Maker: Kevin VanDeraa, Cupcake Owner
Homebase: Minneapolis, Minn.
The Scoop: Kevin VanDeraa made a mid-career leap for culinary school and never looked back. By the time he enrolled, he’d already served 10 years in the Navy and spent another 10 managing an office deep in corporate America. Culinary training can be an expensive way to chase a food-industry fantasy, but not in Kevin’s case. The minute he hit pastry class, he knew he’d found his calling. After graduating, he landed a job in the pastry department at the Ritz-Carlton in Chicago, steadily honing his craft while slowly hatching a plan for a bakery of his own.
In October 2004, Kevin opened Cupcake in a university neighborhood of Minneapolis. He was way ahead of America’s obsession with all things cupcake and quickly found a cult following. Soon, television producers came calling. In June 2012, he was crowned the grand champion of the Food Network’s series, “Cupcake Wars.” But it’s not all frosting, Hollywood and celebu-drama for Kevin. Instead, he’s laser-focused on building his business and delivering the best, most interesting flavors to his customers.
We caught Kevin in his car – where he does a lot of catching up as he’s shuttling between locations – to ask him how he makes it all happen.
What inspires you?
KVD: Natural flavors and products and the process of coming up with a new cupcake. I love the science of flavor pairing. For example, honey goes really well with almond, that sort of thing. The book “The Flavor Bible” really is a bible for me. But also, beyond the science of flavor, I’m inspired by good old comfort food. We want our cupcakes to taste like something you’d find in your grandma’s kitchen. Kind of retro and really delicious.
How do you “make it happen”?
It’s a team effort for us. I’m in extremely close communication with the managers at our two locations. I try to be really available to them, and I stay very close to the day-to-day operations. And I’m obsessive about quality. We’re always pushing ourselves to do things better and be thinking about how we can improve. We don’t settle.
How would you describe your approach to making?
When you’re baking, everything in the sequence has to be perfect. In order to make a good batter, you need good ingredients. Every step has to be carefully considered. So I’d say I focus on the basics, good technique, and I make sure we have good ovens. No cutting corners. Every step along the way has to work.
What shortcuts, gadgets or other life-savers do you swear by?
Disposable pastry bags! They’re maybe not the most green, but they are super handy. And, since I’m constantly running back and forth between our two locations, I couldn’t do it without my iPhone and MacBook Air. I pretty much run the business on these two devices.
Who are your favorite makers?
I’m a big fan of [Senator] Al Franken – he’s out there kicking butt and taking names. I admire the way he takes a stand for things that affect everyday life. And I’d also say the folks at our production company, Super Delicious. They’re people who are passionate about what they do, work really hard and do a great job.
Any Pillsbury® products or recipes in your rotation?
I love baking Pillsbury® cookies around the holidays with my nieces and nephews. We have a lot of fun with it.
What are some of your other loves?
My dogs. I have two rescue pit bulls. I love taking care of them and hanging with them when I get downtime.
Now that our Mall of America store is open, we need to make some improvements at [the] University [Ave. location]. I’m looking at some more efficient, higher-capacity ovens. And who knows? Maybe we’ll open more bakeries!