Miriam Handler / For The Lantern
Not every path in life is linear. You don’t always know where you’ll end up, but one thing you should do is follow the passion in your heart. This is the message from sisters and founders of Georgetown Cupcake, Sophie Kallinis LaMontagne and Katherine Kallinis Berman.
“We were never the entrepreneurs that thought they would conquer the world and make a lot of money,” Berman said in an interview with The Lantern.
And if you told the pair at the start of their career that not only their bakery in Georgetown would be a success, but they would also have a hit TV series, write best-selling book “The Cupcake Diaries” with a second, “Sweet Celebrations,” on the way Oct. 9, and travel giving lectures, they would have laughed and called you crazy.
The sisters shared their story with Ohio State as part of an Ohio Union Activities Board-sponsored event Friday.
The pair grew up with a passion for baking and cooking learned from their grandmother, who immigrated to the United States from Greece. She passed down the family recipes and traditions to LaMontagne and Berman. This gave them the idea of one day opening their own bakery.
“We would always be in the kitchen baking sweets and breads and I think her influence really shaped us in thinking about what it would be like to open our own bakery,” Berman said.
The idea for the bakery remained just that, an idea, as the sisters obeyed family expectations and went to college in pursuit of high-power careers.
“Our parents were also immigrants and they were working very hard to help us get to college and they expected us to get good-paying jobs. They dissuaded us a little from (the idea of starting) the bakery when we were kids and life ended up taking us in different directions,” Berman said.
LaMontagne studied molecular biology at Princeton University and Berman studied politics at Marymount University in Arlington, Va.
But by about 2007, the idea of owning a bakery was still lingering in the back of their minds. Instead of always having to wonder “what if,” Berman and LaMontagne left their jobs in fashion and venture capital, respectively, and opened the bakery.
“When we told our families and our husbands, everyone was very worried for us because it was the start of the recession,” Berman said. Referring to the decision as an “‘aha’ moment,” LaMontagne added, “We thought, ‘If we don’t do this now, when are we going to do it?’ We needed to stop worrying about what everyone thought and just do it.”
The recession proved to be a tough obstacle for a new business and career change as the sisters went to several different banks, only to have their loan requests denied. They wanted to create Georgetown Cupcake on their own terms and decided that asking friends and family for money was not an option, so they maxed out their credit cards and used their savings.
“We did a lot of the work ourselves. We painted the walls and we were going to be our own boss and we were going to run the business the way we wanted to,” LaMontagne said.
For the sisters, a stressful part about operating a bakery was their approach to bake the cupcakes in “real time,” so cupcakes were popping out of the oven fresh throughout the entire day. This practice was much more labor intensive than they expected, but they said the quality and the customer satisfaction has been worth it.
“It’s very rare to go into a bakery at night and get something that just came out of the oven. But we created this cult following from our business module and it helped spread the word and we grew exponentially in the first few weeks,” LaMontagne said.
Fast forward 16 months from its opening and the bakery was still booming. LaMontagne and Berman were working in the shop one day when they were approached by a producer. He thought the chaotic setting of cupcakes and customers would be a great idea for a show and asked if he could film them for a weekend. He took the footage to TLC and the idea was picked up and turned into the first season of “DC Cupcakes.”
“We did interviews before so we thought it wouldn’t hurt and we didn’t mind. At the time, we knew nothing about TV and it happened so quickly,” Berman said.
It was difficult for the sisters to feel comfortable during the first season of the show, they said, because they didn’t want everyone to see their mistakes on national TV.
“We were very embarrassed in the beginning, but in the end it became a freeing experience,” Berman said. “We had a lot of folks write to us and tell us that we inspired them or that they have the same issues in their small business.”
One mother and daughter who came to the event at OSU also found the sisters’ history inspiring.
“It’s interesting to hear how they came about and how they started the shop and to hear them talk about their passion,” said Laura Nagy, mother of Amber Nagy, a first-year in Japanese.
Amber Nagy said she was inspired to follow her passion.
“I’ve seen parts of their show before and they seem to really enjoy what they do and they prove that you can do what you want in life,” Amber Nagy said.
Running your own business is not always a cakewalk. The sisters have to deal with many issues that entrepreneurs face on a regular basis.
“There will never be a day that goes perfectly and there is never a day that is exactly like the one before,” Berman said. “Every day you wake up there is going to be a problem. Whether it is small or big, there is always something.”
The sisters had some simple advice to students who are looking to become entrepreneurs.
“We’ve learned it takes a certain kind of person to thrive even with these issues and it just takes a certain type of passion to want to deal with the uncertainties,” LaMontagne said. “Don’t be afraid to go for it. If you love something, you’ll do well, and just take the plunge and try for your dreams when you are young enough to really chase them.”