Tony Portugal and Mike Hein took a big risk when they left their high-powered Los Angeles-based careers in the healthcare industry to start a cupcake shop in the Northwest, and their risk has had some very sweet rewards. The Yellow Leaf Cupcake Company is based in the Belltown district of Seattle and is known for its huge selection of gourmet cupcakes with flavors that range from classics like Red Velvet and Carrot to some very imaginative flavors like Pancakes n’ Bacon and Vanilla Habanero. Mike was kind enough to take the time to answer some questions about the origins of The Yellow Leaf Cupcake Company and why they offer something new and unique to the cupcake world.
How did you the two of you meet and decide to launch a business together?
Tony and I became good friends in Los Angeles. We were working at the same hospital together in downtown Los Angeles, and Tony proposed opening a business together. We were both very inspired by a tiny cupcake shop in Pasadena, CA…and surprise, we LOVE cupcakes! We liked that they made everything in-house, fresh daily, and in very limited quantities. If we didn’t get there fast enough, we were not going to get the flavors we wanted. So we ran with this idea of a “European” style of baking: fresh daily, never massed produced (like many cupcake shops were doing at the time and many still do today). Tony had a great background in business, and I had a background in customer service. Together, we landed in Seattle, Washington ready and willing to conquer the cupcake world.
I read that the two of you went on a cupcake adventure across America. What were some of the highlights of that trip?
We traveled from Los Angeles to Chicago looking at different cupcake shops, and we noticed that most shops were doing the exact same thing. One, they were all (for the most part) using the same frosting, American buttercream, which is easy and very inexpensive to make. Two, they were all catering to the same demographic, namely, moms with kids. There were turquoise frosting, neon green icing, fuchsia buttercream, and plastic toppers…you get my point. We really wanted to make a refined cupcake for grown-ups. “Sweet, simple, and sophisticated…cupcakes for adults!” This has become our motto, never overdone, rustic, and beautiful.
In what ways do your upbringings in the Southwest and Midwest influence Yellow Leaf Cupcakes?
Tony was inspired by his mom who loved to cook and bake. He grew up in El Paso in West Texas. The amazing foods of the American Southwest and Northern Mexico were always available, inspiring him to one day become involved in the food world. Not classically trained, Tony is 100% self-taught. He practiced for months, until he had it perfect. I grew up in a baking family, and my godparents owned a successful small bakery in the Chicago area. I was around amazing cakes, cookies, cupcakes, and breads my entire life. I never dreamed in a thousand years that I would some day co-own a bakery, in of all places, Seattle! Life has a funny way of making all your dreams come true!
Are you both equally involved in all aspects of the business or are there certain elements of it that each of you prefer to handle?
This is Tony’s baby! He is 100% involved in all areas of the kitchen and baking. Tony has developed most of the recipes on his own, researching ingredients, techniques, and, most importantly, working with an amazing group of bakers throughout the years that have helped us make the best cupcakes in Seattle. Tony is a great inspiration for those who want to follow a dream and do something that they love. Always dream and never let anyone tell you, “No you can’t!”
The Yellow Leaf Cupcake Company offers 200 rotating cupcake flavors! If you each had to pick a top 3, which flavors would you pick?
Well, Pancakes n’ Bacon is our claim to fame. We make this cupcake every day, and it is what the people are looking for! That flavor, along with our Tomato Soup cupcake, were both featured on the Cooking Channel’s Unique Sweets last year. We have people that travel from all over the world asking to try both of these fantastic cupcake options. We even had a group from Namibia recently stop by after seeing us on the Cooking Channel, which was pretty cool!
As for myself, anything with peanut butter! We do have a Cream Puff cupcake and a Pumpkin with Red Rooibos that are off the charts as well. Tony on the other hand LOVES sweet carrot, a recipe that was handed down from his mom. He also LOVES, LOVES, LOVES all of our caramel cupcakes, salted caramel in particular. We make all of our caramel in-house, and there is nothing better than housemade caramel!
Check out the following links if you would like to learn more about The Yellow Leaf Cupcake Company…