Booze-Infused Bites of Happiness!

Baker: Lauren Klein, High Spirited Cupcakes
By: Laura Stoddard

Sweet, with a kick. That’s how I’d describe both Lauren Klein, and her cupcakes. This bubbly, self-taught baker is ratcheting things up a notch in the culinary scene by melding her decadent homemade cupcakes with creative, craft cocktails. We sat down in Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Lounge to chat about her unique business, and found ourselves laughing most of the time. She is every bit as fun, interesting and exciting as the culinary confections she creates. Her business, High Spirited Cupcakes, is still relatively new, but sure to sky-rocket once word gets out.

We started out of the gate on a great foot when I asked Lauren to tell me about herself and she blithely stated, “I’m a unicorn.” I guffawed. Say what? “I’m a Phoenician! Born and raised,” she explained, laughing. “There aren’t a lot of us here. Everyone goes away, and then they come back.” It’s true. Most people you talk to in Phoenix are transplants from other states. It’s uncommon to find an actual native, so I made sure to value my time with this rare and special breed. This particular unicorn loves to bake, and has been doing so since she can remember.

She grew up cooking and baking with her mother, but as the years went by she never consciously considered a career in the culinary industry. By the time she started college, in fact, she had very different aspirations in mind—ones that might lead her to The Great White Way. “I got my degree in pretend,” she joked. “I went to Northern Arizona University and I have a theater major; so I say I have my major in pretend and my minor in bullsh*t (sociology). Even though I loved cooking, I was pretty dead-set on theater until I turned about twenty-four.”

And at about twenty-four, she realized she didn’t really want to make that gigantic leap to New York or L.A., especially since her greatest passion wasn’t on the stage, but in the kitchen. This unicorn was meant to bake! “I still love theater,” she said. “But I just always wanted to open up a bakery. That was a big dream of mine.”

She credits a great deal of that dream to her mother, who made baking something special. Even though her mother worked, Lauren said she always made it a point to be home before Lauren and her sister got home from school, and have some delicious, homemade goodie waiting for them. It made a powerful impression on Lauren. “Growing up, I learned that the notion of giving somebody a baked good was like giving a piece of love, or a smile. So, I always connected baking with making people happy.” Including herself; “As a kid, when you’re in elementary school and middle school, kids can be mean and rough, so I turned to baking as a form of free therapy.”

Lauren loved that she could tune everything else out while she baked. It was relaxing. It made her happy. “Baking just came to me. I like to call it magic, though. Because you start with a bunch of things, and put them together, and it comes out as this little bite of happiness.” In school, she loved to make cookies, brownies and cupcakes for her friends and family whenever possible. “I would go online and find random tarts or whatever to make, and I would give them away.” The more she baked and gave, the happier she was. “That’s what High Spirited Cupcakes is about. It’s that bite—that second where you go, Ah, this is good, and everything sort of melts away.”

In college, even though being a full-time baker wasn’t on her mind, Lauren, of course, still loved being in the kitchen—but she was now broadening her horizons. She started incorporating different types of alcohol into her bakes—Kahlua in cookies; Don Julio in cupcakes—and (unsurprisingly) they were a huge hit! She started doing a monthly dinner with her girlfriends and trying out her recipes on them.

About five and a half years ago, Lauren started dating renowned mixologist Ross Simon (founder of Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Lounge). “It really wasn’t until I met him and learned about craft cocktails that I learned there is an entire world out there!” And she had a realization: cupcakes and cocktails had something really fantastic in common—they were both blank canvases. Cocktails start with an empty glass, and cupcakes start with an empty tin; both ready to be filled with endless possibilities. “When somebody says, That’s so vanilla, I love that. I love it. I love vanilla, because you can do so much with it!”

With the opening of Bitter & Twisted about three years ago, Lauren and Ross started talking seriously about her doing cupcakes full-time—making it an actual business. “So he gave me the platform, and, as you can see,” she laughed, gesturing to the enormous, well-stocked wall behind us, “the back bar to experiment with. I started small, with a margarita cupcake. My second one was during the World Cup, and I called them World Cupcakes. And then I did a cinnamon-whiskey apple pie one, which has become one of our best sellers. It’s a cinnamon whiskey cupcake and a cinnamon whiskey caramel butter cream.” She named this cupcake the I Love Lucy, after her grandmother, with whom she used to make apple pies.

“I still get a lot of my inspiration from Ross’s cocktails,” she said. “But now it’s sort of, in the moment—What tastes good to me? What tastes good together? Now, what alcohol can I put in it?”

Lauren dove into this new venture head-first. It’s what her whole life had been leading up to, really. She started baking out of the kitchen at Bitter & Twisted. “I’m 100% self-taught. It is a constant, constant learning. I think if you ever feel like you’re done learning, then you’re done.” She launched her business along with one of her girlfriends, started coming up with any and every spirited cupcake she could think of, created an online presence and ordering system, and baked her little fingers off—for three years, with one KitchenAid and one oven, in the kitchen of a bar. She was rewarded for all her hard work when a recent opportunity presented itself. The Courtyard by Marriott Phoenix Downtown hotel, next door to Bitter & Twisted, offered to let her use their commercial kitchen.

Back to that learning she was talking about. “My biggest hurdle when I moved into that kitchen was learning how to use the really expensive oven! It would just cause me so much anxiety.” But Lauren likes a challenge, so she pulled on her big girl oven mitts and got to work. “It took me three weeks—I counted them—and I made fifteen vanilla cupcakes; like fifteen dozen vanilla cupcakes, trying every different combination. The minute that I got it right, it was just this small victory, and I realized—“ she broke off, looking thoughtful. “I think a lot of life is made up of small victories, and you have to take the time to celebrate those, and then continue forward.”

Lauren works at Bitter & Twisted a couple days a week (creating craft cocktails keeps the gears turning in her head), but her wholesale cupcake business is now full-time.

I assumed that obtaining a storefront must be the next logical box for Lauren to want to check off her list, but she actually has something a little more ambitious in mind. “We actually have a business plan for a café. The whole point was a café.” But as happens often with new ventures, there are growing pains, and Lauren experienced some. “Like all things in the food and beverage industry, things happen. We were close [to getting a café] three times, and there were three massive heartbreaks, but we kept moving forward. And then this happened!” she smiled. “This incredible opportunity to have a commercial space given to us, basically, with very little overhead, to establish and build a company—build a brand—and get our names out there.”

By now many of you are probably dying to know where you can buy these high-spirited cupcakes. A couple different places, actually. In The Bistro at the Courtyard Marriott (non-alcoholic varieties only). On the website: At Bitter & Twisted Tuesdays through Saturdays (expect three different rotating flavors every day). Or you may just happen upon them the next time you’re out on the town. “We’ve been delivering cupcakes around the valley to bars and restaurants, and we’re in talks with some great places.”

Lauren says that she has created over 85 varieties of cakes in the past three years! On the website there are only 25 to choose from, but, she hastens to add, “We also do custom cupcakes. We’ll do them for events or if somebody says, So and so really loves this cocktail—can you do that? Yeah, of course we can. Designer craft cocktail cupcakes. That’s what we do. I’ve done bachelorette parties, birthdays, baby showers, all kinds of things.” And don’t worry about needing a designated driver after eating one or two of these, as they actually have a very low concentration of alcohol; it does get baked out after all. “Our cupcakes are tantamount to a rum cake. I mean, I’ve done events where the parents are giving them to their kids, and I say, You know there’s alcohol in there, and they say, Will it put them to sleep? And I say No, but it will give them a sugar rush.“

I wrapped up my lively chat with Lauren by asking her what advice she’d give to someone thinking about getting into the industry. Her response was immediate: “Do it. Just do it. Go for it. There are going to be a lot of setbacks. Like, I’m a perfectionist, and it is really hard to be a perfectionist when you’re starting to learn, because it’s a process. I’m still learning, every day. But there are all those little A-ha moments. Just do it. You have to get in there; start watching YouTube and cooking channels, learn techniques, look at Pinterest, start experimenting at home. I don’t know if I’m ever going to think of myself as fully legit. Whether it takes off, or if I’m doing this baking for bachelorettes and weddings thing forever—to me, I will always see myself as that little four-year-old girl with batter and flour everywhere in the kitchen. It’s those memories,” she smiles. “And then you add alcohol, and it makes it so much more fun!”

Fun is a word that just kept reverberating around my head while talking to Lauren. Because that’s what she is. So fun! She’s genuinely enthusiastic and passionate about her life, her business, and the opportunity to provide those delectable little bites of happiness to as many people as she can (prancing like a glorious unicorn, as she goes). Thanks again for your time, Lauren! Hope our paths cross again soon!

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