Cupcake Wars: Lexington’s Brown’s Bakery a Contender

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This story appears on page 6 of the June 16 edition of Ace.

BY TOM YATES

Last week, Brown’s Bakery announced via Twitter that they had been selected to appear on the Season 3 Premiere of  The Food Network’s Cupcake Wars.We were thrilled, but not surprised.
Several years ago, while on a routine trip to the grocery, we stumbled upon Brown’s Bakery in Meadowthorpe. We stepped inside to take a peek and were completely wowed by the cupcakes beaming from the display cases. They were gorgeous. They weren’t frilly or fussy. They simply looked delicious, begging to be eaten.  We bought an entire box filled with assorted flavors, colors, and icings. We quickly became loyal customers, stopping by regularly for pastries, cupcakes, and special occasions (birthday cakes).

Brown’s Bakery is a local,  family-run bakery owned and operated by baker James Brown. After serving the locals for 4 1/2 years at their old location at  1397 West  Main Street, they recently moved to their new location at 1226  Versailles Road.  Eagerly, their loyal customers followed them.

After work, on the day of the announcement, I headed straight to Brown’s Bakery to stock up on our favorite cupcakes. When I stepped through the door, Mr. Brown’s daughter was watching television, while his son spooned dough fom a container using a small ice cream scoop. The new shop immediately felt comfortable and welcoming.  James Brown greeted me with his infectious smile and asked how things were going.  As we talked, I pointed to several new and familar cupcakes in the cases that I wanted to purchase. While  he boxed them up, I asked him if we could chat, so  we sat at a small bistro table by the window and talked in between customers.
Asked  about the bakery’s  transition and  relocation, he said that he had ”taken a look around  and had been considering closing the business. The amount of time that it was taking, with three small children, wasn’t a fit for their family. He candidly continued, ” I knew I wanted to stay in baking and pastry, but I wasn’t certain  that I wanted to keep doing donuts and things like that.  I knew I didn’t want to.”

On his trip to California for Cupcake Wars, he was inspired by the number of specialty cupcake shops and wedding cake shops he noticed while in Los Angeles.  We he returned to Kentucky, he ” thought, maybe if we became more specialized, we could be successful here and it would bring me back to what I wanted to do.”

The new location is smaller, with a few tables for seating. He says, “The biggest compliment I’ve gotten from a lot of my old customers is that it feels more intimate.”  The smaller space is perfect for Brown. “A lot of our focus now is on cupcakes, cakes, cookies, and desserts.”  He continued,  “We’re baking and because this is all we do, we’re able to bake smaller batches and offer fresher product.”
We took a short break while a young man bought two brownies.
“We’re focused,” he says when he sits back down. “We’ve taken our lumps in the past 4 and a half years.  It’s definitely not been easy, but we’re still here and we’re still fighting it through.  I’m hoping  that the local exposure that we’re getting because we’re on Cupcake Wars, combined with being on a national program will help put us over the hump, I really do.We’re trying to do everything we can.”
James Brown is a passionate baker. Two older women entered the store to buy cupcakes. They inquired about the cupcake buffet he used to hold at the old location. I thought  I overheard him say, “After baking 1000 cupcakes on Cupcake Wars, I’m not sure I’m up for that.”  Secrets?  I watch Cupcake Wars. I knew that the cupcake competitors bake 1000 cupcakes only if they make it to the final round of competition. (Although many bakers likely practice the 1000-cupcake challenge before they make the trip.)
When he returned to our table, I got right to the point and said,  “Let’s talk about Cupcake Wars.”
I told him that I was a huge fan of the show and I knew how tough the judging was.  I asked him about the pressure and his experience with the judges. ”Without giving away what actually happened on the show, they were very fair and honest.  I was happy I got a lot of compliments from the judges. They were hard on some folks. It’s definitely not something you want to do if your feelings are easily hurt.  It’s a lot harder than it seems.”
He continued, ” Those of us who do this for a living understand the ins and outs of baking, but there’s just something about getting in front of a bunch of cameras.  You’ve got at least eight cameras on you. You’ve got a producer at every station instructing you. The hardest thing for us was, anytime you work in a kitchen environment, especially with an assistant, you’re like dance partners.  You move without having to say anything.  That’s fine for the shop, but it doesn’t make for good t.v… The producers had to remind us to talk to each other.”
I understand how bakers and chefs react to different equipment, so I asked him if he had any issues with the ovens on the show. “You know, I did not. You’re happy to be there. Everybody was. You’re nervous. When mistakes happened, you have to go back to training, forget that you’re on Cupcake Wars, and think I’ve got a customer and I’m supposed to have this order ready, what do I do to fix this problem right now.”
Typically, the cupcake bakers on Cupcake Wars encounter plenty of problems on a regular basis. “The clock is real,” he said. “It does not stop.  If you make a mistake, burn something, or leave something out, you better be able to fix it, or you’re going home in the first round.”
When asked how he was selected to be on the show, Brown said, “I didn’t submit anything to them. It was always a personal goal of mine to get on a Food Network competition.  I didn’t know how to go about it. The week that they called us, I had looked up how to get on a show.  That Monday, I just happened to looking around and thinking, I would love to get on one of those shows.  I couldn’t find anything.  By Thursday, I was sitting at my desk when the phone rang.”  It was Justin Willman from Cupcake Wars asking if he’d be interested in coming on the show.  He was floored.
Food Network discovered Brown’s Bakery through their website, BrownBakery.com, which links to their twitter and facebook pages. A recent tweet says, “ok so 18 different types of cupcakes I just finished. Surely we have your favorite one, or two, or three…you get the point.” Brown said, “This day and age, social media is so important.  A lot of the businesses that seem to do well, especially with the younger folks, use social media.”

After submitting an audition tape and being selected, he and his assitant, Leigann Mogenhan, flew out to California.  “We spent 5 days and 4 nights out there getting ready for the show, prepping it and all day filming to do the actual competition.”

When they found out what their challenge was, they focused their attention on creating a mint julep cupcake. He says,  “It really was a perfect fit for us to do.  It really was.  It’s Kentucky.”
Although I certainly knew better, I simply couldn’t resist asking James Brown if he won the competition.

We both broke into hysterical laughter. He adds, “They make you sign a five page letter of non-disclosure,” he laughed, then added, still laughing,  “The camera does add about 20 pounds.”

My reply?  “You’re a baker.”  A very good one, at that.
After thanking him for his gracious hospitality, I gathered my cupcakes and packed my things.  As I was leaving, a young woman entered the bakery to order her wedding cake.

I hope he wins.

The season three premiere of Cupcake Wars airs Tuesday, June 14. Check local listings.

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