Heather Zidell and Leora Azoulay Lesh like to say they're in the business of selling happiness. It's a slogan that admittedly sounds a little cheesy, but once you meet the ladies behind Trailercakes, you get the sense that it's something they truly believe in. Endearingly self-effacing, they are very clear about the fact that Trailercakes is somewhat of a fluke — just a cupcake bakery that started with a whim and an accidental eBay win of an Airstream trailer they named Bubbles.
With a lot of trial and error and plenty of support from loyal customers, Trailercakes has come from humble beginnings in the basement of a Richardson office building to flourish into a shiny new shop on Knox Street, decked out in cutesy retro decor with cupcakes named to match — think Caramel Eileen, Bananarama, and Strawberry Fields. Eater recently sat down with Zidell and Lesh to chat about Trailercakes, and here's what they had to say:
How did you guys get started in the cupcake business?
Heather: We've always wanted to start a business together. We've always loved a lot of the nostalgic stuff, like Airstreams, and Leora called me out of the blue after seeing all the food truck stuff down in Austin and goes 'Hey, do you want to open a cupcake trailer?' and I didn't even stutter, I was like 'Yeah sure, why not?' We knew nothing about starting a food biz. We both had full-time jobs and Leora has three kids, so it was a challenge. I mean, we were nuts. I remembered I had met a guy 10 years ago who was really into Airstreams, so we basically stalked him until he agreed to meet with us. He taught us everything we needed to know about Airstreams — enough to be dangerous anyway. We were fascinated.
Leora: We were logging onto Airstream trucker forums as like, 'cupcakegirl'. [laughs] But they were so helpful.
Heather: Then we finally found the one on eBay. And the woman's screenname was 'bubblesmini', which of course we named our trailer after.
Leora: We didn't know what the hell we were bidding on. Heather would just send me pictures like 'How about this one?' They start out low and then they end up selling really high — so we were just bidding on them to make ourselves feel like we were doing something. We bid on this one without really looking at the picture, and it was a disaster. Luckily we were outbid, so we were like 'whew!' Then lo and behold a few days later I get an eBay invoice. I'm always buying stuff on eBay so it was like, oh I wonder what it was that I won. And I get the bill and it's major, so I look at the picture and it's the Airstream. Congratulations, you've won a 1965 Airstream! So I call Heather and I'm freaking out.
The girl who sold it to us had inherited this farm in Ohio and in the middle of the acreage they found this deserted, dilapidated, animal-infested Airstream. It was awful. So she kept emailing us like, when are you going to come get this thing? It didn't even have wheels. We're calling UShip and truckers trying to figure out how do you ship an Airstream. And so Heather would say to me every day, 'Has Bubbles called you?' And I said, let's just call it a loss, just tell her to keep the thing, we can't figure out a way to get this thing here. But we found a shipper, we shipped it here. Everybody was like 'No. Way.' The door fell off. It fell apart on the highway. It really did.
Were there any animals still living in it when arrived?
Leora: They fled but they left a few party favors for us. It literally fell apart on 75, it had holes in it. I promise you, it was awful. The contractor told us it would be an act of god to fix it. So I'm like, let's just leave it. And Heather is sentimental and she believes in fate, and she's like, no, this is our fate, we're gonna nurture it!
Heather: At this point we were already a couple grand in it, and a couple grand in shipping. So the contractor comes out and basically tells us, you got hosed, just sell it and start over. They told us they'd give us $250 for it, and we were like, not a chance. We're gonna make this work.
Leora: So we found somebody to nurture it, and we restored Bubbles to what you see today. Then we went to the city like 'Yay, we're ready to go! Give us our permit!' and they said oh no, we don't permit food trailers in Dallas. This was back in 2010. We were at the city every day begging, and they were just like no, no, no. So we went with plan B, and that's when we decided we'd just use Bubbles for special events, since you don't need the permits for that. We found a deli that went out of business in the basement of an office building in Richardson, so we decided we'd just bake out of that and do special events and delivery only. We had a three dozen minimum of one flavor, that's how stupid we were. And our phone never rang. We just sort of sat there like... [drums fingers on table]
Heather: One woman called and was like 'I don't want to marry you, I just want to date you! Why can't I just come get one?' and I'm on the phone like, supposed to be defending our business, and I was like, you're right! I wouldn't want to commit to three dozen cupcakes — that's like $90 plus delivery!
Leora: So we started to just do sales out of the basement. Our phone never rang, we never got orders — if the phone rang it was like [makes siren noise] oh my god we have an order! Sound the alarm!
Heather: Allison Hatfield from Daily Candy emailed and said she wanted to write about us. I was in the middle of a move, so stressed out, and I was literally pacing back and forth in front of the movers going, 'Why is this happening?!' So Leora and I talked, and we knew the power of Daily Candy. If we get published, even if we sucked, we would get a ton of business, and if we're not ready for it, that's a terrible experience.
But you also can't turn an opportunity like that down.
Heather: But we did! We said 'Please don't write about us, we're not ready.' We told her we realize this is a one-time chance, but we wanted to get it right. And well, she wrote it and published it anyway.
Leora: And we didn't know. Heather was on a business trip and I called her like 'Uh, our website just crashed. It's happening. The phone is ringing.'
Heather: I was on a trip in Austin and my cousin goes 'Hey, nice job on Daily Candy!' We weren't even at the shop, and Ricardo, one of our employees, at the end of the day he turned off the lights, locked the door and hid. He didn't know what to do, the phone wouldn't stop ringing.
Leora: So we stayed in the basement and took Bubbles out for special events. It was just little by little word of mouth, we didn't do much advertising if any. A lot of Twitter and Facebook people have supported us and just been so cool and wanted us to succeed.
Heather: Some of our customers, it's like I hate charging them because they're like family. But of course we realize now we can't do that. [laughing] No more free cupcakes! We have to pay real rent and a real staff now.
Is there an aesthetic or a theme you try to keep in mind when designing new cupcake flavors?
Heather: We'd rather have them look homemade.
Leora: We don't do anything fancy-schmancy. We do custom decorations, but no fondant. That's our rule. We hate the way it tastes. We are all about the flavor. They may not look perfect, they may fall over, but they're gonna taste good.
[At this point, Leora and Heather scramble around the shop to find a new speculoos cookie butter-flavored frosting for taste-testing.]
What would you say to people who say cupcakes are just a trend?
Heather: That was definitely a concern of mine. I was like 'Leora, what's the shelf life of this trend?' But I think in a down economy, it's a great thing. A cupcake is sort of a recession-proof thing; it's something that almost anybody can afford, versus going to splurge on a big fancy cake. Of course you have to differentiate yourself because there's a lot of cupcakes out there. For us it's about the experience, and that's the easy part for us because we're not acting. This is who we are, and if we make a mistake we're going to admit it. I think people like that, and they like the customer service.
I think another thing to be successful is that you've got to always think of what you're going to do next. You can't serve the same thing all the time. So we get really excited when we launch a new flavor, we make a huge deal about it. There's a new thing we're working on and it stemmed from figuring out what to do with leftover cupcakes. We'll keep that a secret for now, but, you gotta be innovative.
[We take a brief interlude while Heather and Leora play rock-paper-scissors to decide who will go run an errand.]
What's the future of Trailercakes?
Leora: We fight about it, so let's see what she says.
Heather: I think eventually we'd like to expand the Trailercakes brand, but probably never franchise because we don't want to lose our personalities. I love seeing the same customers day after day, I don't even feel like I'm at work. We're going to focus on Bubbles, because that's the core of who we are. That's our icon. But if and when we do expand, we'd like to do some hands-on stuff with kids, like decorating classes and stuff.
Leora: My kids, I could have saved the world, but I wasn't cool. The second I became a cupcake shop owner, I am the coolest mom in the school by far. They come up with new cupcakes for us all the time. My seven year old drew up a blueprint before we opened this shop.
Heather: We should've used that one rather than what our architect drew up. [both laughing]
Leora: If you would have asked us about having a cupcake store five years ago — no way. We kind of just go with the wind, we don't really think things through, we just sort of go with it because that's who we are. And it kind of works for us. We're not business plan writers. We totally plagiarized our first business plan while we were on an airplane. But you know what, we're in the cupcake business. We sell happiness. Rarely do we get anyone in here in a bad mood — or if they are, they come here to get a little happiness. So it's just fun. It takes like two minutes to turn someone's day around.
Heather: What's the worst that can happen? We're not saving lives.
Leora: If people are mad, we give 'em a cupcake and they're just fine.