By Sandy Leung
Q & A Interview with Wenter Shyu, Founder & Owner of We The Minis, a Bay Area cupcakery based in Oakland, California.
They offer “Cakes With A Purpose”, donating a portion of all their proceeds to non-profit organizations that help homeless families.
By Sandy Elle
On a quiet Sunday morning in uptown Oakland, we met up with Wenter Shyu, the founder and owner of We The Minis and self-proclaimed “Cake Enthusiast”, and sat down with him for a one-on-one chat about his little cupcakery and it’s journey from humble beginnings to newfound promise.
When he started the business one year ago, he only offered cupcakes via online orders; but now he is partnering with Caviar to offer their delicious sweets on demand and delivered to your doorstep in under 20 minutes. Their products were recently made available for a limited time at Oaklandish, one of the largest retail stores in the Bay Area. He is looking into launching his first storefront in Oakland later this year. We The Minis has also been featured on KTVU2 and CBS Local GoodDay Sacramento.
Our table is situated at the dimly lit back corner next to a gigantic origami crane on the second floor of Taiwan Bento, a cozy little restaurant that offers authentic Taiwanese home cooking where his cupcakes were first debuted to the public. With a backwards baseball cap and casual dress, Wenter brings a sense of down-to-earth charm, honesty, enthusiasm and humor that leaves you with an inspiring sense of warmth and admiration.
Wenter followed his heart, or should I say, his sweet tooth, and found cupcakes to be his calling. When I asked about his personal passions, he responded: “If I had a slogan, it would be: Fog, Iced Non-Fat Lattes and Cupcakes.” When asked to sum up the We The Minis journey in three adjectives, he replied: “humbling, exhausting and inspiring”. This is where Cakes With A Purpose comes into play; seeing the humanitarian “aspect of things is very inspiring for us, to be able to touch more people’s lives and to be able to help them. You just can’t be sad when you have a cupcake!”
Read more about how an unsalted brick of butter has forever changed the way Wenter feels about baking, and has inspired him to give back to his community and those in need. So without further interruptions, I introduce to you, self-proclaimed “Cake Enthusiast”, Mr. Wenter Shyu.
SE: Why cupcakes? How did you become interested in cupcakes? Did you always want to become a cupcakery owner growing up?
WS: Growing up in an Asian household, we never had any desserts or sweets at all; my childhood desserts were rice cakes and fruit. But I’ve always had a sweet tooth; when I was in college, I would splurge on random desserts. I’ve always wanted to own a juice bar or a cute cupcake/coffee bar. When I found out that I couldn’t afford a juice bar as it was too expensive, I partnered with a good friend of mine named Jennifer Hirt to start a cupcakery. Jennifer, who was baking at the time, is now my Head Baker.
What has also sparked it for me is being a consumer living in San Francisco and always looking to be skinny; I was bothered by the cupcakes that were available in the market. When you bite into them, your teeth just goes numb and it hurts your stomach. Some cupcakes are just too sweet and they taste processed and unnatural. I then wanted to make desserts where I knew what ingredients went into them.
For us, we are always looking to use less butter, less sugar and to not use processed oils; I’ve been working with Jennifer to find ways to bump up the flavor but not the sugar. After researching for months about making cupcakes, I realized that some companies put stabilizers and preservatives in their cupcakes and when I asked them why they did that, I never received a clear answer. This didn’t make any sense to me. We The Minis’s cupcakes have a short shelf life as they don’t last a week or two weeks but that just means that we have to work harder and bake more to always ensure the freshest products.
SE: How did the company name “We The Minis” come about?
WS: This was a team effort between my boyfriend and I. He is a graphic designer and he helped design the logo and the initial website. When I first started the company, I wanted to create an all-encompassing company and brand that gave back to the community, so referring to the first line of the Constitution of the United States, “We The People”, “We The Minis” came from that. At first, we wanted to see how viable mini cupcakes were so we experimented with these bite-sized versions but we found out that we prefer the full-size cupcakes more. We do cupcakes and cupcakes are really just mini-versions of a cake; they’re mini cakes. That is why we have “Minis” as the last part of the name.
SE: You took a lot of courage to start your company in an expensive and competitive area like the Bay Area; how difficult was it to launch your business?
WS: We unofficially launched in November of 2014 and we officially got incorporated as of September 2015. We were testing out the concept and observing how the market and people would respond to cupcakes. After getting our recipes down, we went to see how well people responded to cupcakes. There are so many dessert companies out there; do people really need another one? Are cupcakes still a thing or are cronuts, macarons or waffles taking over the world? The question was, “Do people still want cupcakes"?
After a year of testing out concept out, people still wanted cupcakes! It was tough at first but we did really well. We tested our concept with some random pop-ups in San Francisco and we participated in any fair and festival we can get into. Our first fair was the “How Weird Street Faire” in April of 2014. That was the first event we’ve ever done that was a 25,000 people event. It was crazy but we did really well. We kept doing so well with all the events and the momentum kept growing.
SE: What differentiates We The Minis from other competitors?
WS: Our Head Baker Jennifer, was classically trained in wedding cakes. She taught me how to make cupcakes from the viewpoint of making wedding cakes. Our cupcakes are being made with the that type of technique and process, with that much care and precision that goes into making wedding cakes; I learned all my baking from her. We take a great deal of care in making our cupcakes. Even though we are competing against people like Cako, Kara’s and Sprinkles, we’ve got some good cupcakes too but our model and flavors are just a little different and this is what differentiates us from them.
Sprinkles donates back to the community too; they have donated over $7 million in cash to give back to the community since 2005 but it is their secondary objective. Versus for us, we do it full-on, we commit annually to the 5%, to charities like The Hamilton Family Center to end family homelessness. I want to make sure that kids have a place to sleep and are not going to sleep hungry at night; that is a personal cause for me. It is a combination of all this; this is the evolution of where companies are going towards these days. With the rise of B corps; many companies are making sure that giving back is part of their overall business plan.
SE: What is the tangible or imaginary item that I asked you to bring with you that showcases a part of the We The Minis journey so far?
WS: I brought an unsalted brick of butter. This is not really part of the past but it is part of the current process. The butter came about when we recently did a Cupcake Decorating Event with The Hamilton Family Center and invited all the families and their kids to come decorate cupcakes with us for the holidays.
We talked to a few families and a few of them loved and enjoyed baking but couldn’t bake as often as they would like to because they could not afford butter. For many of us, we just buy butter but for some of us, we can’t even afford butter and that’s just a whole new world that I cannot understand. That is something that I could not wrap my head around; I was speechless. I was fortunate enough to not know of that kind of life and not grow up with that type of mentality. Butter is like milk and eggs, something you don’t think of and you just go and buy it. That really broke my heart because people out there can’t afford butter and that’s why they cannot bake.
That was a HUGE turning point for me; to push me further to work harder to grow the company so that the 5% that we give back can grow even bigger for the families that we help. We were also doing workshops on how we can teach the families to bake recipes that don’t use butter. But the next step to teach these families how to bake without butter is to teach them skills to have them afford the butter that they can bake with. It took me on a thought process of entrepreneurship. We are now thinking about how we can teach valuable job skills to these families that can really empower the communities that we work with.
We are looking into getting our first storefront in Oakland later this year, which will also serve as space to teach these jobs and skills for at-risk youths and for families that just need an outlet for their kids or their family to learn entrepreneurial skills and to empower the family to help themselves to be better and break out of the cycle of homelessness. The storefront space will be dedicated to volunteering and doing more workshops with The Hamilton Family Center. Money could be providing more resources like supplies, shelter and materials, but being able to provide more than just monetary contribution will be effective in getting these families to where they want to be, with new and useful skills that they can continue to use.
The community outreach and community management for our company’s community partners is a full-time job on it’s own. But where do I have the time for this? Carving out time for everything that I want to do is the biggest challenge; how do I split myself into six different people and send them off to do six different things.
SE: In terms of the shop’s results versus your expectations before this journey began; what was that like?
WS: Of course I expected it to be a million-dollar business in the first month. Just kidding. I think it is a humbling process; I really thought I could have my Head Baker in place, then implement the infrastructure, then everything will be on auto-pilot. But when you plan this way then it totally goes THIS way, you cannot plan for anything; you can only do your best as we don’t know how the market will respond. Monetarily-wise, we’ve done really well. We have definitely surpassed my expectations within the first year of experimenting and testing the concept. Our second year will also be very good for us.
SE: How do you look to engage and retain customers?
WS: Engaging-wise, we aim to offer the best product out there that we can make. I come from many years in a visual merchandising background with a focus on retail management; customer service has always been engrained within me. Coming out with the best product and knowing how to get that product more easily into people’s hands are always the key challenges. Not having a storefront is a huge setback for us. I get calls every day where people are asking where we are and where they can go and pick up some cupcakes? I usually send them to Taiwan Bento; but getting a storefront and being able to service the demand will really help us.
Starting next week, we are launching with a company called Caviar, in the East Bay; they are working with us to deliver our cupcakes on demand. If you order with Caviar, you can get cupcakes delivered to your door within 20 minutes or less. They will be baked fresh every day and we sell until we sell out. Caviar already has the infrastructure in place; they have the people to deliver cupcakes so that helps us because we can focus on baking cupcakes. Our signature cupcake flavors (Red Velvet, Churro and Hella Nutella) and our Mini Macaron Jars (Churro, Lemon & Salted Caramel) will be offered by Caviar but cookies are not available on demand at the moment.
SE: How do you feel about the “Cupcake ATM”?
WS: I am super jealous. I want my own Cupcake ATM everywhere. Since starting my business, one of my biggest idols and points of aspirations is the Founder and Owner of Sprinkles, Candace Nelson. I stalk her online and watch every episode of Cupcake Wars. I’m inspired and very motivated to get to that level too. Personally, the Cupcake ATM is great but it’s a bit expensive which I understand. Hopefully, going with the We The Minis concept, I can make a Cupcake ATM that is a bit more affordable for other people. Going back to the convenience of getting product into people’s hands, Cupcake ATMs falls right into this; it’s right there, you can go anytime, it’s reliable. Caviar will solve many of those problems; you don’t even need to leave your house to get cupcakes now. You don’t even need to get into the car and drive to an ATM; I’m super excited about this. If the Tech Bubble sustains, food delivery will grow even bigger in the next few years and we hope to ride that wave as long as we can.
SE: What is one really memorable story or moment that you had when you were running some of the fairs and festivals?
WS: The most memorable moments are when you make friends with your neighbors. When you go to a fair, sometimes there are people who act out of line; it’s just craziness. You share your products and you get to receive so much stuff as a vendor. It’s a great community of hardworking people. However, some people think they can come up to our shop and try to bargain for a cheaper rate for our products. Some think that just because we are a mobile store, people can come up to us, look at our stuff and say “too much sugar” and then they walk away. They are okay with speaking their mind to us. You don’t do that to a restaurant and just walk away.
SE: Why did you choose Taiwan Bento as the place to debut your cupcakes?
WS: I’ve became great friends with Willy and Stacy, the owners of Taiwan Bento. We do not wholesale and we do not ask for a specific price point. All of the pop-ups are based on a percentage of profit share and it is all based on an honor system. I like to work with people who I trust and that makes sense to me. Taiwan Bento also did not have desserts before so it was a great natural fit to add our cupcakes to their menu. We also have our signature Asian Matcha Green Tea flavor that is exclusively being sold there.
SE: We always hear about how long the hours are for those who are in this field. How early do your bakers start the day in the morning?
WS: Most often we start around 7 AM or 8 AM; when we have a festival such as the Urban Epic Fest, or the Treasure Island Flea, our day can start as early as 4 AM or 5 AM.
SE: Are you looking to expand your products beyond cupcakes, macarons and cookies in the near future?
WS: The original concept of We The Minis was to test out various mini products such as cupcakes, brownies and pies. We didn’t want to diversify too early on so we want to focus on these three areas. There could eventually be mini pies coming soon. We want things that fall under the overall company concept and name. But espresso will be the first!
SE: Macarons are extremely difficult to make and perfect; how and why did you get into this?
WS: Macarons are naturally gluten-free. We wanted to offer a gluten-free option for our customers and wanted to service the gluten-free and celiac community. We can also do gluten-free cupcakes on demand. It’s been a real process to learn to make. There are a variety of factors including humidity that can cause problems. They have become such a huge seller for us but they’re quite temperament!
SE: Do you also help out with the baking process too?
WS: Yes, I do! Jennifer is in charge of the kitchen and inventory; I am her worker in the kitchen and also help her bake. I mostly take care of everything outside of the kitchen.
SE: Where are your products made?
WS: Our products are made in a shared commercial kitchen space in Oakland, California.
SE: What are the best-selling Cupcake, Macaron and Cookie flavors?
WS: CUPCAKES: It’s Red Velvet, Churro and Hella Nutella. These three flavors were our best-selling flavors last year so they will be our signature flavors going forward.
MACARONS: Our most popular flavors include: Salted Caramel and it’s a tie between Pistachio and Lemon.
COOKIES: Our most popular flavors include the Ginger Snap and Bacon Chocolate Chip.
SE: What are your favorite Cupcake, Macaron and Cookie flavors?
WS: CUPCAKES: Red Velvet OR Churro but our Lavender Honey comes close as well. I really like them all!
MACARONS: It’s a tie between our Churro and our classic Mexican Vanilla Bean that’s made from almond flour so you can really taste the almonds in it; it’s so good and simplistic.
COOKIES: Our Ginger Snap and Bacon Chocolate Chip. We had a guy from Seattle that tried our Ginger Snap and said that he hasn’t had that kind of Ginger Snap in over 10 years; that made me happy!
When we have festivals and we get so busy that sometimes I forget to eat breakfast and I find myself having a hard time deciding between the various Cupcake and Cookie flavors that we offer; I feel like I’m a kid in at my own candy store! They’re all so good!
SE: What is the inspiration behind the two bacon-flavored Chocolatey Pig Cupcake and the Bacon Chocolate Chip Cookie?
WS: Just bacon! Chocolate-covered bacon. We used to have a Maple Bacon flavor but everyone has this flavor and no one thinks about chocolate-covered bacon. It’s literally just a chocolate cupcake with chocolate ganache frosting with a piece Applewood-smoked bacon slice in the center.
SE: How would you sum up your experience on television at KTVU2?
WS: Nerve-racking! When you get into the studio and you see the cameras, the equipment, the lights, the news anchor table, it's all so intimidating. Once you get in front of the cameras and we started talking, Claudine Wong told me to only talk to her and not at the cameras. She is a fantastic interviewer and once we started talking, it felt normal and comfortable. I was so nervous but it was a lot of fun! My goal is to be on The Ellen Degeneres Show!
SE: Is there ever leftover cupcakes from Taiwan Bento? If so, what do you do with them?
WS: Our kitchen is inside The Oakland Asian Cultural Center which is a nonprofit to empower and showcase the beautiful Asian cultures in Oakland. We do donate the cupcakes to the staff and volunteers that work there every day or to The Hamilton Family Center. Occasionally, I will literally bag them up in Ziploc bags and hand them out to the homeless versus just throwing them out.
SE: How large is your team right now? What’s in store for the growth of the company this year?
WS: It’s just Jennifer the Head Baker. We sometimes have two to three festivals in one day where I go and some friends to help out. We’re slated to expand and grow; we’re looking to double in size this year. Hopefully, the storefront will be successful.
SE: What are some upcoming fairs, festivals and events that you guys will be attending that fans should be aware of?
WS: We will be at the following upcoming events:
- Jack Of All Trades Market in Oakland, California, every 2nd Saturday every month.
- Treasure Island Flea in San Francisco, California, last weekend of every month.
- How Weird Street Faire 2016 in San Francisco, California on May 1st, 2016.
Our products will also be available via:
- Caviar mobile app in the East Bay (Cupcakes & Mini Macaron Jars are available on demand)
People definitely responded well to our products and service; now we are searching for an even bigger challenge for us. There are a lot of exciting things happening for us this upcoming year!
SE: What is your advice for those who want to start a cupcakery of their own?
WS: I’ve never baked before this. I learned after I decided I wanted to start a cupcakery. For those who want to start something like this, I would highly recommend them to Do Your Research! Research recipes, get in the kitchen, know what to expect; it’s very labor intensive. We are in the food industry so we have very slim margins as we’re not selling leather handbags here. They’re perishable so there are risks that you have to be aware of. Get ready for long hours, strenuous labor and no benefits. Just have a plan and be ready to be on your feet and even wash dishes. It’s just crazy!
SE: If you can sum up the We The Minis journey in three adjectives, what would they be?
WS: Humbling, exhausting and inspiring. I spend a lot more time in the nonprofit sectors, with The Hamilton Family Center and nonprofits like The Oakland Asian Cultural Center. We do a lot of galas and fundraisers for the nonprofits. This is where “Cakes With A Purpose” comes into play; seeing the nonprofit aspect of things is very inspiring for us, to be able to touch more people’s lives and to be able to help them. You just can’t be sad when you have a cupcake!
SE: What are some of your personal passions in life?
WS: Coffee, yoga, running, hiking and anything in the wilderness. I’m definitely a fog chaser on a trail. I just like the fog; the coolness, the wetness and crispness. It’s what I would imagine being in a cloud would be like. My slogan in life would be "fog, iced non-fat lattes and cupcakes”.
SE: Are you also passionate about food in general?
WS: That goes without saying! I’m always trying new restaurants and balancing new ideas. It’s really cool when you check out festivals and you get to see some other side of things like food trucks; it's great to get to know more people in the food industry. People’s ideas, their commitment to the flavor profiles, and what they want to bring to the table is just inspiring! Cupcakeries are my focus for now; baking and coffee are enough pressure and stress for me for the next few years!
SE: Wenter is such a unique name! Can you please tell us more about it?
WS: Yes, thank you. It is derived from my Chinese name: Wenter = 文 (pronounced ‘wen’, meaning literacy, poeticism) 德 (actually pronounced ‘de’, meaning ethics, morality, virtue).
SE: What keeps you getting up every day?
WS: The fear of losing; losing money, trust and momentum keep me getting up every day. I have to get up. I have my commitments here at Taiwan Bento. I have to help my team. If I don’t get up, I don't make money; if I don’t make money, I can’t donate. If I can’t donate, then it loses everything I’ve built up and worked for so far. It’s a very honest answer.