Renee King of The Queen’s Cups has relocated her kingdom to Worcester’s Canal District. And while we will live more happily ever after because of her reign, this is not a childhood fairytale come to life.
There are no adorable pictures of Renee as a child with a Holly Hobby Oven turning out the precursor to her favorite chocolate raspberry ricotta cupcakes.
There are no stories of her toiling in her parents’ kitchen in a princess outfit, coated in flour and edible glitter, precociously concocting the ancestors to her charming unicorn cupcakes while she waited to ascend the throne.
Renee’s high school yearbook does not proclaim her “Most Likely to Be Cupcake Royalty, Own a Cupcake Shop after Baking for Only a Year, and Create Hundreds of Different Flavors as well as Cakes, Brownies, Cookies, and Other Treats that Will Sell by the Thousands Every Week in 2017.” She didn’t even bake her first cupcakes until after her junior year at Worcester State – and those were doctored from a box mix!
In fact, The Queen’s Cup might not exist if Renee had known what she wanted to do after she graduated with her psychology degree. She knew she didn’t want to rack up student loan debt pursuing an advanced degree. She thought about nannying, becoming a teacher’s assistant like her mom, Barbara, or following a path in institutional food service like her father, Paul. But she wasn’t passionate about any of them.
Then her mom said, Why don’t you open a bakery? And Renee said, Okay let’s do it.
Huh? According to many experts, this would be a recipe for failure in the food business: Doing something because your mom says your [fill in the blank] is delicious. Yet five years after opening that first store in Millbury and despite following no traditional templates for success, devising no business plan, and pursuing no childhood dream, Renee has lines out the door in Worcester’s Canal District.
Um, I’ll have what she’s having. Oh and one of those lemon cupcakes and is that cookie dough? Maybe a Matilda Cake too and . . .
For Renee King, success does not come down to passion per se but persistence and obsession. When she really wants something, she becomes obsessed with achieving or mastering it – be it her basketball team’s hustle award in eighth grade or the crust for the apple pies she baked the summer before her senior year that set her current path. Soon after, she saw “Cupcake Wars” and became obsessed with making cupcakes. Sitting in class, she created lists of flavors she thought would taste good together and then went home and baked them.
It was then when Renee realized a truism in life: Cupcakes make people happy – and not just eating cupcakes but seeing them. She posted pictures of her creations on Instagram and thinking about those first likes makes her giddy even today: “I got three likes on the first one and one was my mom. But eventually people started noticing and asking if they could order them. My mom set up a Facebook page and suddenly I had a thing. I remember how excited I was when I got 100 likes – 25 of them from people I didn’t even know!”
“My dad looked around to see what we could do to make it into a bakery, my mom gave them a $100 deposit, and that was it. We never talked about it. I didn’t finish my business plan. I didn’t care about any of that. I just cared about making people happy with sweets.”
Flash forward a few months to college graduation, her mom’s magic words, and the next thing you know a former lawn mower repair shop down the street from where Renee grew up was hers: “My dad looked around to see what we could do to make it into a bakery, my mom gave them a $100 deposit, and that was it. We never talked about it. I didn’t finish my business plan. I didn’t care about any of that. I just cared about making people happy with sweets.” Which she eventually did – but after a stressful start: “I don’t want to say it was terrible but it was terrifying. I thought I was just going to stand there and hand out cupcakes, and it was chaos. I had no idea what I was doing. I started that day with $113 in my bank account and 200 cupcakes in a window. I was 23 years old, what was I supposed to know?”
So, Renee started to know what she didn’t know and learned to do the one thing every entrepreneur must eventually do: trust others. Renee is quick to point out that she may be the queen behind Queen’s Cups but there have been a family of Kings from that first day who had her back. Her dad had the food service experience to help with the business side. Her mom not only helped but was also the Queen Mother of positive energy. Still, they could not be there all the time so Renee needed to hire someone. That first hire, Abbie, grew up near her grandfather and stayed with Renee through the move to Worcester. But it was not like Renee said to Abbie, Go get ‘em, Girl! “The first year I did not trust anyone,” Renee says laughing. “I let people wash the dishes, cut the fruit, and hold a cupcake. I would do everything else.”
Since that first year, Renee has done a 180 to assemble the talented team of 20 that runs Queen’s Cups today: “We don’t have a menu. I really test my staff. I don’t go in and say, This is what we are making today. They come in and have to make something. There is always a vanilla, chocolate, and peanut butter option. But even those we try to change. On the first day in Worcester, we had 50 different types of cupcakes. They have to think of some of them off the top of their heads but that is how I train them. Whenever someone interviews with me I say, Show me what you got. Then they bake.”
Today, the talent Renee has from the kitchen to the front of the store excites her and her trust in them has led to branching out beyond cupcakes to fuel an ongoing obsession to get better. Hence that Matilda Cake, a giant glistening disc of chocolate cake and ganache-y goodness that came from the baking audition of her assistant baker, Phylisha. “I hired her on the spot,” Renee says, noting she has had to work hard at the gym and her willpower to keep her total at 17 Matildas and counting.
Her customers, however? Those numbers long went well beyond 17 cakes a day. By year two in Millbury, Queen’s Cups had already outgrown its store. “When I look back now,” Renee recalls, “I don’t know how we worked like that. On Saturdays there were 12 of us baking in 300 square feet. We had two worktables and this small folding table. I hated that folding table. It was three feet shorter than everything else in the room. I remember hunching over it and my back killing me. But when I think about it, as crazy as it is, I’m happy we started that way. I’m grateful for those memories because I don’t want to take anything for granted.”
Renee certainly didn’t take moving the shop for granted. She looked for a place for almost three years, including in Grafton and Millbury. But it wasn’t until she fell in love with the place and her neighbors on Water Street in 2016 that she knew she was ready. She had the right team (including her parents who retired to work with her) and the confidence to tackle a daunting task: The Queen’s Cups that opened in August 2017 looked nothing like the former garage she took over. There was rubble everywhere, plaster covering the beautiful brick walls that took masons months to restore, drop ceilings making the original tin, old carpet blanketing the hardwood floors . . .
With the help of Cornerstone Bank, which took a chance on her after two others passed, Renee turned it all into a space (a huge sitting area and kitchen separated by the retail store) that is warm, welcoming, and suits both Worcester and her personality. Her grandfather, who Renee calls her best friend in the whole world, was a painter for the state and her dad turned his painting sieves into the lights that hang over the counter when you walk in. (“So now I feel that my grandfather is always here.”) The furniture comes from Joe Weiss of Skana Design in Worcester. The ladder above the communal table dates from 1930. It came from her uncle’s basement and holds light fixtures and terrariums from Seed to Stem. A photograph on one wall is of the dearly departed Widoff’s Bakery, the collection of shots on the other are of her favorite customers and a couple of dogs eating cupcakes, taken by customer and photographer Ashley Armstrong. (Renee desperately wants Bucky who owned the garage that became Queen’s Cups to come in so she can hang his photo too.)
As for the baking? The Worcester location is what Renee calls a whole new ballgame: “Five years ago when we opened in Millbury I cried every day for two weeks. Here I’ve only cried because I’m grateful. There was a line five hours straight on our opening day. We did 2,000 cupcakes alone. We just baked all day.” And the team shows no signs of slowing down. The combinations keep on coming. When Wings & Company brought in some dry rubbed wings? They made a cupcake out of it. When someone wanted to make a chicken and waffle cupcake? Renee said go for it. It like so many others sold out, which is perhaps the most gratifying thing for her: seeing her staff inspired to make their visions come to life – so many visions she could not possibly even try them all without weighing 300 lbs. She just trusts her “girls” to deliver.
This is the main reason, Renee says, you will never see her face on a billboard above 290: she just doesn’t have the personality for it. She’d rather see the team hum so she can spend more time with her friends and boyfriend, who has to come wash dishes in the shop to see her – and they live together!
Renee did hold on to the Millbury location and is hoping to renovate it into something different than Queen’s Cups down the road. She has some idea of what that might be. If you heard it, you might call her crazy. Go ahead, most people would and did five years ago. But for now, making the Worcester store the best it can be is Renee’s obsession. The Queen’s Cups is much more than her why and purpose: It’s her family:
“Doing this is my parents’ retirement, and my future children’s inheritance. I want this to stay in the family, because my family, including my two older brothers, has helped me so much. This is all going to happen up for us and hopefully I’ll be able to take everybody on a vacation in ten years. That is my ultimate goal.”
Our writer, Jim Eber, sat down with The Queen’s Cups owner and founder, Renee King, to understand how she turned $100 into a business with aspirations focused on family.
Posted by Mass Foodies on Monday, August 21, 2017