“It’s been life defining”: The Ms. Cupcake Story.
In 2011, London became the home of the UK’s first fully vegan bakery as Ms. Cupcake opened its doors to the public.
Just 12 months earlier, entrepreneur Mellissa Morgan had started cooking cakes from her home and selling them on a market stall.
“It was just a home business; I was making vegan cakes in my flat in Brixton and selling them at market stalls. It was mostly just because I became vegan myself and was really shocked that I couldn’t find vegan cake.
“In Canada, in America, there were vegan bakeries but it turned out there wasn’t a single vegan bakery in all of the UK, so I thought, well I’m not a baker by trade, but I’ll give it a go.
“I love baking, and one thing kind of snowballed to the other and when I had my first market stall it just exploded from there.”
And explode it did.
Ms. Cupcake had gone from a market stall in Brixton to a fully-fledged business serving customers in her store, selling wholesale to places such as Whole Foods Market and working events across the country.
Mellissa--under the guise of Ms. Cupcake--also taught vegan cake baking across the globe and has already written a successful plant-based cookbook.
But, on the 21st March 2020, the bakery opened its doors for one final time, “it just kept on growing, bigger than we ever imagine, it’s been a ride an absolute ride. But things started to change about two years ago I would say.”
According to Mellissa, the market for vegan cakes had become crowded, breaking into supermarket chains and restaurants across the UK.
“As there were more vegan bakeries, it seemed that mainstream retailers started to catch on to the vegan pound.
“But of course--with those kind of changes--things start to shift in business, our footfall started to decline quite a lot, because why do you need to travel across London or across the UK to get vegan cake, if you can get some at your local Costa Coffee?
“We got a lot more wholesale enquiries, people who thought ‘this vegan thing seems like a good idea,’ so we started doing a lot more wholesale rather than direct sale, and everything kept changing, we were working really hard to pivot and change the business to appeal to what the growing trend was and that’s the journey we’ve been on the last couple of years.
“For a lot of people, a lot of our customers, it felt like it happened overnight, but things have been changing for us drastically over the last two years.
“As a business, we were constantly changing--rather than having 250 customers on a Saturday with a queue out the door, we now had 100 customers coming through and people weren’t bulk buying as they used to because they could just pop in to get something somewhere else.”
The vegan food market has seemingly expanded in the UK with fast food chains such as Papa Johns, Pizza Hut and Greggs launching a range of plant-based meals, and supermarkets expanding their vegan ranges over the last 12 months.
“Personally, I am over the moon with how things have changed in veganism,” Mellissa said, “I remember five, ten years ago, I couldn’t get soy milk when I visited my husband’s family in Wales, now it’s a different landscape entirely.
“I have to be proud that I was part of that bit of history that helped to grow things and helped to save these animals along the way, I’m delighted about things personally.”
But how did Mellissa feel about having to shut the doors to the bakery one final time?
“There has definitely been sadness, because who doesn’t want to live in their glory days all the time, everyone has that period in their life where things are amazing, but the truth is, excitement lies in the future as well, and I think, the harder the business became, the harder it was to make enough money to pay what my team deserved to pay them, you need to go ‘is it worth it or is it worth your energy doing something slightly different?’
“So although there was a bit of sadness, I think for me, knowing where the future lies is going to be exciting and wonderful and there is so much vegan cake available now, it just felt like the right decision, so even if there was a bit of sadness, it didn’t matter, because I want to spent my life doing things that are right and ethical and this felt like the right decision.”
The closure of the store, in south London, was forced to be brought forward as the global pandemic that is COVID-19 took hold, especially in England’s capital.
Over 6,000 people have now died in the UK as a result of the virus, with more than a 1,000 of those taking place in London.
Ms. Cupcake was planning to be closed on 29th March but due to the coronavirus and with increasing lockdown measures being put in place by the UK government, Mellissa took the decision to finish-up a week early.
“I think it was the 21st I said just don’t feel comfortable about this anymore. It was really hard to keep the two -metre distance at the shop, so we bowed out earlier than we planned and that was sad.
“We had a lot of plans for our last day, we were going to make so much cake to give out for free, we were going to take pictures, we had former staff members that were going to come in, we had so many plans but they unfortunately didn’t come to fruition.
“At the end of the day, there’s a bigger issue going on right now and my goal has been to keep my team safe, keep our customers safe and support other small businesses who are struggling financial.”
The final day may have changed, but the Canadian entrepreneur made sure that Ms. Cupcake would go out with a bang.
“A lot of my time has been kept in the office, running the business, so in the last couple of years, I’ve not often been at the shop, but that last day I decided I was going to serve as many customers as I can.
“It was just myself and the two bakery managers at the shop and it was absolutely crazy. We smashed all kind of records in terms of sales and so forth.
“There were so many familiar faces that I’d known for years and years that came in that day and I couldn’t hug any of them which is hard for me if you know me, a hug and a kiss is usually what you get when you see me face to face, that was really difficult.
“One of our team members who was there from the very start and now has her own business, she came in, so although it was a bit of an understated affair, it was really special and my husband--god bless him--showed up out of the blue, which I wasn’t expecting and I kind of lost it at that point. It was very emotional, but it was great that I could physically be there and see as many people as I could.
“That was a nice day for a very strange situation, the tone of London had shifted, even by the 21st, we weren’t in the lockdown mode yet, that was all to come.”
Mellissa looks back on her time with the shop fondly but says she is excited about what the future holds as the Ms. Cupcake brand lives on in a different form.
“It’s been life defining I would say. So much has happened that has been underlined by the business. I’ve had a few different careers, but to be able to put the thing you’re most passion about as your job, as your mission, it kind of means the world. The brand is not going to go, it just felt like the right time to close the shop and the bakery.
“I’m spending the next six months working on another cook book, my husband calls it the difficult second album, because it should’ve been released years ago, but I kept saying “it’s not quite perfect, it’s not quite perfect,” so I’m working on two books at the moment, and by being able to just focus on those, rather than running a business at the same time, it’s going to help give me the headspace to make sure these are worth being so long awaited.”
And what was her message to the customers who have supported Ms. Cupcake over the years?
“The need and the love for vegan cake will always be there, and hopefully people will carry on loving what we do and we will pop-up in a new guise further down the line. Knowing it’s not the end, it’s just a new chapter is why I feel so excited about the future.”