Fresh ideas, tasty treats luring ‘foodies’ into The Peppered Cupcake

“I wasn’t boxed in to what I thought or anyone else thought a cupcake should be." --- Tabitha Meready

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WILMINGTON – How do you keep a business open and growing when the market is filled with competition, in addition to the fact its specialty focus may not always be on the minds of food lovers?

When owner Tabitha Meready launched The Peppered Cupcake three years ago this April along Front Street in downtown Wilmington, cupcake craze was at its peak. Meready’s ability to create a distinctive brand has helped her shop reach customers on a regular basis through the word of mouth and the internet.

Tabitha Meready brought her loves for cupcakes to the Port City from her native Kinston three years ago. Photo courtesy- Tabitha Meready.
Tabitha Meready brought her loves for cupcakes to the Port City from her native Kinston three years ago. Photo courtesy- Tabitha Meready.

“When I started this business the one thing I learned was, if I was going to open “another” cupcake shop, it better be different,” Meready said. “So many folks get caught up in the dollar sign stage and hope to pump out cupcakes quickly with boxed mixes and pre-colored premade frostings. It does work for some businesses because that is what some folks are looking for…a cupcake.

“We are trying to lure in “foodies” that are already on the hunt for something unique. For the rest of the cupcake fans, we want to show them another type of cupcake,” she said.

It’s just a cupcake, right? What is the biggest difference between The Peppered Cupcake and some of the other specialty dessert businesses?

Keeping the cupcake idea fresh and alive, that is the key, according to Meready. Fresh ingredients, baked in small batches and from scratch, have helped provide the local shop a steady flow of business.

“It’s like the farm to table concept,” Meready added. “We make our own preserves and fruit compotes. We ‘finish’ your cupcake as you order, which is very rare. Most cupcake shops are already made and ready to box. By adding fresh berries, nuts, all house-made ganache, caramel, preserves and whipped cream as you order, it allows us to add another whole dimension to our cupcakes. Fresh!”

The local business owner credits her success to a blindness to any preconceived notions on what her shop should be. Looking beyond the basic concept of providing a sweet treat to fans has been just one facet in building The Peppered Cupcake. Mix in her dedication to the operation using a simple conventional oven and friendly customer service, Meready sees only big things ahead for her little workshop.

The Peppered Cupcake is located near the corner of Front Street and Dock Street in downtown Wilmington.
The Peppered Cupcake is located near the corner of Front Street and Dock Street in downtown Wilmington.

While it may take a little longer to prepare your cakes once in the door, The Peppered Cupcake prides itself on consistency from open to close, 10 a.m. -9 p.m., Tuesday-Saturday and 10 a.m.- 6 p.m. on Monday and Sunday.

“I think my biggest credit goes to not walking into any cupcake shops before I started,” said Meready.  “I wasn’t boxed in to what I thought or anyone else thought a cupcake should be. Another thing I believe folks like is to see us here constantly baking throughout the day. We don’t over bake. We bake as needed. No one can believe we bake from a conventional oven and produce what we do from that one little oven.”

With three competing cupcake shops downtown, The Peppered Cupcake wasn’t originally intended to join a crowded dessert scene, but its location and ability for all those involved in the specialty dessert business to find their niche has been a key to each establishment’s success.

“We all offer cupcakes, but we all offer and create something very different and unique to each other, and there is room for all,” Meready said. “We are tickled to have a way to please our potential customers by redirecting them to other bakeries close by and sometimes to other parts of town, depending on their requests. It’s all about customer service.”

For Meready, her heritage is important and that led to the distinctive name, Peppered Cupcake. The title derived from a recipe her aunt passed down called Jezebel sauce. It’s an appetizer that uses one block of cream cheese and a concoction of marmalade and horseradish poured on top of the cheese and topped off with fresh cracked pepper, served with crackers.

“It’s a wonderfully sweet but savory idea,” Meready added. “So, of course my signature cupcake was developed around this very simple recipe. It is one of my best sellers.  That’s exactly how The Peppered Cupcake came to be. The name peaks curiosity.”

How does Meready differentiate her cupcakes from the rest?  One of the biggest compliments she receives is based on the cakes moistness. The buttercreams are light and not overly sweet because they don’t contain a ton of sugar, Meready said.

Meready's "Cupcakes in Jar" concept has caught on and available for shipping.
Meready’s “Cupcakes in Jar” concept has caught on and available for shipping.

She believes most people are turned away from the cupcake idea because they automatically assume the frosting is going to be obnoxiously sweet. The Wilmington resident wanted to create a cupcake with the adult in mind. As The Peppered Cupcake states on its website, “we are constantly trying to please our sophisticated “foodies.”

Keeping things simple with her business plan has put The Peppered Cupcake on the map; the local business has also started to build a new concept to help grow outside its location.

“Each month and year is better than the last,” Meready said.  “Last year we started shipping our ‘Cupcake in a Jar.’ That has been awesome for us to reach our customer base that lives out of state. We couldn’t ship our cakes as you see in the store, so trifling them in a jar was our compromise.”

Meready uses about 15 different preserves and also have warm cupcake offerings. Just like you would have a warm cobbler, its concept with warm fruit, topping pure buttercream melts on contact. The Peppered Cupcake offers over 10 different warm cupcakes, from smashed banana’s foster to pear with hot bacon Jam. Different enough?

Meready and her staff also make house-made sorbets during the summer as toppings to satisfy both cupcake and ice cream fans: lavender sorbet, strawberry and balsamic sorbet, peach and thyme sorbet and mango habanero, to name a few.

The Peppered Cupcake offers a variety of treats not typically seen at your typical shop.
The Peppered Cupcake offers a variety of treats not typically seen at your typical shop.

It is a different approach to a traditional dessert, one that dates back as far as 1796. The Peppered Cupcake prides itself on giving customers a one of a kind experience from when they walk in the door. It’s the combination of friendly approach and variety that landed The Peppered Cupcake a number one ranking in Wilmington among restaurant and dessert places on www.TripAdvisor.com.

“By the time folks leave, we can tell you where they’ve just come from, what they had for lunch/dinner and if they are passing through or locals,” Meready said. “Most importantly how they heard about us. We genuinely want to know our customers.”

Aside from its website, The Peppered Cupcake has spread the sweet word of cupcakes with little advertising. 

“I’ve always had a desire to entertain people out of my home and we’ve created that environment here at TPC,” Meready said. “People can come in and meet the owners/baker in action, which is rare and enjoy a good, fresh cupcake, cup of coffee or hot tea and relax. We gained many friends along the way and I don’t see us going anywhere anytime soon.”