Photo Credits: Nicole Costa
One spring afternoon, Nicole Costa pulled out her mixer and whipped up a batch of cupcakes, completely unaware that those cupcakes would change her life. Now, twenty months later, Nicole is an extremely successful small business owner with an extensive list of satisfied clientele and a new title: Food Network’s reigning queen of ‘Cupcake Wars.’
Humble, bubbly and deliciously creative, Costa, a Marine Corps spouse stationed at Cherry Point, will tell you that that though her life may take new paths in the wake of her win, she will keep all her main ingredients the same: a love for family, friends and their collaboration in her creative process. After all, she says with a smile, ‘Your product is only as good as your ingredients.’ How she landed in front of the bright lights is an inspirational story of talent, dogged determination and an exquisitely tailored sweet tooth.
The idea is born
Upon completing a degree in arts, Nicole turned her career aspirations toward nursing. To prepare, Nicole fulfilled a number of advanced classes early and found herself with an unlikely amount of time before the entrance exam. Facing her newfound, albeit temporary freedom, Nicole turned to baking. She pulled out her Kitchen Aid, whipped up a batch of cupcakes and invited her best friend, Amy, a fellow military spouse and student, to join. ‘I remember it like it was yesterday. We were standing in my kitchen and talking about our courses together… And she said to me, ‘these are the best cupcakes I’ve ever eaten.’
In that moment, Nicole was struck with an idea; perhaps she might try to turn her hobby of baking into something more, ‘It went from a hobby, to an idea, from an idea to an execution. From there it gained momentum.’
As a military spouse, however, Nicole was aware of the enormous responsibilities military spouses carry in both personal and family life, that careers must often be flexible to a unique set of circumstances. ‘Being military I feel, especially with spouses, they do hold down the fort, yet they’re constantly in this state of transition, trying to find themselves, build a home…’ Originally from Texas, Nicole met her husband, Andre, while they were both living in Pensacola. Nicole and Andre married and she had their first child, a boy, within weeks of being stationed at Cherry Point. Three years later their youngest, a daughter, followed. Nicole speaks of her family with a distinct smile seeping into her tone. And much as her life had fallen into the right places, so too did her business plan: ‘It happened organically.’
And it happened quickly due to Nicole’s extraordinary drive and talent. Initially, Nicole inquired about selling her cupcakes at New Bern’s historic farmer’s market. In order to sell her cupcakes she was told she needed to pass a kitchen inspection. Immediately, Nicole set up the inspection, a rather rigorous process to ensure the food safety of consumers, and passed with flying colors. But she didn’t stop there. Costa then contacted and set up a meeting with the small business center at Craven Community College in New Bern, North Carolina. She also enrolled in classes for budding entrepreneurs. Nicole credits the small business and entrepreneurship classes and community at Craven with helping her develop her initial business plan. ‘Going to the small business center and learning about your cost of goods sold and what profit margins are… You meet a lot of people opening businesses or small business owners.’
Nicole registered her business in April 2011. ‘I had been cramming to be a nurse, and dissecting fetal pigs… But, I realized that I didn’t feel as passionate about bodily fluids as I do about butter cream.’
The first Saturday at the market, Nicole enlisted the help of her brother to man her booth. ‘The first Saturday was so scary. I woke him [her brother] up to go with me. Now mind you, I didn’t know how many cupcakes to make. I had no idea. I think I brought eight dozen.’ Nicole sold out. Now, just a year later, Nicole brings roughly 30 dozen cupcakes to her booth; she sells out by 10:00AM.
Nicole credits the love and support of her family to help her run the company. In fact, it was her bother that initially helped her devise the name of her cupcake business, ‘The Wild Cupcake.‘ While discussing what to name her company, Nicole remarked that if she ever were to own a storefront, she’d like the personified cupcake caricatures to adorn the walls. One, she joked, might be lifting up its dress at Mardi Gras. ‘Cupcakes gone wild!,’ she laughed.
The demand for her cupcakes grew and soon Nicole’s family-her daughter, her son and her husband- were pitching in to help the business grow. Some nights found Nicole, covered in batter, her children running around the kitchen and her husband folding boxes. But perhaps for Costa, one of the secrets to her success is that she’s not just producing a product, but an act of love. She credits her mother with inspiring her not just to bake, but to create entire memories around the act of baking. ‘I feel like food literally solves everything. That moment when I wake up in the morning, I drink my coffee and I get in the kitchen. It’s those moments, blips in time that life is surreal. Gathering in the kitchen with family and friends… It’s not really about these wonderful delicious plates of food, but the memories that surround it.’
And the process of creating those memories is just exactly how she would have it as a small business owner. ‘The up of being a small business owner is that I truly feel that I can be as successful as I have the willpower to be, because it’s hard. For every amazing thing that happens to you, sometimes negative happens. Three steps forward and two steps back.’
Nicole didn’t realize how many steps forward she was going to take in a matter of months.
In April of 2012 Nicole was approached by a local gourmet cafe owner, Rebecca Clanton, and asked if she would like to lease space in her store. Nicole agreed and it was during this time that she learned about Food Network’s ‘Cupcake Wars.’ With the help of a fellow Marine wife, Nicole created a short video application and submitted it to the casting directors. They were impressed; in mid-June Nicole received a phone call to let her know that only she and four other bakers had been selected to compete. She chose Rebecca as her assistant, and together they prepared for the unknown.
In August, Nicole and Rebecca traveled to Los Angeles for the show’s taping. Over the course of four days and half days, and one intensive day of baking and filming, the next Cupcake Star would be crowned. Food Network judges presented the competitors with time intensive challenges based on various themes. First, Rebecca was asked to create a tea-infused cupcake in forty-five minutes. Through quick trial and error, she chose to concoct a jasmine-infused cake with lemon and jasmine meringue that pleased the judges, though Nicole distinctively felt the stress of the competition. ‘It’s petrifying. They judge: poke, prod, sniff, and smell. They spend twenty minutes per contestant and only show you a teeny tiny minute on television. Then you have to wait.’
During the second round, Nicole and her assistant were asked to create three cupcakes based around a Mary Poppins theme. Costa surpassed the competition and moved into the final round, where she was challenged to make 1,000 cupcakes.
When the time to crown the winner arrived, Nicole took her place next to her competitor. The outcome didn’t matter, she assured herself, but rather that she had made it so far. When the judges announced Nicole as the winner, she was shocked and ecstatic. ‘In that moment, I knew I found my niche. That this is it. What would happen if everything fell apart? I would start again. There is no other option. This is the one thing that feels like it’s mine; I’m good at it and I’m validated.’
Back Home in New Bern
Back home in New Bern, away from the lights of the pressure-packed competition, Nicole looks toward new projects and the inevitable challenges to follow. Though her orders have expanded she keeps it, as she wants, her very own business. Indeed, Costa still works out of the same home kitchen in which she made that fortuitous batch of cupcakes and she doesn’t plan to change that any time soon. Aware that the military may take them on a move across country, Nicole is constantly adapting her business model. ‘Being military it’s hard to establish those roots. […]Wherever we go, we don’t know how long we’re going to be there. I’m so fortunate that I get to do this, that my husband has a career that pays the bills and I’m able to pursue this passion. Not everyone can do that, and I will do everything in power to continue to do that without burden.‘
For Nicole, her plan has worked. In the past twenty months she’s moved from baking as a hobby to a television success. Countless media outlets have interviewed her and her name is now at the top of the list of rising stars in the baking world. The possibilities for Nicole are seemingly limitless, though it isn’t the bright glare of fame that brings her peace; it comes instead from waking up every day and heading to her kitchen. ‘I don’t know what the pinnacle of my success is. I still don’t feel like I’ve reached it, I feel like I’m working towards it. […] I think, I’m not really living this, is this really my life. The only time it feels real is when I’m in the kitchen. I’m living it, I’m touching something, I can see the end product, I’m exhausted and tired and it’s mine.’