Inhabitat: Your new SoHo location has some very cool green materials and features. Can you tell me about them?
ML: The build-out started with diverting demolition waste from the landfill to a recycling waste center, which saved an estimated 3.3 tons of carbon. Store build and design materials included FSC timber, Low E windows, lighting controls, recycled denim insulation, eco lights, Energy Star equipment, low-flow aerators, recycling and composting stations, and an 18-Sear HVAC unit. The store is also powered by Green E Solutions Wind Power. We use non-toxic cleaning solutions and biodegradable, corn-based utensils and packaging. Ultimately though, there are only so many light bulbs we can change. We can probably have more impact by educating people about the green economy.
Inhabitat: I love the “nuovo colonial” (as Bowery Boogie put it) look and feel of the space! What was the inspiration behind it?
ML: Our design process was part anthropological study. The design honored the history of the neighborhood, while looking to the future and incorporating green design elements. To start, we retrieved from official New York City archived images of the space 70 years ago. We also met with local elder statespeople, like the former store owner, which was a donut shop 60 years ago. These conversations gave us a deeper sense of the local spirit; kids playing in the street, bustling merchant activity on Mott Street, and a strong sense of community togetherness and transparency where “the doors were never locked.”
Inheriting a 100+ year-old cast iron column at the front of the store was like striking design gold before we planted the first shovel in the ground! The store front takes advantage of natural lighting, big (Low E) windows on Prince & Mott Street overlook the historic Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Manhattan’s only Basilica. Our kitchen is at ground level with huge windows allowing customers to see everything for themselves. We could we have built the kitchen in the lower level or at another location, off-site but it would have stripped the project of an important symbolic element and compromised taste. Inside the space, the décor celebrates classic American design, taking influence from architecture in colonial America. Checkerboard floors, ceramic marble counter tops, wooden book shelves and a soft palette give the place a warm and cozy feel. Decor features cultural artifacts, including first edition copies of Henry Thoreau’s Walden and Rachel Carlson’s Silent Spring. My favorite item on display is a “Nixon for the Environment” campaign ad. Most people don’t realize he started the EPA; Silent Spring was a precursor. We’re very fortunate the response has been overwhelmingly positive. We’ve even gotten inquires from local neighbors asking us to help them with design projects.
Inhabitat: The Little Cupcake Bakeshop has been recognized as the world’s first carbon neutral bakery. Congratulations! We all know why it’s important to try to off-set the carbon that we generate, but is it hard to do? What are some tips you can give other business owners who are looking into off-setting their carbon?
ML: It’s so hard for any new venture to succeed these days. The key to success is to have a great team in place so the wide array of challenges and opportunities that come up as it relates to your product, store, message, and service can be given proper attention. Building a great team precedes going green. Becoming carbon neutral starts by measuring your eco footprint. Get a baseline. Various non-profits provide the technical services. Then take actions to reduce as much as you can. When you have spent a year or two ratcheting down carbon, figure out the total balance and off-set by investing in carbon sequestration projects. Carbon neutrality is a great framework for individuals, businesses, governments, etc. to get on the path to sustainability. Norway, Sweden, Nike, Dell, Disney and many US campuses have adopted carbon neutrality plans and it’s pretty cool to prove this can work for a small business.
Inhabitat: Some people might be surprised that a business would be able to open a second location in this economic climate – especially in NYC, where the food business is cutthroat. What do you think differentiates your company or product (besides the fact that it’s yummy) that keeps the customers wanting seconds and thirds?
ML: It’s not just about cupcakes, although we make a great product- Daily News called us a “Top Ten Gourmet Shop”. It’s about great service and experience. A lot of the service training, culture building, and design aspects we’ve developed a long time before the new store opened. Mastering those elements gave us the confidence to open this new shop. It also helps having an architect – my brother – as a partner.
Inhabitat: The Little Cupcake Bakeshop has been green since 2005. What inspired you to take the business in that direction so long before it was en vogue?
ML: The facts of climate change are hard to ignore. But as a society we fail to act on them for the most part. It’s not because people don’t care; people want to solve this problem. It’s that traditional climate messages like scientific reports are either too abstract to trigger urgency or the doom scenarios paralyze action. Carbon, we can’t see, touch or feel it but if effects everything we do. No public outcry means politicians focus on other issues. Unfortunately, the laws of physics have no sympathy for the laws of psychology.
The planet continues to heat up. At LCB, if we could use cupcakes to help people relate to carbon, hopefully, they’ll be a little more conscious when they make personal choices, buy consumer products, and of course, vote.
Inhabitat: Many businesses out there are just now getting into being eco-friendly. Do you have any advice for them?
ML: Commit to it as part of long-term plan. Some results are not immediate or tangible but the benefits can be significant. You can save money on your energy, materials and waste bills. It’s also – and probably more important – about giving your staff, customers, and investors an opportunity to be part of something larger than themselves, a response to a
major social challenge.
Inhabitat: Do you think having a sustainable side to your business has paid off in terms of your bottom line?
ML: Absolutely. At Bay Ridge, we calculated energy and materials conservation saves us over $20,000 per year.
Inhabitat: Can you tell me a little bit about the Little Cupcake Initiative?
ML: It’s our community outreach arm that springs projects into action. Everything from
bake sales, to fundraisers, to volunteer initiatives.
Inhabitat: If you could have anyone in the world visit the shop and eat a cupcake with you, who would it be?
ML: Mark Messier. (Note: We have to investigate into this answer a little more next time we see Massimo)
Inhabitat: What is your favorite Little Cupcake Bakeshop flavor (sorry, but you know I had to ask!)?
ML: Coney Island. It’s like a time machine; the cotton candy flavor takes me back to ferris wheels, the beach, and carnivals. I also really love Mott Street, an espresso drenched cupcake with tiramisu icing. I really love coffee.
Images © Pamela Gontha Photography