Gigi Butler launched her business in 2008 with thousands of dollars in debt and only $33 to her name. When she opened her doors the only thing standing between her and a line of contractors and creditors who wanted their money was a tray of Gigi’s Cupcakes.
Not just any cupcakes, mind you, but gourmet cupcakes topped with a swirl of icing as tall as the cake itself.
It turns out shoppers along Nashville’s Music Row loved the treats, and Butler soon had no problem paying her bills. Now the entrepreneur has franchises in 23 states, including five in Kentucky, selling her decadent desserts.
Butler talked about her humble beginnings and her long road to success on KET’s Connections with Renee Shaw.
Dreams of Music Stardom
Although she has enjoyed cooking since she was a child, Butler says becoming a professional chef wasn’t her life goal. At the age of seven, Butler says she announced to her family that she wanted to be country music singer-songwriter. She took lessons and formed a band that eventually got small jobs playing around the California farm town where she was raised.
But by the time she was 15, Butler says she knew she’d need another source of income, so she formed her own small business. She cleaned houses during the day and sang in local bars at night.
Butler never lost sight of her goal of country stardom, though. So when she was older, she sold her business and moved to Nashville. She started a new cleaning company and repeated the cycle of daytime cleaning and nighttime singing.
Despite her drive, Butler never hit it big on the country music scene. So in her early 30s, she decided to stop performing and focus on growing her cleaning business.
Why Not Cupcakes
Then one day while she was at work, Butler says she got a call from her brother. He was in New York City and had just waited in line for two hours to buy a trendy local cupcake that he said wasn’t nearly as good as the ones Butler made as a child. Her brother told Butler she should open a cupcake shop in Nashville.
“I was in a little bathroom, cleaning a client’s house,” Butler recalls. “I had my gloves on and I looked in bathroom mirror and I’m like, why not? I’m not afraid to fail.”
The day before she opened Gigi’s Cupcakes in late February 2008, Butler cleaned her last houses. She had to, she says, because she needed the cash. She had maxed-out her credit cards to the tune of $100,000. She owed thousands more to contractors, food vendors, her landlord, and her two employees. But her Music Row shop was a hit and the self-proclaimed broken-down country singer had lucked into a successful new life for herself.
Challenges, Prayers, and Healing
Not that it’s all been easy. Soon after she opened her first shop, the national economy tanked. Butler says she thinks she was able to thrive even during the recession because people were looking for inexpensive ways to treat themselves when they could no longer afford dinner at a fancy restaurant.
She also fell out with family members who worked for her in the company.
“It’s very hard to be in business with your family,” Butler admits. “It’s taken its toll on my family. We’re now speaking again, which is great…There’s been a lot of healing, a lot of prayers.”
And Butler has to juggle her expanding cupcake empire with also being a single mother of a four-year old girl. Butler says she takes her daughter on as many business trips as she can, and tries to never be away from her daughter for more than a few hours. Butler says she wants her daughter to have the kind of stay-at-home mother she had when she was growing up.
A Small Business Mind
Now Butler serves as the face of her company while she works to expand their dessert line with new cupcakes and other sweet treats, and to ensure product quality across all Gigi’s Cupcake locations. Butler was recently featured on the CBS reality series Undercover Boss, where she dressed in disguise and worked at one of her stores. She says the experience taught her a valuable lesson about her franchise operations.
“I found out we were consistently inconsistent, and I was consistently frustrated about it,” Butler says. “We have to be able to consistently execute our brand or we won’t make it.”
Butler says she’d love to have her own cooking show. But until then, she’s focused on growing her business. With 2,500 employees working in shops from South Carolina to Arizona, Butler says she’s concerned about the challenges entrepreneurs face today.
“I’m a small business person, I have a small business mind,” Butler says. “I didn’t have a silver spoon and I didn’t have a hand-out. So I just want what’s best for our small businesspeople in America… We’re the backbone of America… So I think we should be honored more, we should be helped more.”