This is Lily Brynes, the founder and CEO of SPOTS NYC. A native New Yorker, Lily was only 23 years old when she started SPOTS, a company that she created almost unwittingly. Lily had always been a big fan of baking and for fun liked to make large-scale cakes, like the Nike box cake for which she had purchased an edible printer off Amazon in order to make the famous Nike “swoosh” logo. In February 2014, she had decided with her boyfriend (now fiance, Samson) that for Valentine’s Day that year they would exchange personal gifts instead of material ones. She had the idea that it would be cute if she could bake him cupcakes with a picture of them on top. So she dusted off the edible printer from her Nike cake, made the personalized Valentine’s Day cupcakes and liked the finished product so much that she posted a picture of them on her Instagram. Immediately she got a message from the PR person at her sister’s clothing company asking her where she had gotten them. When Lily said she had made them, she asked her if she could make them for all of her magazine contacts as a unique Valentine’s Day treat. Lily had time off from work so she decided to do it. She didn’t have the pre-cut circles for the cupcakes at the time so she was cutting them all by hand, adding the edible images, using packaging from The Container Store and delivering them the each office herself. She realized that other people may be interested in ordering her SPOTS so she made a gmail address and an Instagram account called SPOTS NYC and magazines like Marie Claire and Lucky began posting about them. Within a few days, she got an email from Marie Claire’s corporate team asking her to make 500 cupcakes for their spring press preview the next day and from there, the business took off. Although Lily had a full-time job that she was preparing to jump into, she thought she would regret not pursuing SPOTS and decided to turn down the job. She took advantage of an opportunity to pursue a passion project and now helps her customers tell their own story with her personalized mini cupcakes.
Lily says that she always had aspirations of being an entrepreneur but it wasn’t until college that she found her true passion in food. Her stepfather owns Neuman’s Kitchen (a large catering company in NY and Philadelphia) so she worked front of house and back of house there throughout high school and into college. However, freshman year of college she interned for Danny Meyer at Union Square Hospitality Group and had such an amazing experience that she continued to intern there every winter and summer break until she graduated and then accepted an offer to join their team full-time. However, looking back now, she says it wasn’t a role that she should’ve accepted. They had created a position for her where she would help with the corporate catering at KKR (a private equity company) and worked directly out of their office with one other colleague. Therefore, she wasn’t a part of the culture at USHG, which was really the part of the business that she had fallen in love with, and didn’t feel that the role she was in was a good fit for her. But she had a great mentor at USHG who she voiced her concerns to and who helped her transition to working on the Super Bowl pop up in early 2014 that Danny Meyer was opening in partnership with the NFL. She helped open and run the restaurant in NY the week before and the week of the Super Bowl and once it finished, they asked her to do the management training program at Shake Shack, which was starting in March 2014. It was during the month between the Super Bowl and the beginning of training at Shake Shack that SPOTS was born. Once Marie Claire had posted about her product, she spent the month doing orders for magazines and brands as a side project, not really realizing that it could be a business. She was still planning to do the training at Shake Shack and use it as a stepping stone in her career but as she got closer to the start date and orders kept coming in, she felt that SPOTS would fuel the entrepreneurial spirit that she had always had. So she decided to leave USHG and to take a leap of faith with SPOTS.
For the first year after she launched the business, Lily was baking the cupcakes in her apartment kitchen, delivering them herself and handling all sales, marketing and billing. She says that when customers used to call and ask for her marketing manager, she would put them on hold and then pick up and pretend she was someone else within the company. After a few months, she started working with a kitchen that produced all of the cupcakes for Crumbs (now out of business) and would create “naked cupcakes” for her and deliver them to her apartment every day so that she could print the image/logo and decorate them before delivery. Although it was easier not creating the cupcakes, she was still constantly grinding and eventually her operation got too big for her kitchen at home. She began renting kitchen space from the bar Slate NY on 21st Street in NYC and started hiring employees to help her bake and create the cupcakes, finally realizing that it was too hard to keep doing it by herself. She rented space from Slate NY for about two years until she ran into a problem one day when she went into the restaurant to start baking and found their racks broken and packaging thrown on the floor. The next week she moved out of Slate NY and into her current office, where she built a prep kitchen so that her team could create the product in their own space. In hindsight she recognizes that she made the mistake of not acknowledging that she needed help sooner, but despite the large volume of orders coming in, she believed that she could do it on her own. However, she did realize pretty quickly that they needed custom packaging because they were getting a lot of inquiries about shipping. So she spent nine months completely building the packaging from idea to creation to produce a custom made package for her mini cupcakes since they didn’t fit in the “traditional cupcake” packaging. This is the same packaging that they use today in her commissary kitchen in Long Island City, where her baking staff works, since they outgrew her office in Manhattan. All of their production takes place in their commissary kitchen and her four person office team handles all incoming orders.
The most interesting thing about SPOTS is that the product hasn’t really evolved much since that original batch. Lily knew when she first created them that she didn’t want the cupcakes to muffin top because she needed them flat to print the image and was able to figure out the best baking process. It’s also always been the same size for the mini cupcakes (mini whoopie pie halves) and always the same four flavors: birthday cake, red velvet, vanilla and brownie batter. She came up with pricing for the cupcakes by doing research on companies that were offering a similar product and figuring out what labor and delivery/shipping costs would need to be added. Fast forward 5 years and SPOTS NYC is now an established business that sold over 300,000 cupcakes last year. Lily‘s humble enough to say that she owes a lot of her success to Instagram, since it was the platform that helped her launch her product, and Marie Claire, for promoting it. But the truth is that she was able to carve out a niche in the market and promote her product through the right channels. Which is why her advice to other entrepreneurs looking to get into the food industry, especially female entrepreneurs, is to own your product or idea and network with the right people, no matter how daunting it seems. She believes that there’s enough room in the industry for more creative food ideas and for collaboration among “competitors”, which is why she created ALPHA, a female founders club where women can network with other female business owners as a way to empower one another. She found that in the food industry, it’s hard to gain the respect you know that you deserve as a woman-owned business so reminding each other that they all deserve a seat at the table is necessary for everyone’s success. For Lily, competition never seemed to be a challenging part of the food world because it’s such a huge industry that she believes there’s enough business for companies to share. “If anything”, she says, “that means that there’s room in the industry for more”.
For Lily, the best part of running her own business is that she genuinely gets to make people happy with her product. Seeing the reactions people have when they get the cupcakes, especially when their face is on them, creates such a personal connection to the food that she loves. She loves helping clients tell a story with her edible branding, which is what she hopes her customers associate SPOTS NYC with. In the upcoming years, she wants to make SPOTS a household name and wants it to be the go to edible branding company. Similar to how a customer thinks of Edible Arrangements when they want a bouquet of fruit, she wants customers to think of SPOTS NYC when they think of something edible with a photo. Eventually she does see herself selling the business down the line but right now she’s experimenting with experiential service through on demand printing. Ideally she’d like to create kiosks where you could order the SPOTS cupcakes and have them printed on site. It would cut out the need to order in advance and create an experience for the customer. She believes that everything is moving towards experience-based interactions with businesses and wants to be ahead of the curve of incorporating this technology into her edible branding, making it even more personalized and unique.
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