kicking open the door of opportunity Chuck Norris-style, he made a few dozen more shirts, and sold them all within the day.  He would print more, and nearly every day he found himself sneaking out of work so that he could sell more 'Johnny Cupcake' shirts out of the trunk of his car.

His imagination went cupcake-wild after that!  Inserting his own signature into the urban global community, he used pop cultural icons and added his own flair.  The most popular that he brainstormed, the 'cupcake and crossbones', stands to be his company logo today.  He opened up an online store,, with wild success.  He would design t-shirts and other merchandise for bands he had toured with and were his customers, which spread the 'cupcake' word even furthur when they would wear his clothes in promotional photos, on tour, and in music videos.  It eventually lead to a huge explosion of 'cupcake-a-mania'!

Johnny's business was incredibly successful, to the point where "supply and demand" exceeded space and time available.  Regretfully, but amicably, he resigned from his band, to spend more time on his exploding business.  The inside of the house must have looked like the neighbourhood kids built a fort with a whole bunch of cardboard boxes.  He handpacked each and every order, adding surprises like vintage 80s toys and trading cards he collected.  He knew that the small details that give a smile to their face are always appreciated, and what can make a customer loyal.

Getting ready for his first trade show, he got a catalogue together and ordered chef outfits for himself and his friends to work the show!  Suiting theme, no?  He managed to get his work into stores in Japan, Italy, London, Canada and some cities in the U.S., which made him rethink his product philosophy - starting with Johnny making an observation that a lot of people walking around the trade show wearing the same sneakers he had.  "I don't like having something that everyone else has," he thought to himself.  (I know that feeling.  It's partially why I like to buy handmade.)  So, he decided to keep his shirts out of the big department stores, and be really choosy about which stores he decided to carry his line; some shirt designs being more limited than others, and some are also numbered.  "Deciding this was one of the most valuable decisions I've made for my company," he says.  "It makes it more than just a t-shirt line. It's collectible, limited, wearable art."  Well said!

He has also had "Cupperware Parties" in schools, clubs, salons, apartments, etc.  Much like your traditional Tupperware, Avon, or Mary Kay parties, a date and time is set, the host would RSVP invitations and make any kind of cupcake to your liking, and Johnny would come by!  He'd roll out the shirts, trusty wireless credit-card swiper in hand and talk about how he's started his business.  Unfortunately, he's been awefully busy and hasn't been able to participate in any "Cupperware Parties", but it's a great market to get into!

Johnny Cupcakes opens shop in 2005 on Newbury Street!  The grand opening played host to 600 patrons who came as far as Toronto, Canada!  Despite some confusion from shoppers who scorn the fact that "they don't even sell cupcakes," Johnny does, in fact, give away freshly baked cupcakes on select days and weekends with your purchase.  He has managed to employ his mother and twelve of his closest friends full-time to work in his business.  He's glad that he's able to give them a fun environment to work, knowing their previous jobs weren't as pleasant.

Then the day came, where his mother sat him down, and told him that after doing all his bookkeeping, a job she had done full-time before employed by her son, he was an official multi-millionaire.   I'm quite sure I wouldn't need to print the reaction, because it would be the same reaction you or I would have!  The great thing is that he reinvested his money back into his product, something that he continually had done throughout his business.  Well, after he bought himself a big Victorian house, a few arcade machines, and sent his parents to Bermuda for a couple of weeks for their anniversary.  Well deserved for a self-made multi-millionaire, I'd say.

from working out of his house ...

to selling out stock in warehouses!

He's been approached by many post-secondary institutions to host lectures about businesses and branding, which he finds ironic!  He receives email from people around the world inspired by his story of humble beginnings to take chances of their own.  "Everyone thinks of great ideas every day - it's just getting the motivation to get off their butts [sic] to actually do something about it."

Just last year Johnny has opened up a new warehouse, allowing him to expand as a brand, while keeping his humble business and artistic philosophy.  His eyes are set on a new location on Melrose Place in Los Angeles, with a completely new storefront design will be "quite an experience" when he's done with it.  He was just recently involved in a viral marketing campaign for the hit television show Lost, which exposed his work to a much wider audience.

Johnny's got a lot up his sleeve.  "Ties, hand bags, toys, silk screened #'d posters, housewares, sneakers, jackets & a lot of surprises to come! [sic]" he states on his website.  Not to mention different divisions of Johnny Cupcakes, collaborating with other artists and coming up with new designs for his ever-evolving company.  He's also dreaming up some new ideas on some small details such as packaging to spruce up appearances, too.  Don't ask him for any more, though.  He's got to keep something to himself.  You know when you bug your parents into what they're getting you for Christmas or your birthday, and they (possibly, maybe just to shut you up) finally tell you?  You know that wave of disappointment in not waiting for that surprise moment?  Think of it like that.  Trust me.

To Johnny, I raise my glass and toast him.  This is a man whom we can salute; he's stayed true to his roots and humble beginnings as an artist, cherishing each and every one of his 'cupcakes', so to speak.  We, as artisans and crafters, can appreciate and understand that every time we create something, whether it be a complicated necklace that turned out picture-perfect, or the painting that took you a month to finish resulting in your masterpiece, the wedding quilt you make your daughter you started when she was four, or the wall mural on the side of your fence inspiring goodwill.  We hold creations like these close to our hearts, and only provide the best with the pieces we share with the world.  We can say that Johnny takes his 'contemporary art' seriously, and I certainly can't wait to see what surprises he has in store for his Los Angeles opening.

Follow his blog and sign up for his newsletter here!    

Oooh, and you should visit his store!  I've put together a little 'wish list' for myself.  Take a look!

Jet Girl, Johnny Cupcakes

tan oven mitt wreath, Johnny Cupcakes

JC Dispenser, Johnny Cupcakes

Johnny Cupcake's Big Adventure, Johnny Cupcakes

Panda Cupcake, Johnny Cupcakes 

Kitchen handbag, Johnny Cupcakes

"The Wizard" event poster, Johnny Cupcakes

cupcake earrings, Johnny Cupcakes

"Make Cupcakes Not War" sticker, Johnny Cupcakes

leather belt, Johnny Cupcakes

water cooler, Johnny Cupcakes 

And with a sign-off from Johnny himself:

"Even if people hate the fact that I don't sell real cupcakes, every time they see a bakery or a cupcake they're going to think about my brand and Johnny Cupcakes will come up in conversation. The word of mouth will continue to spread...

Bon Appetit!"

Oh yes, it shall be, Johnny!  Thanks for spreading the 'cupcake' love!

Photographs courtesy of

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