A couple of high school kids entered My Sweet Cupcake on a recent Friday afternoon. Silent, eyes glued to the display of sweets customers encounter upon entering the petite Mission Street bakery, they concernedly analyzed trays of chocolate frosting topped banana cupcakes, homemade brownies and a gluten-free vegan fudge pie. Co-owner Adam Nicholson gave them an energetic welcome, “How’s it going guys? Anything particular you’re interested in? We’ve got red velvet today! Coconut pineapple if you’re in a fruity mood. Chocolate chip—”
“How much are they?” one of the kids blurted out.
It appeared the teenagers were interested in everything they saw. The question really was not what they wanted—but how much they could buy.
My Sweet Cupcake has been in South Pasadena for nearly three years, but will be vacating 954 Mission St. at the end of October. It is the culinary brainchild of Sonia Chang, who patrons have come to affectionately refer to as Chef Sonia.
With a background in the classroom, where she used cooking as a vehicle to teach science to students at the elementary level, Chang began to market her own food about five or six years ago when the cottage food industry began to take off in Los Angeles thanks to the passage of a law prompted by the booming number of unlicensed vendors selling at farmers’ markets.
Chef Sonia developed a granola product whose popularity rapidly increased. It came in savory flavors of jalapeno, cherry chocolate agave and pumpkin and became so successful that four to five years ago it was carried by 24 stores, including Whole Foods. She has continued to sell the product online since taking over My Sweet Cupcake though its production has dipped due to the time required to prepare cupcakes.
“When we first came in here our intent was to produce granola on a grander scale,” said Nicolson. As part of the gradual transition the new owners envisioned, of turning My Sweet Cupcake into more of a general bakery, they even flirted with changing its name…to My Sweet Bakery. “But we just got so many orders and demands for cupcakes that we realized that was what the shop was going to be, a cupcake place.”
Chef Sonia, shockingly for those who have tasted her creations, had no experience making cupcakes when she bought the business with Nicholson in 2015.
So how did she learn? “It’s all science,” she answered matter-of-factly. Okay, but what exactly does the Korean immigrant and La Canada High School graduate mean by science? For Chef Sonia, it means bringing innovation to cooking. In one fell swoop upon taking over the South Pasadena-originated shop, she dramatically changed the proportions of the ingredients. Instead of using eight eggs per batch (48 cupcakes), as the previous recipe instructed, Chang used one. Then she reduced the sugar in her cupcakes by half.
“I don’t like my desserts to be too sweet,” she said. “If they’re too sweet, you can only have so much.”
Biting into a warm banana cupcake, unfrosted because the frosting is unnecessary, the aroma and flavor of banana is natural. My Sweet Cupcake also takes pride in the lengths it goes to so as to offer gluten-free and vegan options to customers, offering special pies and other baked goods made with the proper vegan ingredients.
Where does Nicholson fit into the production? An accomplished musician who has shared stages like the Troubadour and the Waters Club with bands like Guns n’ Roses, Nicholson often provides a crucial function for the bakery—its personal, concierge service.
“We tell people to phone ahead, park in the alleyway off Mission Street, and we’ll walk out and bring their order to them,” said Nicholson.
“There was one time,” he continued, “that this one guy passed the place and went past the train tracks, and I ran down the street with a box of cupcakes going, ‘Hey! Here you go!’”
And now that they are leaving at the end of the month, the co-owners want to thank the South Pasadena community for its loyalty and support. “We really want to thank the community, the patrons of South Pasadena,” they said. “Our regular customers have really embraced us and we’ve been very happy and pleased to get to know them. We appreciate their support and allowing us to be a part of their daily celebration.”
Many in the community have been surprised to learn that the business is shutting down.
“People say ‘Oh so you couldn’t make it?’” said Nicolson, before shaking his head. “We’re like, ‘No it’s the opposite, we were doing great.’ But the landlord doubled the rent.
“It seems to be a growing trend in the city. Things are getting so overinflated to where it’s like, I don’t know if it’s a too big to fail mentality, but you’re already failing before you go in.”
Chang added that selling a product with such a small profit margin makes it even more difficult to succeed. “Our cupcakes are $3 to $4.50. You’ve got to sell a lot of cupcakes to make the rent. That’s why people are going out of business, it’s too much overhead. And with minimum wage going up, you can’t afford to have employees.”
A moving truck is coming on Monday. Nicholson and Chang need to completely vacate by the end of the month.
Thankfully, the two have no plans of giving up on their dream of running a restaurant/bakery. They are already looking at locations for a new business in the Pasadena area. The My Sweet Cupcake owners plan on offering an assortment of foods at their new place, where they will focus on grab-and-go items including pizzas, fresh baked breads, brownies, granola and funnel cakes. Will they still be selling cupcakes? “Yes!” says Nicolson. “We’ll narrow it down, though, to what we sell most: the horchatas, the red velvets, the chocolates.”
My Sweet Cupcake will be open throughout Saturday night’s Arts Crawl from 5-9 p.m. Nicolson and Chef Sonia will be selling some of their Halloween gift baskets as well as offering samples of some of their newer products, such as Chef Sonia’s potato cheddar muffin.