Gina “Gigi” Butler was drifting through the grocery store when somebody stopped her.
“I love you. You changed my life,” they said.
Butler went outside and sat in her pink SUV, which is stamped with cupcake graphics. “I thought, ‘Wow. Did she actually say I changed her life by having a cupcake store?’”
Despite an appearance on CBS’ “Undercover Boss,” being the face of a brand with 98 locations in 24 states, and selling some 45 million cupcakes over the years, Butler is still surprised when people recognize her. “I think the best reward is when people come up and say, ‘You’ve inspired me. You’ve made me think I can do it, too. If you can do it than I can do it. Money, that’s all whatever. It fades. But you can never take away someone that’s proud of you.”
Since selling Gigi’s Cupcakes to Texas-based private equity group FundCorp in 2016, life has changed for Butler. Although how little might surprise a lot of people. “I’m not just eating bonbons dancing somewhere,” she jokes.
Butler is the chief brand officer of Gigi’s Cupcakes, and still owns the original Broadway store in Nashville, Tennessee. She’s there every Tuesday and Friday—schedule permitting—donning an apron, frosting cupcakes, cleaning, and talking to customers. Sometimes her 6-year-old daughter, Kendall, folds boxes and joins in.
“She asked me, ‘Mommy, can I make $5. And I was like, yes, yes you can,’” Butler says.
Butler is faith-driven and a believer in many things. One of them definitely is the fact that nothing in this world comes free.
The day before she opened her first store in February 2008, Butler was cleaning houses to pay the plumbing bill. A contractor tacked on a surprise $15,000 dry wall charge. When morning arrived, she sat behind the counter with $33 to her name.
The line was soon out the door. Butler was able to make the $4,000 rent at month’s end and pay her employees. And her bank account had ballooned to $300.
Yet the attention, again while stunning, helped her understand a reality that felt impossible in the beginning: Her cupcakes had a serious audience. She tells a story about a customer who drove more than an hour to try her Scarlett’s Red Velvet cupcake. When she informed her the flavor wasn’t available, the woman went mildly berserk, asking how dare she not have them in stock.
“That was a good sign,” Butler says.
Butler didn’t move to Nashville to bake. She ditched junior college and took $6,000 of tuition money to make a demo and become a country music star. This was 1994.
She made money by cleaning houses for some of the industry’s brightest stars, like Taylor Swift. At night she would wait tables at Red Lobster and sing into the early morning.
Butler retired from this dream when she turned 30.
The cupcake story, she says, began when her brother, Steve, stood in line for two hours at a New York City shop seen on “Sex and the City.” He called and told her she could do better, and should try.
Four bankers laughed her business model out the door. She took $100,000 cash advances on three credit cards and started baking for friends and clients.
“What an amazing adventure this has been. And it’s just beginning,” Butler says. “I’m always a problem solver. I’m always thinking about the problems and how to solve them. What goals I need to cross off. I never, hardly ever sit back and smell the roses. I probably need to more.”
The plan: 250 stores within the next five years. As grounded as Butler is, she doesn’t see a good reason why that can’t happen. The branding is strong and the company has found a solid niche in the business-to-business market.
She says they print edible paper for local companies, deploy UberEATS, and send product to high rises and other organizations looking for a reason to celebrate. Her food shines at bachelorette parties, weddings, birthdays, baby showers. There are cakes, cheesecakes, cookies. And the core—cupcakes—are perfect vehicles for seasonal and on-trend flavors.
All the while, Butler is promoting Gigi’s through more avenues than she ever imagined. She recorded a Christmas song last year that’s available on iTunes and recently wrote a theme song for a potential TV show. She lives the morning show circuit and has a book about her life story, written by her and a co-author, coming out in the spring. She’s also busy building her social media base, especially on Instagram.
To put this frantic schedule in perspective, Kendall recently boarded her 60th plane flight.
One thing that has stuck with Butler over the course of her journey is the company’s franchises. They come from all walks of life, and, like her, probably couldn’t have checked this dream out of the fiction section at the library. “We have nurses, business people. A brain surgeon. It’s just people who want something for themselves and see potential with this. I go to dinner at their house when I’m in town. We built this brand together. I think it’s amazing to think we’re just getting started.”