Tonnie Rozier, founder and CEO of the Manhattan-based cupcake business, Tonnie's Minis, just got the break of his life. On a whim and at the insistence of his friend and business partner Amnon Filippi, he decided to open up a cupcake shop in Harlem, the section of New York City that spans from 110th Street to 155th Street. The area is known for its African American culture and beautiful architecture, but also for its crime and poor, long-forgotten neighborhoods. To his surprise, the idea turned out to be the most successful and lucrative business venture he's had thus far.
Harlem has seemingly been left out of the confectionery renaissance that New York City has been experiencing recently, as several entrepreneurial bakers have opened up stores specializing in cupcakes from Chinatown to Midtown. Babycakes NYC in Soho and Kyotofu in Clinton Hill are just some of the newer stores that patrons have been flocking to for the desserts, not to mention the mobile dessert truck, the Cupcake Stop.
Rozier was one of them, opening his flagship Tonnie's Minis in Greenwich Village in the spring of 2006, shortly after leaving his full-time job as a sports manager for the New York City Housing Authority in 2004. The only adequate, affordable space he could find to set up shop was a "hole in the wall," he says. Rozier's slow start – he only made $50 the first week – wasn't helped by the fact that the space was shared with BB's Sandwich Bar, which specialized in cheesesteaks.
The combined aroma of onions mixed with cake and buttercream was a pungent addition to the store's operations. Rozier would boil some water, cinnamon sticks, and vanilla to offset the smell of the cheesesteaks. "The space was literally split down the middle; one side sold cheesesteaks and fries and on the other side I had my cupcakes. It wasn't pretty. There's no wall blocking the kitchen, so customers could see the onions and the grease sitting right next to the cupcakes."
Business eventually started to pick up as New York University students came in and spread the word, which led to corporate orders from big companies such as American Express and Goldman Sachs. But the competition in the area was fierce; there were any number of other cupcake bakeries in nearly a 3-mile radius.
Filippi stumbled upon a vacant commercial space on 124th street and Lenox Ave that needed to be completely gutted, but the rent would only be $2,500 per month. Rozier, whose main customers thus far had been students, didn't think his cupcakes would resonate with the mostly working class neighborhoods in Harlem. But after some convincing, he took the bait.
Now, he's busy managing the opening of his new location, which is a far cry from the tiny, shared space in Greenwich Village. It boasts custom architecture and interior design, indoor and outdoor seating for guests, and a huge kitchen equipped with an oven that can bake 240 cupcakes in 30 minutes, compared to only 48-an-hour at the other location, which remains in operation. In addition, the 1,200-square-feet building provides more than enough space for the staff of six to handle orders of any size, says Rozier.
A soft opening on Wednesday, October 14 led to about $800 in sales the first day and sales continued at the same pace through the week leading up to the grand opening on Monday, October 26, not including special orders for cakes and large cupcake orders. Rozier said his business has experienced a 200-percent sales increase.
"[I was thinking,] 'Who's going to buy a cupcake for $2.25 in Harlem?" says the Harlem native. "I realized there were other bakeries here in Harlem, but nobody's doing just cupcakes. I underestimated that, obviously, because the lines are out the door on any given day."
Baking has always been a passion for Rozier; one might argue that it's even in his blood. The Harlem native began baking with his grandmother when he was seven, and learned early on the cost-effectiveness of baking his own treats, versus the store-bought version. As an adult, a co-worker tried his cookies, and pleaded for a batch of oatmeal raisin, even offering cash.
That's when it clicked to him that his skills with an oven could bring him some serious dough. He started selling the cookies for $2.50 a bag, and before long, he was selling 50 bags a day. "I literally had my 7-month-old son in my left hand, and the mixer in the other," Rozier says.
Excited by the success of his business overall, and buoyed by the cupcakes' popularity in a new location in the city, he's now considering other growth opportunities, and has been approached by investors about franchising. First on deck, though, is buying the lease on the Greenwich Village location – where he says the onions will stay.
"I'm still going to keep the cheesesteaks, and include hamburgers along with the cupcakes," he says. "I'll just put up a wall."