From the sidewalk on Rivington Street off Essex, the small chalkboard sign for sugar Sweet sunshine is unassuming, so when you walk into the cozy, homey bakery, it takes a few moments to adjust to the sugar assault that reaches your nose. While you're taking in the rows of varyingly-colored cupcakes, there is more to absorb, from the huge card on the wall signed by their most dedicated customers, to local artwork and feedback such as "the brownies gave me a woody." sugar Sweet sunshine looks like someone's cozy living room expanded into a storefront, and in many ways, that's exactly what it is, with photos of customers' dogs, artwork, announcements and comments adorning the space, along with comfy chairs and magazines to help you while away a few hours on a cold winter's day.
In speaking with owners Peg Williams and Deb Weiner for over two hours on a recent Friday evening, the thing that quickly becomes clear is just how dedicated the friendly, enthusiastic women are for their work. Their wiry frames belie a toughness that saw them persevere through a failed loan. They at first rejected their Rivington Street space, but after a prolonged real estate search, returned to a thriving local scene and promptly pounced on the storefront. How they got their name is an eminently New York story: they saw the words "sugar Sweet sunshine, love" etched into the ground on the corner of Bowery and Bleecker on their way to scout locations.
Both former Magnolia Bakery employees who met in the acting scene, the two taught themselves to bake by testing recipes for a year and a half in Deb's kitchen, finetuning their skills until they learned how to bake the perfect cupcake. When asked if all their hard work has been worth it, despite the grueling hours, both answer instantaneously and unquestionably: absolutely.
I've been gobbling up as many sugar Sweet sunshine cupcakes as I can since I discovered the bakery, which opened in late 2003, and have converted many friends and even strangers to the charm of their tasty treats. Most satisfying is when someone proclaims, "I don't really like cupcakes, but that one was delicious." But as the owners are quick to point out, they also offer banana pudding, cookies, brownies, pies and whole cakes, as well as a selection of loose teas, coffee, cider and hot chocolate, along with an incredibly community-minded, welcoming atmosphere that's brought in a swarm of dedicated followers. Their fierce commitment to what they do shines through loud and clear, whether taking instructions for a specialized cake, or helping someone pick out the perfectly colored cupakes. Do the cupcakes taste better because they're made by people who are absolutely dedicated to their business, or is it simply the ingredients speaking? I can't say for sure, but after speaking with these two intelligent, impassioned women, who've turned a hobby into a career, I'm inclined to say yes. As Deb wrote in an email to me, "If you love what you do, people will love it too." I hope I've managed to convey the warmth, spirit and passion behind these bakers and businesswomen, but do yourself a favor and see and taste for yourself.
How did you get the idea for the bakery?
Peg Williams: I’d been working at Buttercup Bakeshop for a few years, managing, icing, decorating cakes and then I left that job and I suddenly found myself out of work and I had no desire to go back to working in an office. I’m a creative person and I wanted to do something creative. I’d been auditioning and I was getting burnt out on that and I needed a survival job that wouldn’t drive me nuts. I pretty much determined that I was tired of working for other people.
I was going for my morning run in Prospect Park and as I was on my way to the park, I passed this empty storefront, which had been empty for months and months, but for some reason something made me stop and say “I’m gonna look in this place.” It was really cute, it had a hardwood floor and half a fireplace in the corner and the sun was streaming in and I just remember thinking, this would make a cute little cupcake shop and that was it. Why couldn’t I have a cupcake shop of my own? I never baked there, I didn’t know any of the recipes or anything like that, but I had done all the ordering and managerial stuff and I’d been doing that pretty much full time so I felt confident except for the baking and the more I thought about it as I ran, cause I get a lot of good ideas when I’m running, it just seemed to make the most sense.
If the business were successful, and I felt very confident in the cupcakes as a very saleable product, I could make money, be doing something creative, have my own place and not work for anyone else and hopefully it would give me enough time eventually to explore other creative outlets and it just seemed like the perfect solution. I called Deb and said “Do you think that this is crazy if I say I want to do this?” and she said no, I always thought that would be something I’d like to do, I always though it might be fun and I took a big deep breath and I just took another leap and I said “would you want to do it with me?” and she said yes and that was pretty much it.
I wanted to know more about the process of opening the bakery, from the time you got the idea to actually opening it. How long did it take and what was that process like? Was this a longtime goal?
Deb Weiner: No, it wasn’t, it was not even a dream, actually. It just started when Peg and I both worked at Magnolia. For me, it was a survival gig. The process of running a bakery came up out of the blue when Peg called me one day. I know people think we had this lifelong ambition, but really we’re just two girls who set out to do our own thing. I thought, let’s see how far we can take this and wasn’t even quite sure myself that we could actually make it happen in the very beginning and the amazing thing is I knew more than I thought I did from living life.
Were you looking on the Lower East Side?
DW: We were initially looking in the East Village. We needed to be someplace funky and hip and someplace that was already well established with foot traffic. It became apparent fairly early on that in the areas we were most hoping for, there were few places that were available and the ones that were asking $15,000/month rent. It’s like looking for an apartment only on a larger scale. Peg heard about this place and we were like “Where the heck is that, I’ve never even heard of Rivington?”
I don’t think Schiller’s was even open yet, but we’d heard rumors that something was going on over there. We continued our search and were still trying to secure a loan. 2003 came along and that was the first time we were turned down for a loan.
How’d you decide you did want this space?
DW: We’d developed a friendship with this landlord. He took us over to Allen and showed us some really skinny, tiny spaces and we said, let’s go back and look at this one. It was still open, it hadn’t been rented and we were like, “Why didn’t we like this space?” We looked around and there was a hubbub. We stood there and watched all the people walk back and forth from the store.
Unofficially we opened on Thanksgiving 2003. The place was a war zone. It wasn’t really done until right before Christmas but we were operating, we had our equipment, the day before Thanksgiving is when the oven arrived. Wires were hanging down but it didn’t stop people. New Yorkers want to know what’s going on, they see something going on, even though stuff is all over the floor, it looked like it had months and months to go before we opened but somehow we managed. We busted our asses every single day painting, cleaning, setting things up, figuring out how to work things.
So getting customers was never a problem?
DW: We opened just a few days before Christmas, when a lot of people weren’t even around but people knew that we were opening because we made a presence for ourselves. We put up pictures of ourselves in the window, we had pictures of our product in the window and eventually started putting product in the window, so they knew that we were here.
This neighborhood just really opened its arms to us in a big fat way. We’re so grateful for that every day. We’ll go back and look at what this day was like last year and we giggle because we were so excited. We were so happy because we still had the first customer who bought a cake, we were so ecstatic when he came in and bought a red velvet cake that was sitting in the window. His name is David and he’s continued to support us ever since. It’s been unbelievable and the people that started out with us, we have a lot of them still with us. We became really close to our customers really fast and some moved out of the neighborhood and they still come back over here even though they live in a totally different area to visit us and say hi.
Why do you think you have such customer loyalty?
DW: We firmly believe 100% that we had to have a slammin’ product, but more importantly, because we really busted our asses the first year. We were here every single day, both of us. We didn’t have anybody at the upstart, it was just us for the first solid eight months. People see us every single day and they get to know us and we get to know them and that was equally as important as having a really great product, that they know us on a human level, not just as business owners. We were owners that they could count on being here.
How many employees do you have?
DW: Two full time, we finally broke down. We each put in 104 hours each a week, we did that for like a solid year. We baked, we cleaned, we did it all ourselves, because any job that I would ever hire someone to do, I’m going to make sure that I know how to do it, that I did it first, so when someone says “that’s a crappy job,” I’ll be able to say, I know it is, I’m sorry, but I’ve been there and now it’s your turn. But we’re still here. We’re probably still here 90 hours a week.
Is it worth it to you?
DW: Absolutely. To work for yourself, I would tell anyone, it’s the best, but only if you’re doing something that you really like. For us it’s business, but it’s fun and I realize for some people, maybe it’s all about making that buck. Yeah, we’re making that buck, but I want to have a lot of fun doing it and enjoy myself. There’s nothing here that we do that we don’t have fun, even just putting up a silly sign that says “you can get caught with your hand in the cookie jar, just use the wax paper.”
PW: Totally worth it. There are some days, to be honest with you, that I think, I want a life, I want to be able to just go to a movie, and then I see people, in the rare times I’m out on the street in midtown during the day, I see people scuttling off to their jobs. And I think, I’m so glad it’s not me. I just feel that deadness inside me, not that that’s how everyone must feel, but for office work just was not stimulating.
What to you makes the perfect cake? Is there such a thing, or does it vary from person to person?
DW: There are some cakes that it just comes out so even when you bake it, so level, for whatever reason, you did something really good. We’ve all commented when we’ve iced cakes before, you just stand back and say “it’s a beautiful, beautiful cake,” the icing was just perfect, the sprinkles look so great, the inscription was just right. And then there’s the flipside.
Have you mastered that? Is it something you can control?
DW: I can’t, I never claim to be the perfect icer. For me, it’s self-taught. I watched Peggy ice, I picked up tips from her. No one cake for me looks the same but I think that’s part of my charm. I wear a fairy on my neck, I don’t wear an angel; that says a lot about me.
Cupcakes seem to be on the upswing in popularity in New York, with people having them at weddings and parties. Why do you think there’s been such a cupcake craze of late?
DW: I think the cupcake craze did truly start with Magnolia, everybody knows that scene on Sex and the City. Cupcakes have always been a great little treat. They’re easier than cake, you don’t have to slice them, you take however many you need to a party, you have variations on them, you can do so much more with them than just a cake. The trend started with Magnolia even though Cupcake Café was around much longer than Magnolia but just didn’t get the attention. That’s really all it takes is one person to write about it and say the right thing. For us to not do them would’ve been silly and we love them. We did everything in here pretty much because we liked it, but we want to be about other things than cupcakes. We have other products out there that people really like and they don’t just say “were gonna go to the cupcake place,” they say there’s eggnog trifle and slammin’ cookies.
Do the cupcakes outshadow the other products?
DW: It’d be foolish to deny ‘em, they’re their own entity. They have a whole case all to themselves.
What are your personal favorites?
DW: My personal favorite when it comes to cupcakes is ooey gooey, I can’t help it, I love and then probably after I would say the banana pudding. It’s like swimming in an ocean of sugar.
PW: Black and white cupcake, chocolate cake with the vanilla buttercream, preferably in pink with lots of sprinkles. If I get a slice of cake, ooey gooey, I’m a cake person.
What’s been the most unexpected or surprising thing about running sugar Sweet sunshine?
PW: How great customers have been to us. They bring us soup and food and CDs, plants. They’re like an extended family almost and they’ve just been amazing to us. I never expected that, it’s certainly very different from the other places we worked at. They didn’t get that vibe and maybe it’s just because we’re here every day and they know how hard we’ve been working, I don’t know, that’s a guess, or maybe there’s just very warmhearted people down here. But it didn’t feel like that in midtown.
What’s the most rewarding thing about running it?
DW: The most rewarding thing is knowing that people really love coming in here. They’re happy, they can’t help themselves. Even if they’re grumpy when they come in, they’re happy when they go out.
PW: It probably sounds really typical, but those moments when you really feel like you’ve made someone totally happy with not just the product, but the whole thing we’ve created here. Whether you just listen to them for a couple of minutes or you have a good conversation or just hear them go on and on and on about the cupcake, it is very rewarding because then you feel like, we’re really doing something right. And people are deriving some kind of joy from it. Or few times I’ve stood in the back and I’ll look up and the place is packed and just seeing people sitting here, like they thought to come here in the middle of the day and just sit and hang out with their friends and they look like they’re having a good time. I still can’t even grasp it sometimes that this was nothing a little over a year ago and now it’s warm and cozy and it’s a place to go. It’s bizarre to me sometimes and I still sometimes think of it as someone else’s, but no, it’s not. That and being able to be silly whenever I want, I find that endlessly rewarding.
What’s the most frustrating thing?
DW: Sometimes I feel bad when I don’t have something that somebody wants or I promised it and didn’t get to make it, or we sold out. Guilt.
PW: On a personal level, not having a personal level, not having a personal life right now, or not much of one. Here, it would be when something just doesn’t bake right.
There’s a large photo of Jackie Kennedy behind the counter. Is that symbolic?
PW: It actually was a gift from a friend of a friend who collects Kennedy memorabilia and he helped us a lot in getting this place going and he was very generous, he gave us the chocolate molds on the wall. He is obsessed with Kennedy, so he actually knew the photograph, Jacques Lowe, who was the Kennedy’s official photographer, and he commissioned him to make 400 lithographs of that print and he gives them away as gifts. We get a lot of people who comment on it and because we’ve had a leak problem right above her, we take her down periodically to keep her safe and people are always very upset when she’s not there. “Where’s Jackie?” they ask and we say, “Oh, she’s on a cruise this week. Sailing the Mediterranean, she’ll be back.”
What kind of goals/plans do you have for 2005?
PW: I’d like to see us get more in the way of corporate work, have more of a presence out there in midtown and capture more of that market. We’ve been getting some great jobs. We had one through Estee Lauder, and now through Redken. They’re using us to send out gifts of cupcakes to the editors of the magazines they work with. Redken is doing that all year long for editors’ birthdays. We send cupcakes and a card from Redken to Seventeen magazine, Bride, Good Housekeeping, a whole list. That’s the best kind of advertising we could do.
What inspired you to write your children’s book How a Cupcake Saved The Day?
PW: I initially did it back when I was working at Magnolia because they were getting ready to do a cookbook and I suggested adding stories in there with recipes that you could bake with your kids and read the story. I wrote a few stories myself and I kept them for years and didn’t do anything with them and when I was at my last bakery job I was like, I’m just gonna self publish it and sell it in the store and I’ll go to schools and do readings and book fairs, which is what I did. That was very rewarding when I was working there, to have the regular kids who wanted the story read to them every time they came or parents who bought it for their kids and said they love to read it every day.
Speaking of kids, is it extra rewarding when kids are here as customers?
PW: Sometimes. There is this one little girl I love to serve. She comes in with her mom and they stand there and she gets so excited because she picks out exactly which cupcake she wants and then I say, “I’ll make it special for you” and I take it in the back and put a flower sugar decoration on and say “Okay, here it is” and she’s very excited every single time, so that makes my day. The kids are fun; it’s funny though, I think sometimes it’s the adults that make more of a mess with the cupcakes than the children. You see cupcakes strewn all over the floor, it’s like, geez, did they get any in their mouths? Kids’ll eat the icing off and that’s it, kids are all about the icing and the sprinkles, they don’t care about the cakes as much. We don’t get so many children in here, it’s really the adults who are the big cupcake eaters.
Is there a typical Sugar Sweet Sunshine customer?
PW: I used to think it was more women, like 20s and 30s and I would say that this is a youngish neighborhood so we do get a lot in that range. Maybe that’s why we don’t get a lot of kids, because there’s not a lot of families per se down here, but there’s heck of a lot of guys too and it’s funny because male or female, they all seem to want the pink.
Do you ever get sick of cupcakes/sweets?
DW: The two of us had to reign ourselves in because we opened, we were cupcake obsessed. Every single day, it was a whole process at the end of the night to pick the cupcake that was coming home with me and it really is still like that. After a year it was like, “I’ve had a cupcake every day for the past 10 months.” I always thought if somebody had a camera in here or at the end of the night or a telescopic lens and saw the two of us picking out our cupcake, they would laugh.
For people who’ve never tried your baked goods, what would you like them to know about them?
DW: That everything, it sounds so corny, but everything is really made with so much love, it really was, and that it’s fresh, we try to keep everything fresh. It’s made with love and fun.
PW: In terms of cupcakes, it’s probably gonna be the best damn cupcake they’ve ever had, at least I think so. Just that everything’s made here in the store with very fresh, wholesome ingredients, everything’s made by us and it’s very American style, nostalgic, ooeey gooey, luscious desserts.
Do you have anything special planned for Valentine's Day?
PW: We’re definitely going to have Valentine’s decorations on cupcakes and cakes, heart shaped cakes, we’re going to be offering a 12 pack of minis, wrapped, the week before. It’ll be a cute container wrapped in ribbon and we’ll have regular cupcakes with little candy hearts on them. Valentine’s Day is the second biggest day for a bakery, after Thanksgiving, and then Halloween, at other places I’ve worked that’s how it’s been.
sugar Sweet sunshine is located at 126 Rivington Street between Essex and Norfolk and is open Monday through Thursday, 8 - 10, Friday, 8 - 11, Saturday 10 - 11 and Sunday 10 - 7. Contact Peg and Deb for special orders or requests.