The Founders Of Sprinkles Go Savory
Twelve years ago Candace Nelson and her husband Charles started a company that totally changed the baking industry. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. It’s a little company called Sprinkles: the world’s first cupcake-only bakery and the originator of the cupcake ATM.
Sprinkles has seen incredible growth in the last twelve years - opening twenty-four locations across the nation. And now, the couple behind America’s favorite cupcake is on a mission to reimagine another beloved, traditional food: pizza.
A few years ago, Candace and Charles were guests a pizza party in the Palisades hosted by actor Chris O’Donnell. After the first bite they realized the pizza was special, so they sought out the chef responsible for the feast: Daniele, an Italian man who grew up making pizza in Naples. The group started talking about baking, breaking down the components of a great crust, and twenty minutes later they realized they were totally on the same page when it came to all things pizza.
After a few years of plotting, planning, and building out the new space, Candace, Charles, Chris, and his wife, Caroline Fentress, just opened a pizza restaurant with Daniele at the helm, crafting the perfect neo-Neapolitan pies.
A C O N V E R S A T I O N W I T H C A N D A C E.
Chelsea: What made you want to move into savory and start a pizza restaurant in the first place?
Candace: I only start businesses for food that I absolutely love. Clearly there’s a carb trend going on here. I like to say, if it’s a carb, I’m in…
I’m a creative person and an entrepreneur, so I’m always thinking about what’s next. I happened to be at a friend’s house, Chris O’Donnell. He had become pretty well known for the pizza parties he held in the Palisades, and after I took a bite of his pizza, me and my husband looked at each other and were like, ‘What’s up with this pizza. It’s really good,’ so of course I had to meet the chef. He brought me over to Daniele, who also happened to be a Sprinkles fan, and I told him I loved his pizza. Then we just started talking about the nuances, what cooking meant to us, what baking meant to us, family, home, and started breaking down what goes into making a great crust and what goes into making a really special cupcake. It’s all in the details. We went over all these nuances and found ourselves talking a good 45 minutes, realizing that we were really seeing eye to eye on this thing.
With Sprinkles, I had always made all the cupcakes, so it was a little bit different, and a step out of my comfort zone, to partner with someone who was the chef, but this was the beginning of that dream. Chris O’Donnell gave it his blessing, and it’s been really fun since. I love to eat pizza, and I’m obsessed with Daniele’s pizza. To be able to do something like we did with Sprinkles, to reimagine a beloved traditional treat, feels really good to me; it feels like what I was meant to do.
Chelsea: What did you learn from from running Sprinkles, that you were able to apply to starting this new venture?
Candace: I think Pizzana parallels Sprinkles in that we are reimagining and reinventing a beloved product. What we did with Sprinkles, which was take something everyone took for granted and reimagine every last aspect of it - down to the color of the cupcake wrapper, how the frosting is applied, with what tool, what decoration branded it, how the cupcake is displayed… We took something that everyone thought, “Oh, it’s just a cupcake, what’s the big deal?” and treated it like it was the biggest deal in the world by rethinking every single aspect of it, [and that is] exactly what we’ve done here as well.
We developed these custom grates that sit inside the pizza platter so the pizza can breathe. As much time as we have spent creating this perfect, crisp crust, we don’t want it to get soggy from built-up condensation as it sits on your table. This is something that people haven’t thought of yet, but to rebuild something you have to break down every piece.
Danielle uses a Fleur des Monts, which has a little less moisture than more standard mozzarellas, so it doesn’t add too much moisture to the experience and result in a soggy crust.
The reason we haven’t started doing take-out yet is because we are re-thinking the pizza box and how can we get that pizza home to you...in a condition that allows for a transformative pizza-eating experience. So we’re taking our time with that. But hopefully we can do it in the next few weeks because people are starting to get really excited about getting their pizzas to go.
I guess that’s a very long-winded way of saying that we’re thinking about [pizza] from a different perspective and rethinking the elements other people consider to be obvious.
Chelsea: What makes your pizza special?
Candace: Our pizza is Neo-Neopolitan…it’s rooted in the Neapolitan tradition. Daniele grew up making pizza in the best pizzerias in Naples and is very passionate about it. But traditional Neapolitan pizza is sort of soggy in the middle, and you typically have to eat it with a fork and knife. Yet what we know about the American market, and what Daniele has come to learn, is that for Americans, pizza is a hand-held food. We don’t have a lot of patience for soggy middles and not being able to pick things up with your hands, so he’s developed this dough that has the chew and char of Neapolitan pizza but also has a kind of crispness, so you’re able to pick it up and eat it with your hands. It’s this perfect marriage of an old technique but set in modern day California.
Again, using wonderful ingredients like stone-ground flour for the crust from San Marizano, Italy, tomatoes grown specifically for us from Italy, Fleur des Monts, and produce from the Brentwood Farmer’s Market. So we’re putting our own stamp on something that was already wonderful, Neapolitan pizza, but making it our own.
We have something for the traditionalists, like the Margherita, and there’s also something for the more adventuresome soul like the Messicana, which is kind of like our cultural mash-up pizza. Daniele is married to a Mexican woman, so he has all of these flavors that would be on a street taco on his Neapolitan pizza, so it is very modern but also traditional.
Chelsea: I’d love to talk about your business partnership and your relationship and how those two things enhance each other, complement each other, and maybe are stressful and frustrating at moments? What is it like to work with your husband?
Candace: It’s great; I wouldn’t still be doing it if it wasn’t. I think the thing that works for us is we have different areas of expertise and know our own lanes... Luckily we are both very passionate, and we have great conversations about [the business] around the kitchen table. What’s fun now is that we have these two boys, six and nine, who are watching their parents and seeing that entrepreneurship is hard… We’re trying to bring them into the fold. We have businesses that are easy to comprehend and easy to love, particularly for a little kid, I mean, bring in some cupcakes, and they’re the most popular kids in their class.