In this installment of Meet the Merchant, we speak to Mignon Francois of The Cupcake Collection in Nashville, Tennessee. Mignon shares how she became the most popular cupcake vendor in Nashville and her commitment to giving back to the local community.
Clover: Hello Mignon. Can you tell us how you came to be the cupcake maven of Nashville?
Mignon Francois: Oh my gosh! It was quite a journey. After years of drowning in debt, I decided to do something different. I heard a financial guru on the radio telling people they could get out of debt by having a bake sale or a garage sale. So, I decided to have a bake sale every single day. What started as a mom and pop shop by my family to make ends meet quickly grew. We’re particularly excited that since we’ve gotten a large following and customer base, we’ve noticed new businesses investing in the North Nashville area where we are with concepts that might not otherwise have considered opening near there.
Success meant something different to me then. When I started this business I just wanted field trip money and to help my daughter pay her senior dues. I didn’t know it was going to win awards or that people would come to Nashville just to try my cupcakes. At the time, success just meant being able to help make ends meet.
Clover: Were you an accomplished baker when you started this business?
Francois: No! I was the mom who couldn’t bake, not even out of a box. I called my grandmother, who didn’t have any written recipes, but she shared her knowledge and experience. She told me to grab this much flour and how to pinch your fingers together for this and for that. That was how she walked me through my first successful cake.
I had gone to college to study medicine, but I struggled applying science to the human body. When I started baking, however, the science was so much more clear. After I made my first cake from scratch, I had an “aha” moment when I realized that everything I had been through in my life up to that point was preparing me for that transition from where I was to where I wanted to be.
Clover: How did you grow your business from that first cake?
Francois: When a new neighbor moved to town, I would knock on their door and welcome them to the neighborhood with cupcakes. Inevitably, those people would come back to knock on my door and ask for more.
And the business grew from there. I would sell a dozen cupcakes and with the profits I would buy a spoon. I would sell some more cupcakes and buy a bowl. I didn’t have any credit. I didn’t have any money. I was even losing the house where The Cupcake Collection was located. On the day we opened our store, we knew the house was going to be up for sale at the foreclosure auction. And here I am 12 years later and I’m talking to you from inside the house that I own.
Clover: Did you do any advertising or was it all word-of-mouth marketing?
Francois: We’re located really close to a popular destination restaurant where bus loads of people come to eat. There’s no menu and you sit with strangers, but it’s hugely popular. You just pass whatever they’re serving that day to the person on your left. It’s family style.
We made some fliers and my son asked if he could pass them out to people who were waiting to be seated there. The owner, who loved our cupcakes, gave us permission. So, my son would hand out fliers and say, “My mom makes the best cake in the city. My mom makes the best cake in the state.” Eventually it became, “My mom makes the best cake in the world.”
Hungry people who were waiting to be seated would come down here and get cupcakes and then go back to the line, spreading the word.
Clover: Now you have two locations, including one in New Orleans. How did that come about?
Francois: I always tell people that I was New Orleans raised, but Nashville made.
I really wanted to take the business back to my hometown. I had visited after the 10-year anniversary of [Hurricane] Katrina and the city just wasn’t back in many places. I wanted to help rebuild the city that made me who I am. I wanted to write a love letter to the city that had raised me.
So I partnered with my sister and one of my best friends and taught them what I knew about the business. Now they’re operating our first franchise location in New Orleans. We’re learning the ins and outs of what it means to communicate between the two stores so that we can continue to expand into other markets.
Clover: Can you speak about your involvement with the community?
Francois: I went to college but I feel like I got my MBA from the School of Hard Knocks! I felt it was important to give back to some of the programs that have helped me. Currently, I’m a mentor and serve on the board at the Nashville Entrepreneur Center and we help to provide scholarships for people who want to go through the program like I did. They taught me the things I needed to know—what a profit-and-loss statement was and how to work with balance sheets and things like that. Now I extend my hand to help so that other people can learn.
We also fund scholarships at Tennessee State University and I’m amazed that I’m now helping kids whose names I don’t even know walk across the stage.
I always want to help people discover their own entrepreneurship story. I volunteer and am on the board at Pathways Women’s Business Center and I also work with Corner to Corner, which is a grassroots organization that helps people find their path to business ownership.
For me, that’s what success looks like: being a lighthouse in the community to show others what good business looks like and illuminating the way for others. It’s so important for entrepreneurs to know what they can do if they just believe.
Clover: What made you decide to use Clover?
Francois: I was one of the early adopters that wanted to be able to use Clover. When the Clover reps came, I would ask, “Well, can it do this? Can it do that?” And when it became clear that it was everything I needed it to be, we bought it! We use it for scheduling and we’re planning on using it for online ordering in the near future as well.
Clover helps us keep count of the cupcakes, sync availability with our website, and coordinate between the two locations. These were dreams that I had as I was growing my business, but I thought I was asking for things that didn’t exist.
Clover: How have you adapted your sales for the pandemic?
Francois: During the pandemic, we’ve set up cupcake stations outside of our store and our Clover Mini goes outside with us. Even when our internet goes out, our Clover Mini becomes a hotspot with a cell phone. That’s been wonderful for us.
Clover: How has the pandemic affected you?
Francois: This year has been so hard for everyone on so many levels. But it has also been so rewarding to watch how people find a new voice or a new way. I love how we stopped and spent time with our families.
Even the atmosphere is thanking us. Did you see the fall this year? It had all the colors! In Nashville, we usually go from summer straight into winter. But this year, we’re having all the seasons. And so, there has been beauty and there have been ashes.
Clover: Why do you think The Cupcake Collection has succeeded?
Francois: At The Cupcake Collection we believe that good cake is connected to great memories and our cupcakes take you back to a nostalgic time or place when you experienced something that was made with love.The product we sell is not just the one you carry out with you. What we offer people is joy, and that’s the secret ingredient baked strategically into every single cupcake. Whatever you’re looking to celebrate, there’s a cake for that!
Read more of our Meet the Merchant stories for real-life stories of small businesses in action all over the country.