My first trip to Sweet! was indeed just that, a birthday surprise from my boyfriend. “Let’s get in the car and drive. I have a surprise for you,” he had said. Like any female–girl, teenager or woman–that hears the combination of words birthday and surprise, I was giggly and gooey with excitement. And then we turned into the Waterford Lakes shopping plaza.
For those of you who know Cory, you know shopping centers are not places he frequents often. They’re like Suburbian theme parks over-stuffed with everything he loathes–people, traffic, corporate America, commercialism and idealism. I was not getting treated to a shopping spree. I know better than that.
But then he pointed to this tiny little shop and said, “Remember the lady we watched on Cupcake Wars the other day? This is her shop. You can pick out as many cupcakes as you want. It’s $1 Mini Monday Mania.” Knowing that he risked his life, traveling into his own ring of Dante’s Inferno to deliver me my birthday present, was just about the sweetest thing he could have done for me. And then I tasted the cupcakes.
Wow. I don’t even know how to describe them, except for that I’ve never described myself as a sweet person in years past, and now I’ll happily confess my Sweet! addiction. My suggestions, try both the Key Lime Pie and Boston Creme Pie minis. Heaven.
Naturally, I needed to find out the story behind these delicious cupcakes. And as quickly as I sent an email to the Sweet! staff, I received an invitation to Miss Holly’s Premiere Party (to watch her second appearance on Cupcake Wars) at Florida Hospital. I wasn’t sure what to expect from a Premiere Party at a hospital but if I had to sum it up in five words, it would go like this: Most Impressive Display of Cupcakes Ever. I ate as many cupcakes as I stashed in my purse, which ultimately left me feeling sick and disgusted with myself, but impressed by Good Golly Miss Holly’s gratuitous gift to her family and fan club.
Fast forward two months, where Hollis and I finally got the chance to meet up for this interview at a Starbuck’s in Maitland. It’s the only interview I’ve ever done without a script.
What brought you to Orlando?
I lived in Los Angeles for over twenty years. While I was there, I started a company called Good Golly Miss Holly—a savory chef to celebrities. I started out doing birthday parties, while I was also a photographer’s assistant, and a nanny … you know, whatever I needed to do to pay the bills. Then I sorta fell into this job offer to go and do breakfast for a family and a bunch of people. When I showed up, it was Annette Bening and Warren Beatty. The Swarchenegger’s were there, as well as other notable public figures, and also behind the scenes producers and director types. Slowly, it became a way for me to make it as a living. I wasn’t making it as an actress …
Was acting something you were pursuing?
Yeah. That’s why I originally had moved out to L.A.
Where are you originally from?
I started out in Michigan. When I was twelve, I moved to Vermont. I lived in Vermont until I was eighteen. Then I moved to the Providence of Rhode Island. I wanted to be an art student at the Rhode Island School of Design [RISD]. From there, I continued to study theater and moved to Manhattan. I lived with Carolyn Bessette, who later married John Kennedy. She was a lovely friend and a great inspiration in my life.
I decided Vermont wasn’t going to work for me. I wanted to start all over. So I drove across the country. I didn’t know anyone. It took me three months to get a cross. I ended up staying in New Mexico for almost the entire time, and I lived in a tee pee. I had a great time there. Almost stayed, but I did not want to live in a tee pee for the rest of my life so I continued to L.A.
And all of this, it just fell into my lap, one thing after the other. My big break happened when I started doing parties for people. My boyfriend lived next door to the creator of Will & Grace. At the time, he was the creator of that show Boston Common, which was just on the air just for a couple of years. Anyhow, Max Mutchnick saw me one morning. At the time, I had this big, huge red hair. He was working on the idea of the show Will & Grace and he was like, “Oh, who’s that.” Honestly, I think he just liked my hair. You know, cause Deborah Messing’s character ended up having red hair.
He had asked my boyfriend about me, who told him I was a chef. He was like, “I need one of those. Right away. I need her.” So I did a sample luncheon for him at the Studio. I got great feedback, but I didn’t hear back from anyone for like a month. I was trying to pay my bills, my car insurance and lah, lah, lah—just a lot of stuff. I was thinking, “Please call me.” And that was my big break.
He called, although a month later, and said, “Okay. We’re ready to go. We need you to start doing lunches next week, every single day.” Studios go on hiatus for almost three months, and the season starts in the summer. So I think they started shooting July or August. I can’t remember now, but it was in the heat of the summer. It was a hundred degrees in the valley.
Word traveled quickly around the lot, and even though it was a CBS studio lot, every major TV show was being filmed there and I started making lunch for all of them. It became hugely successful, very quickly.
Now, do you have a culinary background?
No. I couldn’t get accepted to RISD because I’m dyslexic. I also didn’t have any money. The only thing I was capable of studying and passing was art and English. So what I did was I would sign up for financial aid, and then I would start the semester, get the money, and then leave and go to Europe for the rest of the semester. I did that over and over again until years passed and I was $20,000 in debt. But at least I got to go and do whatever I wanted, and that was great.
So you learned all your culinary skills over seas?
I did. Also, both of my parents weren’t trained chefs but they were incredible in entertaining—from the floral arrangement, to setting the stage for a party, the interior design, just anything to do with entertaining. My mother was amazing at baking. She would make like eighty different kinds of cookies, put them in these tin boxes, wrap them with big bows and deliver them to my dad’s clients for Christmas. She made her own bread … everything we ate she made.
My dad was more of the savory chef. He would roast a whole duckling or whole fish. Once we raced lobsters in the street in front of our home during our annual block party. When I was growing up, Starbuck’s was a new idea. Everything was becoming a phenomena—French presses, gadgets from Williams and Sonoma, anything to equip a kitchen. My parents were pretty cutting edge in keeping their kitchen stocked. When we moved to Vermont, they retired and bought a restaurant.
So basically I took experiences from when I traveled—I had lived in Spain. I lived in Italy. I traveled to France and England. And my cooking is a combination of all those experiences, both from home and abroad.
When I was in L.A.—working like crazy and making food for a hundred people a day and doing very well at it—I was making cupcakes here and there, and frozen yogurt, but on such a small scale. I was serving mainly savory, because the Zone diet was big then, and no one was really eating sweets. Then, my children were born.
And how old are they?
They’re almost seven and eight now, fourteen months a part.
Boys or girls?
One of each. Once they were born, I didn’t want to live in L.A. anymore. L.A. is a major city that’s on par with any major city in the world. It’s great … and the influx of culture, and food, and beautiful people, trends and all those things. Leaving L.A. meant giving up all those things to venture out into the vast opportunity all across the nation.
I knew I wanted to come up with some type of concept for a franchise or corporately owned business—that’s a big question for me right now, whether to franchise or corporatize, I think it’ll work itself out in the next year or so. If I explored other parts of the country that were showing strong signs of growth, I knew I would have more of a chance of a concept taking, instead of jumping into an already over-saturated market.
The two places that were having incredible amounts of growth at that time was Raleigh, North Carolina and Orlando. My husband’s family had been doing some developing in Florida, but I remember us thinking, “There’s no way we can go to Orlando.” So we went to Raleigh, North Carolina and froze. And then we drove from Raleigh to here. [Laughs] It was too cold, and we couldn’t handle it. I had a toddler and a baby. No thank you.
By then you already had Good Golly Miss Holly established, right?
Good Golly Miss Holly was the name of my savory catering company in Los Angeles. Now, that we arrived here, it took a little bit to come up with a concept. I thought about a diner, but I wasn’t into it. Then I thought I’d open a tart frozen yogurt place. When I pitched it to Simon, which you have to be on the waiting list for that place, like two and a half years, they were like, “No.”
Simon is the top in commercial real estate across the nation. So if you want location, location, location, you go to where there are 50,000 cars going in and out of the parking lot. That means a real density of about 60 to 80 thousand people a day in the Waterford Lakes shopping plaza. When you’re living in a city where there’s not at least a half a million people walking by your shop window everyday, you need the traffic to drive your business. You don’t want your cupcake shop just to do a couple hundred thousand in business. It’s a lot of work. If you’re going to get up, and work that hard, you are going to want to make that money. Not just make it until the end of the day.
So I went back to them, and this time I used all my clientele from Los Angeles to bolster myself up and I said, “You’d be foolish not to go with me. I’m a celebrity chef and I will drive the business to your shopping area. And I want to add cupcakes to the yogurt concept.” And they were like, “We love that. Sounds great.” They flew in the next day and I had five hundred cupcakes waiting for them, and not the minis, the original size, which are the size of your fist.
They were like, “Oh my gosh.” There were cupcakes everywhere. It was great. And then we signed the deal on the spot. I knew the company would be a success. I certainly had no idea the Food Network was going to call me.
How did that contact happen?
They just called me. The Food Network finds personalities that they want to put on TV. When they Googled cupcakes in Florida, my name came up. They were interested even more because my website is fun and there was the image of Miss Holly on it. Other companies may have had a face but I’m a brand. My face is on the back of the truck, the club card, there’s a cartoon and …
In reflection, do you think branding yourself was the best idea you ever had?
Without a doubt. The first time I told someone I wanted to do that, they thought I was crazy. To put my face on the back of a truck? “That’s [having a lot of] ego” and “kinda weird” they would say. But it’s Martha Stewart, Aunt Jemima, Famous Amos, Mrs. Fields—food companies that have been wildly successful have a face attached to them. So I thought, if I look like this, I better use it to my advantage for as long as I can. The joke I always say is, “Please dear God, please let’s just get this ball rolling before I have to go under the knife.” I mean, already they have to airbrush me for six hours just to make me look like the back of the truck. [Laughs]
It’s super fun. The dichotomy for me is that I talk about Miss Holly as the brand, but really it’s me. I have to take care of myself.
Was it difficult for you to leave your business to film TV?
Yes! There’s absolutely no way I could have left my business to film in L.A. if I didn’t have the staff that I have. There’s just no way. Staff—it’s the #1 most important thing. The hardest thing for me when I left—well, actually there was two things—the hardest was when I left the business, I had to say, “I have to trust you guys to create the cupcakes in the same amount of time that I did, with the same look and the same taste.” I had to trust their commitment to the product.
The second thing that’s really hard is that I’m making a company about Miss Holly, which sometimes feels selfish. I mean, I talk about Miss Holly in the 3rd person! And I’m using myself, my face and selling my personality to build an entire brand, and hoping to monopolize on it.
Do you feel like you may be losing your identity?
No. It seems to be working for me. The only thing I worry about is aging. Seriously. I worry about not having enough energy and being able to keep up, and also maintaining a good home life with my children. I’m only one person. I have to thank my husband Barry for being an amazing father.
Now that you’re opening a new store in Jacksonville, what do you think will be your biggest challenge?
Being in two places at the same time. I have to do what I’ve done here, but double the size. I have a few people willing to move to Jacksonville with me, manage, and run the kitchen. And if I get what I want—and I always get what I want because I make it clear what I want—I’ll rent a house on the beach and the store should open by August/September. I met with a designer today. It’s exciting. This store will be the prototype for many more to come, hopefully.
Which cupcakes are your favorite?
I’m a chocolate person, S’mores or Blackout.
How many cupcakes does Sweet! make each day?
Right now, we’re producing, on average, 5,000 per day. Yesterday, we did 6,000 cupcakes—875 tickets. That means that at least 875 people came into my store in Waterford Lakes yesterday. The irony of it is that it was a Monday. Most restaurants will tell you, Mondays are the slowest days, but what we did was create Mini Mania Monday, where the mini is $1 instead of $1.50. Everyone drives from all over Florida and are just over the moon about that. It’s insane. Mondays are now just as big as Saturdays.
Have your sales doubled from being on TV?
100%. I felt confident in the competition because I have a savory chef background and I know my way around the kitchen.
How do you stay in such good shape?
It’s all about moderation. I probably eat a dozen minis a week, maybe, and that’s about tasting. I also have a trainer Bryan Meyer. He trains Dwight Howard who eats the cupcakes too!
And what about your kids?
I don’t bring the cupcakes home often, they tend to go for the yogurt with fruit more.
What inspires you?
Anyone who is doing something outside the box and thinking on a grandiose level with a realistic ability and understanding of how they can implement those grandiose ideas. The thing I learned when I moved to Orlando, even with my limited knowledge of cyberspace, is the whole world is right here. If I can do what I’ve done here, I can take it anywhere.
What business advice would you give to new entrepreneurs?
You have to make sure you have money and not worry if your business doesn’t make money [immediately]. That has not changed, no matter what’s happening with the economy. The fact of the matter is if you’re coming up with a new concept, your output will always be more than your input and you won’t make money your first two years. I gave away $100,000 in product my first year. For Orlando that seems like a lot but for L.A. it’s really a drop in the bucket. It’s essential you get your product into people’s mouths, hearts and minds any way that you can!
*Interview Date: May 3, 2011
To order your own delicious cupcakes, go to Sweet! online.