The most powerful moments in our lives often find us in dark alleys, sneaking upon us in the form of an unsuspecting “what if?” And, if we listen long enough to be lured by its song, and then pursue its message, we are sometimes led to extraordinary places. This is a tune the Oklahoma-born Gina “Gigi” Butler, Founder of the nationally-famous cupcake empire Gigi’s Cupcakes, knows by heart. She followed this question through the dirt-kicking lows of bank loan denials, personal struggles and an album’s worth of pitying “bless your heart”s – rising straight into the apex of cupcake supremacy.
But it all started with a simple phone call.
It was Labor Day weekend 2007, and Butler was in a quiet house, back bent over and surrounded by piles of sponges and rags. Scrubbing toilets by day and mic in hand by night, she had devoted the decade prior to aspirations of singer-songwriter stardom in Nashville, Tenn. Having migrated to Music City in her teens, time had turned the dream from exhilarating to cruelly elusive.
Then, a 32 year-old woman with no interest from label executives, she was forced to make peace with knowing her dreams of chart-topping and touring had fallen on deaf ears. Instead of sharing the stage with the likes of Leann Rimes and Taylor Swift, she was dusting their book shelves. Her most applause-garnering performances would be played as “Gigi the cleaning lady” – or, so she thought.
In the midst of scrubbing, Butler’s phone buzzed – her brother’s name lighting up the screen. Answering only to tell him she was busy, he presented her with a thought that was soon to grant her an entirely new storyline. “He said, ‘Hey, I’m in New York, and I just spent two hours standing in line for a cupcake that’s not as good as yours or mom’s. Why don’t you open up your own shop there in Nashville?’ It sounded silly at first, but something told me to listen,” says Butler.
There began resounding in that space a giant, reverberating “what if?” – one that amplified in a way no others had before. Entertaining it with subtle curiosity, she followed the idea until it led her to staring at her own reflection in the bathroom mirror.
“I remember tossing my hands up into the air. I had my cleaning gloves on” says Butler. “I looked square into my own eyes and said, out loud, ‘Well?! Why not me?’ I had already failed at my first dream, so I thought I may as well give another one a shot.”
Two days later, she found herself staring into a bank wall, nervously shifting in her chair while trying to convince the powers that be to grant her a business loan. “They all laughed in my face like I was a crazy person. A cupcake shop was a joke to them,” says Butler.
After her fourth denial, she turned to cash advances on her credit cards – $100,000 worth, in fact.
And, with every passing day, the vision for her brand began finding its rhythm. She decided she would not merely offer up her delicious gourmet confections to the masses. Rather, she was going to serve up a harmony of joyful creations. Calling upon her family history of talented bakers, Butler drew inspiration from the recipes that most stirred her – some of them 100 years old – and funneled them through her own interpretations. Each cupcake would first be prepared with the finest and rarest ingredients and then, similar to the production of any well-written song, arranged and styled to have its unique personality and story.
But, for a season, this was a dream only Butler could see. “Looking back, I think a lot of people felt sorry for me, almost like they thought it was a desperate move. Some of my cleaning clients would say, ‘Oh, honey, we’ll buy a dozen from you.’ They were sincere in their support of me, but I think there was a lot of ‘bless her heart’ in it, too,” she says.
Butler describes the moment she selected her first store location, on Broadway in downtown Nashville, as “an overwhelming out-of-body experience.”
While standing in the parking lot in front of the empty space, flashes suddenly raced through her mind like a music video montage. “I could see myself in the kitchen baking and swirling frosting. I could see crowds of people forming. I just knew I didn’t need to look anywhere else,” says Butler.
And, much like the songwriting legends who claim to have been struck by the uncanny inspiration for writing an unforeseen hit, Butler felt she was possessed to realize this dream. “It came from something beyond me. I told my family that God had shown me a glimpse of what was to come, and they thought I was out of my mind,” she says, with a laugh.
The night before her opening day, Butler admits to having spent it curled into a fetal position – shaking under her bed sheets. “I hardly slept at all. I was shivering and terrified because I had no clue how I was going to get customers to come to my store,” she says.
The following morning, February 21, 2008, Butler said a prayer, tied herself into the cupcake-themed apron her mother sewed for her, flipped on the overhead lights and unlocked the doors – a mere $33 in her checking account. A $15,000 drywall bill playing in her head like a sour note, there was not a dollar to spare for advertising.
But within one week, small lines were forming. By summer, they were stretching out of the door – rivaling the kind seen at the legendary Bluebird Cafe where she once channeled dreams of catching a big break.
“I never imagined I could love anything as much as I loved music. It was my dream since I was 7 years old,” says Butler. “But I fell even more in love with this. The truth is I still pinch myself sometimes.”
When asked if there is one word or phrase that would serve as the title track for the day she gave birth to Gigi’s Cupcakes, Butler smirks softly. “It could only be ‘Hold on,’” she says, while launching into a string of staccato-like chuckles. “That day defined my life because even though I didn’t know how I was going to pull it off, I had the bravery and tenacity to get up and open my doors on that scary morning.”
And that tiny location on Broadway would prove to be no one-hit-wonder.
It has been almost a decade since that “scary morning” of uncertainty and, at the time of this writing, those 100-year-old recipes are being served up at more than 120 store locations across the United States. And, even sweeter, Butler’s appeal has gone beyond those seeking an indulgent sugar fix. She made quite an impression with viewers for her 2015-appearance on the CBS show “Undercover Boss,” and her success has been featured in a multitude of major media sources.
Upon being asked what she most wants people to understand about her, Butler glances downward at her hands for a moment before locking eyes with me sweetly. After a tender pause, she says: “I want to set an example for all women – one that says, ‘If one dream dies, just get back up and try something else. But, don’t you dare give up on yourself.’”
And, much like the hook of a heart-gutting country song that stays with you – looping in your head long after the stage has broken down, Butler serves up an unforgettable dollop of candidness: “I didn’t have a granddaddy giving me a trust. I had no hand-outs and no silver spoons. You can have a good idea, but lots of people have those. If somebody thinks they’re above working hard day after day, then they’re not cut out for success,” she says.
She then adds, “I’ve cleaned 65,000 toilets in my life for goodness’ sake, and now I’m the queen of cake. I still have the aching knees and calluses on my hands to show for the sacrifices I made to get here. It’s such an incredible rush to think about, but it wasn’t an easy road. Nothing worth having ever is.”
Butler may have paved one remarkable empire with her signature swirl, but she isn’t slowing down anytime soon. Currently developing her own line of bakeware and in early discussions about a television program, she is also in process of writing a book, set for release in the spring of 2018. The book is said to be a page-turner – an unfolding of her redemptive story, with each chapter concluded by a life lesson and a recipe. It will be heaping with melodious narratives and sweetly unsolicited wisdom, Gigi-style.
“Look, I don’t want to be sittin’ on a porch at 90, asking myself ‘what if?’ God gave us all an amazing spirit, and you have to listen to what it’s trying to tell you,” says Butler, leaning coolly in her chair.
And, then, I guess you better hold on.
Check out the story behind the story: Lacey Johnson’s in-depth conversation with Gigi Butler, where she shares the struggles and lessons learned from her journey to culinary supremacy.