Last summer, Belinda Espinoza and Meghan Krasnoff of ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund a new East Austin bakery called Sugar Circus. The two women had shared a communal kitchen space and teamed up together in order to serve both Espinoza's traditional baked treats and Krasnoff's vegan and gluten-free creations. Rounding out the team is Espinoza's daughter Tori, who "grew up in Sweetish Hill," and Espinoza's sister Angela Pierson who helps on weekends and runs their social media.
Eater spoke with the Sugar Circus team about their first year of brick and mortar retail, as well as the good, the bad, and the ugly of Kickstarter. The three women have an infectious enthusiasm for their shop and are especially pleased to have brought retail back to E. 5th. As for Kickstarter, they report that the best part was the "total strangers" who donated, but that raising $10,000 means there's a lot of backers who need to come pick up their baked goods.
Your bakery is actually a combination of two different companies, Sugar Tooth Bakery, and SugarPOP Sweet Shop. How did you come to join forces?
Belinda: We were renting kitchen space at the Community Renaissance Market. The lease was going to expire and they gave us thirty day's notice.
Meghan: It was this big artists' market, and they had several kitchens. The bakery space was shared.
Belinda: So we were like, "Oh, what are we going to do?"
Meghan: We were two different companies, but we had started collaborating. Belinda is a great decorator and I started learning from her. I was doing cakes but I had never really been taught.
Belinda: I learned in bakeries in Austin. I have been doing cakes for about twenty years. I didn't go to school for it either, but just learned from great people I knew along the way. Sweetish Hill, for one. Central Market. I always had that great mentor ahead of me teaching me how to do what I didn't know how to do.
Meghan: Tori just surpasses all of us. She can bake circles around the rest of us.
Tori: I lived in Sweetish Hill growing up.
Belinda: She grew up in the bakery always with me. It just soaked in.
Meghan, how did you get into baking?
Meghan: I've been working restaurants and bars my whole life. My first jobs were in restaurants, and for the past ten years I've been a bartender.
I'm lactose intolerant and started baking vegan. People said "Hey, you're really good at that." I started out at the Maker Faire. I got a booth at Edible Austin and sampled out thousands of mini-cupcakes. After, I got a lot of phone calls.
How did you guys decide on this location?
Belinda: We were looking for commercial kitchen space. We looked into renting, but it was always shared space. We wanted to find a place that was just ours.
Meghan: A first we joined forces because we were having fun. Someone once told us, "You guys are a circus when you're in the kitchen." We get a little silly. We realized it would be cheaper to find something together – none of us have any money. We didn't think of a retail spot. We didn't think we could afford it.
Belinda: One of my clients introduced us to a real estate agent. He showed us this place.
Meghan: It was zoned retail, so we realized could have a little shop.
Belinda: This was a grocery store until about ten years ago.
Meghan: It had been a grocery store forever. It used to have a gas station way back in the forties. Little City roasted here before we moved in.
Belinda: We finally brought the retail back.
Let's switch gears and talk about Kickstarter. Why did you guys decide to go with Kickstarter?
Meghan: Because we didn't have any money. (Lots of laughter.)
I'd seen it work for other people, and I've been bartending here for a long time. I bartended at the Side Bar until about two months ago. I still tell my boss, don't take me off payroll! You never know when I'll need a shift.
I've been in Austin for ten years, and I was bartending there for eight. I know a lot of people who would buy me a beer, so why wouldn't they give us a few bucks? Belinda and Tori are from Austin, and they know a lot of people here, so why not?
Tori: Basically, we had no plan.
What was the best part about Kickstarter?
Tori: I think the best part was the total strangers that donated.
Meghan: One guy gave us a couple hundred dollars.
Tori: He came into the shop and said, "I hope you guys do great!"
So what was the worst part about Kickstarter?
Belinda: I think one of the downsides was not knowing.
Meghan: It was really stressful.
Belinda: Really stressful! We weren't sure if we were going to make it. For weeks on end, every day, it's all we could think about.
Tori: The tipping point was when a friend of Meghan's gave us a thousand dollars and then all the donations started coming in.
Meghan: You know how it goes. If it looks like a project isn't going to make it, people think, "Well, my five dollars isn't going to matter." And then suddenly we were really close, and everyone thought, "Well, my five dollars will matter." I was shocked.
Belinda: The other downside is we underestimated how many people were going to back us.
Meghan: $10,000 is a lot of backers.
Belinda: So being able to fulfill that took us a lot longer than we hoped.
Meghan: And also, having to coordinate with people to get their rewards was rough. It's baked goods. A teeshirt could sit around for as long as people wanted. But baked goods is our product.
Belinda: We had to ship a lot.
Meghan: It was challenging. We'd say invite people to sign up for a day to pick up their reward, but if they didn't come, there wasn't much we could do. I think some people are giving just to give, not doing it for the reward. The stuff you are creating yourself is hard. The swag is easy.
What types of rewards would you have offered instead?
Meghan: I would have thought about stuff that could last longer, like candy.
What were your biggest worries going into Kickstarter?
Meghan: Having to put your pride aside.
Belinda: Having to put it out there--
Tori: "We're broke and we want this bakery."
Meghan: You know that you have support, but worry that maybe people don't care. Why are you worth asking for money? It's hard to ask for help. And it's not like a bank where if they say no, it's impersonal.
How different is Sugar Circus from what you guys first envisioned?
Belinda: It's quite a bit different. Everything was by the seat of our pants.
Meghan: Part of that is it happened way quicker than we thought it would.
Belinda: We signed our lease in May, and by August we were open.
Meghan: We didn't do a build out, because it would take money and time. I thought we'd have more planning time.
Belinda: Even with the Kickstarter, we knew that if we didn't open and start making some money, all these bills were going to start piling piling piling.
Meghan: My new favorite joke is that when we opened, we couldn't afford cookie jars.
Belinda: Now we have more. But there was very little planning. And it is not recommended to do it that way. I don't recommend it at all.
Meghan: I think if we had known it would happen so quickly, we would have been more organized. But usually it takes a year to look for a space.
What are your biggest sellers?
Meghan: No matter what we make, people want cupcakes the most. People go crazy for the Mexican hot chocolate.
Tori: In terms of vegan, everyone likes the chocolate chip cookie dough.
Meghan: We joke that we could make Tori's side all Mexican hot chocolate, and my side all cookie dough and be happy.
Meghan: I made lemon blueberry one day and a customer said, "Well, that's exotic." A lemon blueberry cupcake!
Tori: What are you eating? I'm really sad about your life.
What's been the biggest surprise of the last year?
Belinda: The pleasant surprise is our accomplishments. We hit our financial goals. Every month we seem to do a little bit better than the last.
Knowing what you know now, what would you do differently?
Belinda: I'm the oldest, if I knew when I was your age [to Meghan], I would have been more strategic with all the steps I've taken up to this point. But you never know.
Meghan: I just like to fly by the seat of my pants.
Tori: It's more fun that way.
Belinda: We definitely should have taken a nice-ass vacation before we started this.
Meghan: What I'm really psyched about is that we're not a thousands of dollars in debt right now. That's the great side of it. Sometimes you open a restaurant and take out a few thousand dollars, and if it doesn't work out, you still owe that money.
Where do you want to be a year from now?
Belinda: We need some employees.
Meghan: I can't imagine working harder than we do now.
Tori: We couldn't. We'd have to clone ourselves.
Belinda: There's four of us on weekends. My sister Angela comes in and helps.
Clearly this is a labor of love for you guys. What brings you back every day?
Belinda: For me, the idea that I'm going to be making cakes for people is what I always come back to. They will remember that you made their birthday cake or you made their wedding cake. That's a huge deal for me. That is what is meaningful. An add-on is that we could be here in the neighborhood.
Meghan: I always think the kids that have an egg allergy or a gluten allergy. A lot of them have never had a cupcake.
Belinda: I remember one of your customers who came said this is the first time they'd been able to come to a bakery and take their kid for a treat.
Belinda: We used to say this is our version of a food truck, but it doesn't go anywhere. You can't get smaller than a food truck. This is what we made.
· Sugar Circus [Official]
· Can You Help Two Austin Bakers Start a Sugar Circus? [EATX]
· All One Year In Coverage [EATX]