The Queen of Cupcakes

By Elizabeth Fishel
Karen Tripp, owner of The Frosting Bakeshop
Photograph: Photo by Aya Brackett

In July of 2008, Karen Tripp put the finishing touches on her brand new Frosting Bakeshop in Mill Valley, California. It was the perfect location to launch a cupcake business and a new chapter in her life: an upscale neighborhood across San Francisco’s Golden Gate bridge, a destination spot for tourists, plenty of local celebrities, and Food Network’s Tyler Florence’s new store down the street.   Tripp, 50, divorced and raising two teenagers, had been an architect for 25 years, but she was burned-out and ready to try her hand at something new.  She loved baking (her  kid’s classmates dubbed  her The Cookie Lady), and her market research and cross-country sampling told her that cupcakes were hot. She she decided they’d be her specialty.  The shop was a dream come true.
It took six months of preparation and recipe-testing to get going. She used the $35,000 profit from selling her house for start-up costs, and  designed and built the store’s detachable cabinetry herself.  She decorated the store with two bold, pink and orange striped walls and two with splashy brown polka dots.   On opening day,  she buffed the wooden counter until it shone and arranged eleven glass cupcake stands to show off her flavors from Chocolate Obsession to Lemon Twist.  Each cupcake looked like a bite-size work of art, topped with a tiny candy.  

For the next few months, Tripp’s business flourished. There were splashy corporate parties like Pixar’s with over-the-top dessert budgets, and a big local real estate company ordered $1300 worth of cupcakes to give a dozen to each of its tenants. Tripp could hardly bake fast enough to fill those early orders.

Then everything changed.  By December, the economy was in the worst recession since the Depression, and her corporate business “fell off the face of the mountain.”   In a nearby town, 16 stores had to close, and a new competing bakery down the street from hers shuttered.  Mill Valley retailers, including Tripp, wondered which of them would be next.  Shaken, she wondered if her bakeshop—and her dream—would survive.  She started to panic.  “I had everything in this business,” she says.  “I had cashed out my house, and I had no husband for back-up.  It was very scary.”    She sat down with her kids, Will, then 17 and Juliana, 15, and talked turkey.  First, she told them they were going to move to a cheaper place so she wouldn’t be stuck with a big monthly mortgage.  Then, she warned them,  “Things are going to get rough for awhile.”  There’d be stressful days, sleepless nights, and she’d be on a short fuse.  “You’ll have to pitch in,” she said.

A vivacious people-person, Tripp, was also a high-energy businesswoman who was used to problem-solving her way out of predicaments.  But opening a new business in a major downturn was a challenge she hadn’t signed on for. To recession-proof her company, Tripp knew she had to stay lean, seize every opportunity to grow, and work her, well, buns off. She was determined to “barrel through,” because she was hungry for a change. For awhile, flipping houses had seemed the answer. She scored big on her first few sales, but when the real estate market crashed, she needed to find some other way to make a living—and a life. Around the same time, her son, then a high school junior, shocked her by saying he didn’t want to go to college. “What can I do to help him along?” Tripp wondered.

That’s when she saw a small shop’s  “For Rent” sign on the charming little square in downtown Mill Valley.   Although she says she “can’t boil water or cook to save my life,” baking was a longtime hobby, and she had a valuable stash of dessert recipes from her grandmother, like favorite family flavors coconut, lemon, and banana.  She added a rich vanilla from a friend, tweaked a Red Velvet she found on the Internet, and borrowed a carrot cake with an orange twist from a cupcake blogger.

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