Business

How Mexico's 'cupcake queen' rebuilt her life

Conchita Valdez Image copyright Jaime Ruiz

Living in one of Mexico's most dangerous cities, and suddenly having to bring up four children on her own following an acrimonious divorce, Conchita Valdez knew she needed to find a successful recipe to reinvent her life.

This was back in 2010, and home to Ms Valdez at the time was Torreon, the capital of Coahuila state in northern Mexico.

Plagued by drug gangs, that year there were 316 murders in the city - an average of six per week.

Ms Valdez, 41, an English teacher and avid cook, had a lifeline in the shape of a brother who lived in the far safer Mexico City.

So she took her kids and moved to the capital, also taking with her the aim of launching a cafe business.

As opening a restaurant in Mexico is as risky a venture as anywhere else in the world, Ms Valdez determined that she needed to offer something new in order to stand out from the crowd.

So looking to the US for inspiration, and digging into her savings, Ms Valdez decided to open a cafe that sold just gourmet, all-natural cupcakes and quality coffee.

While cupcakes were already available to buy in Mexico, most Mexicans prefer the country's big variety of sweet pastries, collectively known as "pan dulce".

Yet after a few research trips to the US, where she ate cupcakes in Los Angeles, New York, Las Vegas, San Francisco and Houston, Ms Valdez was convinced that her idea would work in Mexico City.

But only if she used significantly less sugar than in the US, where she found that many cupcakes were "too sweet... too much for me."

'Mexican tastes'

With her brother coming on board as a minority investor, Ms Valdez quickly started to work on recipes, and named her new business La Cupcakeria.

Image copyright Jaime Ruiz
Image caption The company sells 22 different flavours of cupcakes

"At first I only went into the kitchen and started experimenting," she says. "The hardest part was adapting the [traditional US] recipes to the taste of the Mexican consumer... we like natural flavours, and we have such a variety of fruits."

Although daunted by the challenge, Ms Valdez did have some professional cooking experience to look back on.

Prior to her 13 years as a teacher she spent two years running a small restaurant in Torreon before she had to close it down because of a difficult pregnancy. And she had also done some contract catering work.

With the first La Cupcakeria shop opening in 2010, Ms Valdez quickly realised that her timing could not have been better - Mexico City was seeing a revolution in coffee drinking.

Led by Mexican brands Cielito Querido and Punta de Cielo, and American arrival Starbucks, new upmarket coffee shops were springing up all over the city, and locals were becoming more knowledgeable and demanding about the drink.

Image copyright Jaime Ruiz
Image caption La Cupcakeria found that its coffee has been as popular as the cakes

La Cupcakeria's coffee was immediately a hit, and customers would also order a cupcake.

Other branches followed in the following few years, and the business now has 11 shops across Mexico City, six of which are franchises.

A further five branches are now being opened in the city of Puebla, some two hours' drive south of the capital.

Franchise problem

The growth of La Cupcakeria has not, however, all be plain sailing.

Instead Ms Valdez had problems with a franchise launched in the city of Guadalajara in western Mexico.

Image copyright Jaime Ruiz
Image caption With prices starting at $2.80 (£1.75), the cupcakes don't come cheap

She discovering that the franchisee had been trying to cut costs and maximise profits by reducing both the quality and the quantity of the raw materials he was using, leading to sub-standard cupcakes.

Ms Valdez was eventually able to close down the shop.

Yet despite that bad experience, La Cupcakeria has been Mexico's fastest-growing bakery chain over the past four years, and Ms Valdez has gained the nickname "queen of cupcakes".

Image copyright Jaime Ruiz
Image caption Conchita Valdez is now well known in Mexico

The business now sells 7,000 cupcakes a week, all made at a central kitchen. Each cake sells for between 38 and 45 pesos ($2.80 to $3.30; £1.75 to £2).

"At first the business was growing so fast that I didn't even have the time to digest what was happening," she says.

Now four years later, La Cupcakeria is continuing to grow, but at a deliberately slower pace.

Ms Valdez's advice to other women considering setting up their own companies is to be confident and give it a go.

"I have always said, and I maintain this - fear can paralyse you or make you stronger," she says.

"Yes I was scared not knowing how it would go, and having my kids in tow.

"But I think the big problem, we, the women, have is that we do not believe that we are able to it.

"It is not easy, but it is not impossible, you just have to be brave."

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