Battle cupcake began at 10 a.m. on a Friday.
The nearly two dozen competitors, some in aprons and chef’s hats, ranged in age from 8 to 15. Spatulas and measuring cups at the ready, they stood prepared for the challenge. Over the next two hours, each would mix a batter from scratch, learn to make buttercream frosting, bake a half-dozen treats and decorate them as elaborately as possible.
Welcome to Taste Buds Kitchen online camp. The creation of two FIU Business alumnae, the Zoom gatherings have youngsters learning the art and science of baking at a time when in-person activities have gone by the wayside.
“What opportunity can we offer?” the sister team of Laura ’02 and Beatriz ’05 Zaldivar asked themselves when the pandemic forced the closure of their southwest Miami-Dade storefront. The pair already had a following for their face-to-face cooking and baking classes. Looking to meet customers’ needs and keep their business viable, they found an answer in virtual instruction.
“It’s been amazing,” Laura says of teaching kids remotely. “People have really liked it.”
If the cupcake throwdown—more a showcase of creativity than a contest—is any indicator, the young’uns are eating it up. Questions fly—“How much baking powder?” “Do you use the whole egg?”—as a friendly instructor demonstrates the steps and offers encouragement. “Your butter and sugar should look light and fluffy,” she tells the home bakers. “If your frosting is too loose, you have to add more confectioner’s sugar.” And then, “That’s beautiful, Carmen.” “Yes, Ivonna, that’s perfect.”
The session ends with the displaying of masterpieces bedecked with sprinkles, mini-marshmallows and even Legos. One clever baker holds up a cupcake with a sand-colored glaze and a Teddy Graham lounging beneath a palm tree with fronds made of gummy worms.
Innovating to stay afloat
Like a lot of business owners, the Zaldivars had to quickly pivot in the face of the pandemic. Just before shuttering their doors in March, they were close to paying down the loan they had taken three years earlier to buy the franchise and outfit their teaching kitchen. With lockdown in place, clearing the bank note in a timely fashion is no longer a possibility.
“I cried,” says Beatriz, who ultimately took inspiration from her sister. “She said, ‘We are going to get through this.’ She was super-positive."
They also listened to others who had suffered challenges over the years, entrepreneurs who understood the often cyclical nature of markets and other bumps in the road, such as hurricane threats that can stop cold certain commercial activities.
“They’ve gone through highs and lows,” Beatriz says of those who offered advise, “and everybody who is experienced has said, ‘You will come out of it. Now is the time to think outside of the box.’”
And so the sisters called upon their ingenuity. In addition to the summer camps and other classes, they moved online their kids’ birthday party service as well as adult offerings. They dreamed up and took orders for a gingerbread “bunny hutch” that they assembled and delivered, complete with icing and candies for a child-friendly Easter decorating activity. They also boosted their Facebook marketing and applied for a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan and another from the Small Business Administration to help pay their handful of employees and cover fixed expenses.
Today, Beatriz is the face of the company while Laura works behind the scenes. The two are encouraged by the impact of their commitment on those they serve.
“Clients were asking how we are doing. Little by little, people started reaching out,” says Beatriz of people’s concern in the weeks after physically closing shop. “Then you realize what personal relations you build. That touched me.”
Some of those same families are now raving about the online experience.
Already familiar with Taste Buds Kitchen, alumna Edys Cianella ’07 jumped at the chance to enroll 10-year-old daughter Evangeline in the Sunday afternoon “Let’s Make Dinner” classes, recipes and ingredient lists for which are emailed to participants in advance.
“She’s getting a little bit of the social interaction that kids need,” Cianella says after months of isolation at home. And the delicious results—Crazy Fried Rice, Taco Mac and Cheese—have been a hit with the family.
“My daughter loves to eat, and I thought, I really want her to get to know how to do these things because I’m lost in the kitchen,” says Cianella, who added that Dad usually serves as Evangeline’s sous chef. “She gets so much out of it, so much pride. It’s great for her self-esteem.”
Fifteen-year-old Selvin Alfonso completed the weeklong baking camp with a friend, both nudged by the adults in their lives.
“It’s a good way to start if you want to bake,” Alfonso agreed of the setup. With little prior confectionary experience, he easily turned out tasty pretzels, muffins, mini-pies, homemade pop tarts and Oreo cookie knockoffs. He even baked a killer chocolate babka, an Eastern European yeast-risen coffee cake he’d never heard of before but that impressed everyone who tried it.
“Now I could be more independent,” Alfonso added of his newly acquired skills. “I don’t need my parents around.”