By Eric Fritzius
It’s a tale as old as time: Grumpy local magazine writer gets dragged by his wife to the first day of the farmer’s market, way too early on a Saturday morning, before he’s properly had breakfast or even his coffee. It’s a slow sleepy slog past bushels of kale, asparagus, and rhubarb, seemingly nary a pig-byproduct for miles. Then, through the early morning mist, he spies a hot-pink food trailer across the market’s lawn. In its window is a display case filled with the most amazing-looking cupcakes he’s ever seen. They have names like German Chocolate, White Wedding, and, most glorious of all, Pancakes and Bacon! He purchases one of the latter, taking it home in its perfectly-crafted plastic cupcake cradle to eat, over coffee. But after brewing his cup, he turns to pick up his cupcake and discovers that his wife has beaten him to the first bite. “It’s fantastic!” she says, still chewing. “It tastes just like pancakes and maple syrup, but with bacon in the batter.” The writer pushes past feelings of fury and betrayal and tries a bite himself. Ire instantly drains from his soul. She’s right: the cupcake is fantastic! Sadly for his waistline, he knows this will only be the first of many cupcakes yet to come.
The above story is completely true. It happened to me. And that first-of-many cupcake was purchased from Erin Bowes, owner of the B-Sweet Confectionery, now located in a hot-pink storefront in downtown White Sulphur Springs.
Bowes grew up in the Charleston area, working in restaurants for much of her early life. “That’s all I’ve ever done—whether it was cooking, baking, waiting tables,” she says. A degree in Food Service Management from Marshall University helped her along the way, but managing restaurants wasn’t her goal. In 1997, she relocated to Greenbrier County to work for The Greenbrier Resort. She began in the pastry shop, but eventually chose to relocate to hot food cooking as a challenge to herself. Soon after that, she was accepted into the resort’s intensive apprenticeship program for training as a chef. Bowes credits this program and her time with the hotel for giving her the skills she uses to this day. After a year in the apprenticeship, however, life threw her and her husband Michael a curve ball when they learned she was pregnant with their first child, Sophie. For Bowes, the level of dedication required to work as a chef at The Greenbrier did not lend itself to starting a family. She left the hotel behind and spent the next eight years as a stay-at-home mom, caring for Sophie and second daughter, Ella.
Bowes’ major business aspirations took flight after Sophie entered the first grade. She began baking at her house and posting to Facebook pictures of the cakes she had made. The next thing she knew, people were placing orders for cakes and she found herself running a business. She decided to call it B-Sweet.
Seeking commercial kitchen space, Bowes struck a deal with Emanuel United Methodist Church, in White Sulphur Springs, to rent their impressive kitchen during the week. It was from there that B-Sweet was based for the next three years. Cake orders were good, but Bowes had bigger ideas yet.
In 2011, she started a booth at the Lewisburg Farmer’s Market, selling cupcakes and other baked goods. Even in that informal setting, she knew that branding would be important for business. In addition to signage featuring the distinctive cupcake logo she designed, Bowes custom-ordered a hot-pink tent to cover her display cases.
“People were looking at me like I was crazy, the first day I rolled in there,” she says. However, her unique booth set her apart, as did the quality of her cupcakes. With their buttercream frosting and unique flavors, they were like the sort of treats found only in gourmet bakeries in much larger cities.
When the Greenbrier Farmer’s Market began in 2012, Bowes relocated to its space on Rt. 219 and Arbuckle lane. With the move came upgraded booth space beyond the pink tent. She purchased a former NASCAR camping trailer which she and Michael renovated to add a serving window. It was then repainted in her signature hot-pink, aqua and yellow, and officially licensed for use as a food truck. It proved to be a definite presence and impossible to ignore by anyone passing by. People would stop to find out what was being sold at the brightly-colored trailer, and then would stay to buy vegetables—perhaps out of guilt over buying so many sweets.
In 2013, Bowes learned that the location for the former Grady’s Scoop ice cream shop in White Sulphur Springs had been donated to St. Thomas Episcopal Church. She knew the site would be ideal for a permanent retail space, and pursued its purchase immediately. From August to October, the building was renovated to create the kind of kitchen space she would need. Bowes knew, though, which part to renovate first. “One of the first things I did here at this building was to paint the porch pink. I didn’t have any signage, and people knew that it was me opening the shop just from the porch.”
On October 22, 2013, the B-Sweet Confectionery opened its doors for business. “I’ve always dreamed of having a shop like this,” she says. Bowes admits she was probably naïve about how much work would be required. “I never imagined!” Bowes groans, her tone one of exhaustion at the memory of it all. “I thought I was just going to do some catering in the back, do some cakes, go out and help customers… I wasn’t even planning on hiring employees.”
For the first two months, she found herself working 90 to 100 hours in a week, from 3:30 a.m. to 9 or 10 o’clock at night. With time and the addition of three employees, things have settled down quite a bit for her schedule. “I’ve got really good help,” she says.
B-Sweet offers a selection of 18 cupcake varieties, with different flavors from day to day. “There are some I will never be able to take off the menu because people would throw a complete fit,” she says. Some of the styles are seasonal, such as Pumpkin in the fall or S’Mores in the summer. A current seasonal variety is Key Lime, which is a lime cupcake with white buttercream icing studded with graham cracker crumbs, and a tiny slice of lime on top. Customer favorites include Salted Caramel and Triple Chocolate in the top two positions; third place is Here Comes the Bride, which is a white cake with raspberry filling, and a raspberry drizzle atop white buttercream icing. Bowes personal favorite cupcake, though, is called Old School. “It’s as basic as you can get. It’s yellow cake, chocolate buttercream, little bit of sprinkles.” Simple and delicious. “The reason I make that cake is that I can remember bake sales when I was in grade school and there was always a yellow cake with a chocolate frosting.”
Bowes’ main display case has three tiers, with the top two dedicated to cupcakes. She could technically stock the entire display case with them. “I’ve probably got 25 cupcakes I’ve never even put on the menu here. There are so many.” However, she knows customers would be disappointed if they couldn’t get some of the other specialty items she makes, found on the lowest tier of the case. Some days she makes cream horns. Other days it could be homemade Snickers bars—which taste like the gooier, more-mature sibling of the popular candy bar, to be eaten with a fork, and not in your car. Her famous cinnamon rolls make near weekly appearances, as do another regular Friday staple, Salted Caramel Rice Krispies Treats. These, she says, are always controversial. When customers see the $2.50 price tag, they almost always react in shock, saying, “But it’s just a Rice Krispies treat.” She smiles knowingly when she hears this and assures her customers, “No. It’s not.”
“Most Rice Krispies treats you melt butter and marshmallow and pour it over the Rice Krispies. That’s it,” she says. Hers, however, start with a hand-made caramel composed of unsalted butter, brown sugar and heavy whipping cream cooked down with some flaked sea salt, until it becomes brown, bubbly and rich. This is then poured over the marshmallows. “You let it sit until it’s just this melty, marshmallowy goodness,” she says. Rice Krispies are then added in and the result pressed into a buttered pan and sprinkled with flaked sea salt. I assure you, they’re the best Rice Krispies treats you’ve ever had. (Sorry, Grandma.) Bowes says she loves them, too. Whenever she makes them, she saves one aside in a bag and takes it home to eat as a special Sunday morning treat.
Each night, Bowes tries to post the following day’s menu to the B-Sweet Confectionery Facebook page. It’s an ever-changing process, because she is always dreaming up new creations. She and her staff do a lot of experimenting, as they have recently with doughnuts. If she gets good feedback from her staff and her family, she’ll usually give a new item a trial run on the third tier.
Cupcakes are not the only baked goods Bowes specializes in creating. She still does a brisk business with custom cakes for weddings, birthdays or other special occasions. And, being a confectionery, B-Sweet offers a wide selection of packaged classic candy. She specializes in rare candy that often seems to have been plucked from a childhood memory. Often, it’s hers.
“The number one thing was Astro Pops. I had to find those,” she says of the rocket-shaped candy, legendarily invented by actual rocket scientists in the early `60s, but which appeared on a national level during Bowes’ youth in the late `80s. Similar choices were made by browsing the catalogs of specialty distributors for hard-to-find sweets. If Bowes could remember a candy from her childhood, but had not seen it in a while, it made the short list. And if it was something from her parents’ childhoods, it was pretty much a shoe in.
“I like to tell people `if you can get it at a gas station or a grocery store, I don’t have it here.’”
Business has been good. Far better, in fact, than Bowes had expected. While many of her customers had been based in Lewisburg, she’s grateful that those customers and others have followed her to White Sulphur Springs. While Bowes decided to sit out the farmer’s market this summer, she hopes to return once she works out the logistics of running the trailer and the shop at the same time. The hot-pink food-trailer has not retired, though. It will be making appearances at local festivals and special events into the fall. With it and the shop, the B-Sweet Confectionery will continue brightening the days of customers old and new, and occasionally helping writers such as myself be less grumpy.