Baking family sweetens strategy

After selling cakes wholesale for almost 30 years to restaurants, private social clubs and corporate dining halls, Nancy Finkelstein and her brother Howy Lefkowitz never thought they'd return to retail.

But the pair have decided it's time to branch out from the family bakery business, founded by their father in 1965, and open a sister company -- a cupcake shop in Ridgewood -- selling mini-versions of their creations.

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"It's almost like coming full circle," said Finkelstein, 55, of Upper Saddle River.

In mid-June the siblings and Nancy's husband, David, plan on introducing Cupcakes by Carousel, a separate company from the bakery business Carousel Cakes, which all three own and run in Nanuet, N.Y.

The return to their retail origins will be part dream and part experiment, said Finkelstein. She admits there's some risk because stores specializing in cupcakes are a newer concept, although a few are sprinkled locally, including La Dolce Divas Bakery in Englewood and the Sweet Avenue Bake Shop in Rutherford.

"We don't know what's going to work," she said. "People in Ridgewood are going to be our market testers."

The 500-square-foot store with a brick front, subdivided from a former Chinese restaurant, is being renovated and situated near the movie theater and a coffee shop.

Carousel's shop will have a full range of cupcakes from simple frosted ones to those piled high with crumbled cookies or candy. There will be cupcake versions of Carousel's different lines of white, mousse and chocolate cakes and the red velvet cake that made it onto Oprah Winfrey's "O" list of her favorite things in her magazine's February 2007 issue.

Also on the menu will be mousse-filled cupcakes, mini-cupcakes sold by the dozen and jumbo cupcakes for two. The simple ones will start around $2 and fancier ones will go up to $3.50, said Finkelstein.

"We want something that will make people spend their money and feel like they're getting their money's worth," she said.

Finkelstein and Lefkowitz began in the bakery business as teenagers helping their dad, Martin Lefkowitz, sell cakes to customers in his Orangeburg, N.Y., bake shop. He built the business after learning to bake while growing up in an orphanage.

But seeing him work the long hours of a retail business discouraged both from following in his footsteps at first and both chose college. Finkelstein graduated first and became a buyer for the former B. Altman's department store in Manhattan until she had her first son and decided she didn't want to work full-time anymore. Lefkowitz was still in college at the time.

With their father suffering from health issues and unable to work, the siblings decided to try selling the cakes wholesale to restaurants in Manhattan since Finkelstein, then 25, lived there. The cakes were such a hit that the two opened Carousel Cakes in 1980 and moved to their own location in Nanuet six years later.

"Our goal was to sell 100 cakes a week," said Finkelstein, "and my goal was to make $1 million in 10 years [for the business]." Carousel Cakes reached that goal in nine years, she said.

In the late 1980s, her husband, David, joined to run the financial side while her brother managed the baking business and she ran sales and marketing.

Carousel Cakes now sells to more than 300 restaurants in the tri-state area. Local restaurants and gourmet grocers include Zeytinia Fine Food Marketplace in Oakland and Englewood, Aldo & Gianni Ristorante in Montvale, Valentino's of Park Ridge, the Clinton Inn Hotel in Tenafly. Manhattan customers include Zabar's, the private Friars Club, EJ's Luncheonette and the American Museum of Natural History.

The company also became a hit after the Oprah Winfrey magazine placement, receiving 1,500 orders that month for its newly famous red velvet cake, a mild chocolate cake with cream cheese frosting.

Finkelstein got the idea to sell cupcakes from Sprinkles, a national chain of cupcake stores, when she saw a shop in California during a trip in 2007. She told her husband and brother about her idea to open a shop locally.

"Cupcakes are hot!" Finkelstein told them. "There's nothing in Bergen County that's cupcakes. We should really do this."

After deciding to open, it took two years to find a site that was affordable yet high-traffic and not too big or too small. They considered, and then passed on, an old building in Westwood that the owner wouldn't renovate.

They needed a high-traffic site because people might not travel far for a cupcake, she said.

In addition to cupcakes, the shop will sell Carousel cakes, such as the napoleon similar to the Italian pastry, banana-wafer pudding, brownies and blondies (vanilla brownies), lemon and raspberry squares and kosher-style Passover cakes within a colorful decor.

Carousel will hire a publicist to promote the store opening, said Finkelstein, and they've already begun running ads at the Ridgewood theater in the sequence that runs before movies.

"There's a need for a homestyle bakery in Ridgewood but not something old-fashioned," she said, "something new, and modern and different."