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A Sweet Wandering to Get Some Sugar in East Haven

Much of my distracted wanderings take me in search of places of a historic nature - sites of former battles, covered bridges, lighthouses that have guided ships in from sea for years, houses where famous people once lived ... that sort of thing - but there's nothing in my own guidebook that says I can't go to places of more recent historic undertakings and that's exactly what I did this past Saturday when I traveled to East Haven to visit Sugar Bakery & Sweet Shop.

Sugar Cupcakery & Bakery

What makes this modest-looking storefront on Main Street historic isn't that it's been in business for hundreds of years or that it's located in a old building that once housed some other historic business or that it has provided baked goods for historic figures with a sweet tooth.  Oh no, what makes this modest-looking storefront historic is that it's the home of the 2010 Food Network Cupcake Wars winners - a feat that has no doubt gone down in the historic annals of East Haven, a town that tends to get overlooked in favor of its big sister city New Haven which sits a very short distance away.

Winner 2010 Food Network Cupcake WarsAs I was there on a very beautiful January day with unseasonably warm temperatures and beautiful sunny blue skies (a perfect day to wander whether it be distractedly or otherwise!) it's kind of hard to see the Cupcake Wars logo on the door of the shop but being the resourceful sort, I borrowed an image from the Food Network in the hopes that they don't mind.  For those who aren't familiar with the program, I also borrowed this description of the show from Food Network:

"It’s cupcake vs. cupcake in Food Network’s tastiest competition yet! Each week on Cupcake Wars, four of the country’s top cupcake bakers face off in three elimination challenges until only one decorator remains. The sweet prize: $10,000 and the opportunity to showcase their cupcakes at the winning gig."

Brenda & CarolNow before I can tell you how Sugar ended up not just battling it out in Cupcake Wars but eventually coming back to East Haven as the victorious champions, I should really tell you how Sugar first came to be. After all, even David had a back story before he conquered Goliath, right?

Sugar's story begins with the two ladies pictured to the left - Brenda DePonte and her mother Carol Vollono, the co-owners of the shop which began in Carol's kitchen after Brenda, while attending college in New York City and working at several candy shops, came up with the idea of opening a sweet shop of their own.  Using their own family recipes they procured a license and began a baking venture in 2003 that eventually became so popular in East Haven that within a year they branched out to a small storefront in a small shopping strip on Main Street. Business was really booming and things were looking sweet until the economic recession came along and then things took a sour turn.

Carol told me that they weren't making enough money to cover the cost of operations and it looked like they were going to have to close after they had fulfilled their holiday orders at the end of 2008.  She said that holiday business was what essentially paid for the entire operation for the year and the plan was to complete their orders and then regretfully shut down but something happened to change all that - something in the form of community support which she will forever be grateful for.  In spite of the downturn in the economy, business actually picked up at Sugar and instead of shutting down, the family-owned and operated business was able to expand from their small storefront into the one next door and continue baking cookies, cakes, and cupcakes as well as making candies that the people in East Haven obviously loved.

In 2010 Sugar's cupcakes became not just a product that East Haven loved but a product that the judges of Food Network also loved as they battled against and defeated two bakeries from Southern California and another from Oregon to win the top spot on the second season of Cupcake Wars - a show that had come looking for them and not the other way around.  Carol said that they hadn't applied to the show but apparently some of their loyal fans decided that the little bakery from East Haven was good enough to take on the challenge so they nominated Sugar themselves.  With a winning recipe for a Chocolate Peanut Butter Ball Cupcake (which you can find here), Brenda and Carol took the top slot on the show and brought back the $10,000 prize and the title to East Haven.  It was obvious that the people of East Haven knew a good thing when they tasted it!

Customers at Sugar Bakery & Sweet Shop

Still a family-owned and operated business (Carol's sister was one of the ladies who waited on us from behind the counter who was just as sweet as the product she was selling - you can just make her out in the picture above), Carol told me that winning Cupcake Wars was a gift in that it allowed Sugar to expand and hire more people. With the fame and additional customers that came from winning, they now employ 16 people - people who love their jobs and are happy to come into work every day. They expanded again - this time upstairs so that they have room for all of the cakes and cookies and cupcakes and other creations that they bake - and business really couldn't be better. Carol said that even though neither she nor Brenda will ever get rich that wasn't what mattered - what mattered was that they had a business that was able to give back to the community that they loved and who loved them, a business that gave 16 people the chance to have a job that they enjoyed and looked forward to going to every day, and a business that made people smile as soon as they walked in the door because let's face it - how can you not smile when you walk into a place where the people are happy and the product is delicious? As the writing on their window says, "Everyone needs a little Sugar"!

So ... speaking of a little sugar ... how about those cupcakes that occupy three large cases in the store?

First case of cupcakesCase of cupcakes at Sugar Bakery
Third case of cupcakes

With choices ranging from a Plain Jane (vanilla cupcake with vanilla buttercream) to a Blueberry Pancake (vanilla cupcake, blueberries & maple cream filling) to The Elvis (banana cupcake, peanut butter & jelly cream frosting) to The Turtle (chocolate cupcake, chocolate ganache, caramel Swiss meringue buttercream, pecan) and more than twenty other choices that randomly rotate daily there's definitely something for everyone there.  To say that making a decision ain't easy is definitely no lie as my friend Patti and I took forever to make up our minds!

As we contemplated our choices and sampled a complimentary "Frosting Shot", the front door of the bakery was constantly opening and closing with other customers coming in to either contemplate their own cupcake choices, pick up a beautifully artistic cake, choose a chocolate treat or other candy confection, or maybe even buy a whimsically decorated cookie. Speaking of the cookies (which are too cute for words!) and candies, Carol told me that her mother, Elizabeth Bertier, ties all of the ribbons along with some of the other duties she performs at Sugar.  It was Elizabeth who first taught Carol to bake when she was about eight and it was definitely a lesson well-learned!

Cookies at Sugar BakeryCandy at Sugar Bakery & Sweet Shop

In addition to all of the edible treats at Sugar, customers can also pick up a cupcake to wear if they so choose in the form of a cute cupcake necklace or perhaps an adult or child headband.  The beautiful jewelry is made by Carol's other daughter, Dana. If you can't get to Sugar yourself but would like to take a look at some of Dana's creations, check out her Etsy shop here!

Cupcake Necklaces for Sale

Okay, so back to those cupcake choices ... what to choose?  What to choose?

A six-pack to go

Knowing that I didn't dare come home empty-handed once my two daughters found out that I'd gone in search of cupcakes, I finally decided on a six-pack plus one consisting of:

Death by Chocolate Cupcake
Death by Chocolate:  chocolate cupcake, chocolate mousse & Heath Bar filling
Reese's Riot Cupcake
Reese's Riot:  chocolate cupcake, peanut butter cream filling
Mounds Cupcake
Mounds:  chocolate cupcake, coconut cream filling, ganache
Lemon Meringue Cupcake
Lemon Meringue:  vanilla cupcake, lemon meringue filling
Snowball Cupcake
Snowball: vanilla cupcake, vanilla buttercream, rolled in coconut
Boston Cream Cupcake
Boston Cream:  vanilla cupcake, Boston cream filling, ganache
Cookie Dough Cupcake
Cookie Dough: vanilla cupcake, cookie dough infused buttercream, ganache, cookie dough piece

I can personally say that the Snowball Cupcake is undoubtedly the best ever coconut cupcake that I have ever sunk my teeth into - bar none!  The vanilla cupcake was extremely moist, the vanilla buttercream frosting wasn't the sweet type that makes your teeth ache as soon as you bite into it but just right, and the coconut was moist and delicious and just perfect.

The girls both said that their cupcakes were delicious - Jamie's only complaint was that I didn't "get enough chocolate ones"! Truthfully I'm not a major chocolate fan so I tend to lean towards other flavors of which there were plenty to choose but my friend Patti is a chocolate lover so she picked out a four-pack of all chocolate flavors to take home to her family.

Patti's four-pack of cupcakes - Death by Chocolate, Red Velvet, Fudge Brownie, and S'More

Patti's choices were a S'Mores Cupcake, a Death by Chocolate Cupcake, a Red Velvet Cupcake, and a Fudge Brownie Cupcake - all of which she said her family declared to be quite delicious. Lucky for her, Patti lives in the New Haven area so she's already planning on taking her mother over to Sugar someday soon.  I'll have to have her try out a Carrot Cake Cupcake for me as I meant to pick one up but totally forgot during my final selection process - rats! Either that or I'll have to come up with some excuse to get down towards New Haven again and be sure that it's during a time when Sugar is open!

Speaking of which, if you'd like to pay them a visit yourself and experience Cupcake Heaven on Earth, you can find Sugar Bakery & Sweet Shop at 422 Main Street in East Haven.  Their hours of operation and contact information can be found here and if you really want to make your mouth water, pop over to their Facebook page where they are continuously updating pictures of cakes and other goodies as well as informing their fans of what flavor might be coming to a cupcake case near them soon and any other Sugar news.

In conclusion I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by my visit to Sugar - not simply because their cupcakes are more than worth the drive from my part of Connecticut (or anywhere else for that matter) ...

... but because I was very pleasantly surprised to see a business who hadn't let its fame go to its head and become too big for the town in which it began. Meeting both Carol and Brenda was a real pleasure as it was very easy to tell that they really loved what they were doing and that they really loved the town and location that they were doing it in. Sometimes fame brings with it some not so-pleasant consequences but in this case it looks like fame has simply brought lots of well-earned pride and continued love for a community that loves their Sugar right back. And in my book that's historic no matter how you look at it!

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