Founder Stories: Kyra Bussanich On Building Kyra’s Bake Shop

In today’s Founder Story, we feature Kyra Bussanich, Founder of Kyra’s Bake Shop!

Read on for lessons she has learned from launching and marketing her business.

1. Please introduce your business and share your role.

As the founder of Kyra’s Bake Shop, my journey has evolved from being a one-person show, having to wear all the hats when I first started, to now leading a vibrant and talented team. Because I have such a dedicated and passionate cadre, I now get to spend my time focused on strategic creative direction (and marketing!)—my two passions within our operation.

Our bakery caters to a discerning clientele: health-conscious individuals who prefer to avoid preservatives and inflammatory ingredients for a general sense of well-being, and those with food allergies seeking delicious pastries without the worry of cross-contamination. Our offerings are diverse, ranging from corporate catering platters and bespoke cakes for birthday celebrations to wedding dessert arrays and festive holiday selections.

What sets Kyra’s Bake Shop apart is our achievement as the only four-time winner on the Food Network’s “Cupcake Wars,” where our creations triumphed over traditional, flour-based cupcakes. This victory underscores our mission: to redefine the standards for allergen-friendly baking. Gone are the days of settling for gluten-free or dairy-free options that compromise on taste and aesthetics. At Kyra’s, we believe in crafting products that are as delightful to the palate as they are to the eye, challenging and changing the status quo of specialty baking.

In the early days, the sentiment around allergen-friendly baking was that even at its best, a gluten-free cake would never taste like a real cake. But I took joy in shattering that misconception, developing recipes and crafting gluten-free cakes so delectable, they rival and often surpass their traditional counterparts in both flavor and texture.

2. What’s your backstory, what kind of challenges did you face, and how did you come up with your business idea?

In 2007, when I first embarked on my gluten-free journey, it was more than a fad or dietary choice; it was a necessity to salvage my deteriorating health. Despite the immediate improvements—diminished digestive issues, mental fog lifting, and a surge in energy—the quest for delectable, safe-to-eat treats remained a challenge. Social gatherings often highlighted this struggle, where I found myself sidelined with an apple while others indulged in sumptuous birthday cakes, elaborately decorated wedding cakes, and flaky Thanksgiving pies. Food plays a significant role in our social fabric. Most of our time catching up with friends and family, or acknowledging someone’s accomplishments, or celebrating their milestones happens around the table. When you can’t fully participate in what everyone else is sharing, it feels exclusionary and isolating. 

Baking has always been my expression of love. My passion for crafting something special to honor someone is intertwined with my belief that you can only transcend rules after fully understanding why they exist. This philosophy led me to the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu’s patisserie program, where I immersed myself in the art of classical French baking. My mission was clear: to innovate within the confines of gluten-free baking without compromising on taste, texture, or visual appeal.

My journey was fraught with trial and error—early attempts yielded pastries reminiscent of dense hockey pucks rather than light, flaky delights. Yet, persistence and a deep dive into the science of baking, especially the protein content in various flours and why pastry chefs don’t just use one all-purpose blend, began to yield promising results.

Balancing my restaurant job with moonlighting for custom orders, my breakthrough came with an appearance on The Food Network’s Cupcake Wars in 2009. Going on Cupcake Wars was revolutionary and marked a turning point, not just in my career, but in the perception of gluten-free baking.

Opening a physical store was never part of my initial plan. Looking back, a smarter move might have been to choose a niche that didn’t rely on perishable products and come with such high labor costs. Despite (or perhaps because of) my inexperience, I was filled with excitement and optimism.

3. How did you prepare for, and go about your launch?

For the Kyra’s Bake Shop’s launch, we embraced a multifaceted marketing strategy, keen on building a strong brand identity that resonated with our unique selling proposition: delectable, high-end, allergen-friendly pastries that were lauded on national television. Here’s how we went about it:

Pre-Launch Buzz: We initiated a teaser campaign on social media, sharing behind-the-scenes glimpses of the bakery setup, our menu development, store construction and the making of our signature pastries. This created anticipation and engaged potential customers early on. 

Collaborations and Partnerships: Partnering with local businesses and food bloggers helped spread the word initially. We provided samples for local events and made pastries for countless non-profit galas.

Email Marketing Campaign: Leading up to the launch, we gathered emails through our website and social media channels for a newsletter. This newsletter included exclusive offers, sneak peeks of our menu, and the story behind my passion for allergen-friendly baking.

High Quality Web Content: While we launched before the term “SEO” was a well-known buzzword, we knew we needed top quality content to attract organic traffic. Even from the initial stages, our website featured mouth-watering photography of our pastries, detailed menus, and the ability to order online or book catering services for events.

Local Media Outreach: Press releases were sent to local newspapers, lifestyle magazines, and food blogs, highlighting our unique value proposition and inviting them to the grand opening. (I’ve maintained warm relationships with various media contacts and even now, when we are doing something unique, creative, or that we hope will have positive ripple effects throughout the community, I continue to write and send out press releases). 

Loyalty Program: From the get-go, we introduced a loyalty program to encourage repeat business. Customers could sign up during an in-store visit or through our website, earning points with every purchase.

Grand Pre-Opening Event and Cupcake Wars Viewing Party: To make a splash in the community, we hosted a grand pre-opening event. Invitations were sent out to local influencers, food critics, and the community through social media and email marketing, and I wrote press releases and sent them to local print and television media. At that point, there had not yet been a contestant from the Pacific Northwest, so I hoped that would generate buzz. Our preview event featured free samples, live Q&As and meet-and-greets with me.

Each of these strategies was designed to showcase Kyra’s Bake Shop’s commitment to quality, inclusivity, and community engagement, and set the stage for a successful launch and a loyal customer base.

4. Since launching, what types of marketing campaigns and designs have worked best to attract and retain customers?

We’re truly grateful for the journey that has unfolded thanks to the spotlight of earned media. Our adventures on Cupcake Wars, leading to four incredible wins, have played a pivotal role in spreading the word about our bakery. This recognition has opened doors to amazing opportunities, allowing us to share our passion with a wider audience. 

We’ve had the honor of being featured at the Golden Globes and in renowned outlets such as Food + Wine, The Today Show, USA Today, and Redbook Magazine, to name just a few. From The LA Times to The Boston Globe, Windy City Live to Home and Family on The Hallmark Channel, and even Shape Magazine and The Doctors, we’ve been fortunate to tell our story. Our heartfelt thanks extend to the myriad of local media outlets that have embraced our story. Each mention has been a step forward in our mission to spread joy and inclusion through our baked goods.

5. What have been the most influential brands for your business? Whose branding and marketing do you aspire to and why?

The inspiration behind our bakery’s branding is deeply rooted in the admiration I hold for Anthropologie’s unique style. Their ability to blend quality, aspirational elegance, and a romantic yet edgy femininity has always captivated me. This blend ensures their brand remains inviting and never crosses into the realm of being overly formal or inaccessible.

Embarking on the journey of logo design, I began with a brainstorming session that was as much about capturing emotions as it was about visuals. I penned down a list of attributes that I envisioned for our bakery—affordable luxury, a dash of whimsy, a hefty dose of celebration and inclusion, and a spark of innovative creativity. These weren’t just words; they were the core pillars of our brand’s identity.

Collaborating with a graphic design firm, we embarked on a creative exploration to bring this vision to life. I remember printing off myriad logo options and taping them to the walls in my living room and then stepping back to see what grabbed my attention, and how I would want to modify that version in order to better capture the essence of our brand. Once we were happy with the black-and-white version, we dove into the world of color, aiming for delicious-looking colors. That’s how we settled on the purpley fuschia we refer to internally as “Bake Shop Berry.”

Reflecting on this experience, it stands out as one of the most exhilarating aspects of shaping our bakery’s identity, second only to the joy of recipe development. Through this creative endeavor, we’ve not only crafted a logo but also encapsulated the spirit of our brand—a testament to affordable luxury, whimsical charm, and boundary-pushing creativity.

6. What are your favorite marketing platforms/tools?

My go-to marketing platform is undoubtedly Canva. It’s a treasure trove for us, housing all our brand assets and enabling us to effortlessly craft newsletters, flyers, and a plethora of other marketing materials. With Canva’s intuitive templates—customized to our unique branding—we seamlessly produce everything from wedding brochures and rack cards to menus and business cards. This tool has revolutionized the way we create and distribute our branded content, ensuring everything we share with our audience resonates with the essence of our bakery.

For social media management, Later has been a game-changer. It allows us to meticulously plan and schedule our content about a month in advance, ensuring our social media presence is both strategic and consistent. This level of planning is crucial for maintaining a dynamic and engaging online presence, allowing us to focus on crafting content that truly resonates with our audience.

Despite facing a significant setback when our social media channels were compromised and deleted by hackers, our commitment to our digital marketing strategy remained unwavering. This challenging experience taught us the value of resilience and the importance of having robust security measures in place. Starting from scratch, we’ve rebuilt our social media presence with even more dedication, learning valuable lessons in digital security along the way. It’s a testament to our resilience and determination to connect with our community, share our passion for baking, and showcase our delectable creations.

7. Who or what inspires and motivates you?

My inspiration and motivation is drawn from many sources: At the heart of my culinary journey are the pioneering chefs and bakers whose innovative approaches to traditional baking challenge me to think outside the conventional oven. Names like Ruth Reichl, Nancy Silverton, Elizabeth Falkner, and Shauna James Ahern resonate with me, not just for their culinary prowess but for their dedication to crafting experiences that linger on the palate and in the heart. 

I’m fortunate to have a tight-knit group of friends I met in the gluten-free expo circuit—Alison Needham (A Girl Defloured), Brandy Wendler, and KC Cornwell (CA Grown and GFree Foodie). They inspire me deeply, as they embody the true spirit of hospitality and community. Their unwavering support and dedication to creating welcoming spaces for everyone have taught me the importance of kindness, generosity, and the power of bringing people together through food. They remind me daily that at the heart of every memorable gathering is the love and care we share with one another.

This is not to put the art and science of baking on the backburner though. There’s a magical transformation that occurs from mixing simple, humble ingredients to create something that transcends the sum of its parts. This alchemy, combined with the endless possibilities for creativity and expression, pushes me to explore new textures, flavors, and techniques. And when it comes to flavors, my inspiration often comes from the environment: whether it’s taking a walk in my garden and seeing the spring flowers bloom or hiking through the woods in fall. 

These experiences influence my baking directly. For instance, the sight and smell of flowers lead me to experiment with lavender, rose, violet, and orange blossom in my pastries. Meanwhile, the earthy smells of an autumn forest can inspire me to use spices that bring a warm, comforting feel to my creations such as cardamom, ginger, and garam masala. I like to bring elements of the seasons into my baking, using what’s fresh and available to make something that feels right for the time of year. 

But beyond the personal satisfaction of mastering a new recipe or technique, it’s the joy and connections we are fostering through our gluten-free pastries that inspire me the most. Witnessing the smiles and happiness our creations bring to customers, whether it’s brightening their day or being a centerpiece at their celebrations, reminds me of the profound impact food can have on our lives. 

It warms my heart to know that everyone, including those who previously had to avoid certain foods during special events, can now fully enjoy our baked goods without worry. It’s equally gratifying that our treats are loved not just by those with dietary restrictions but by everyone who tries them. This inclusivity in indulgence makes every celebration more joyful and drives me to continue innovating and baking with love.

In essence, my inspiration and motivation are a blend of admiration for culinary artistry, the inherent beauty of baking, and the desire to bring people together through the universal language of food.

8. What are some lessons you’ve learned along the way that you would share with entrepreneurs hoping to launch or who have just launched? 

This is a challenging question, but reflecting on my journey, a few critical lessons stand out for entrepreneurs embarking on their ventures or in the early stages. First and foremost, clarity is key. Being precise about what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and who it’s for forms the foundation of your business. This clarity isn’t just for your internal strategy but should be evident in all your communications.

Secondly, actively engage with your potential or existing customer base to ensure there’s alignment between the message you’re sending and the one they’re receiving. This means not just talking but listening—gathering feedback, understanding their needs and perceptions, and being willing to adapt. This dialogue is crucial for refining your value proposition and ensuring it resonates with those you aim to serve.

In essence, the journey begins with a clear vision and mission, but it’s the ongoing conversation with your customers that shapes and sustains your path forward. Keep these principles at the core of your strategy, and you’ll build a business that’s not only aligned with your goals but also deeply connected with those you aim to impact.

9. What do you believe are the qualities of a good entrepreneur? And what makes a team successful?

Above all else, a good entrepreneur has to be a visionary, and they must have the ability to communicate their vision to their team, and infuse their team with passion. Lack any one of these components and the journey towards success becomes significantly more challenging. 

A good entrepreneur must also possess resilience and the capacity to face setbacks and failures with a constructive mindset. (I like to say there is no such thing as failure: there is only feedback. And you will receive a LOT of feedback.) 

An entrepreneur needs to be an adept problem-solver, constantly innovating and finding solutions to obstacles that may arise. This trait is crucial in maintaining the momentum of the business and ensuring continuous improvement. I have been better at this when I am less stressed and have time to think, but during prolonged periods of stress–like in the onset of Covid 19–I have been slow to pivot and it took a toll on the business. 

An ideal evolutionary product cycle should look like this: innovate, perfect, replicate, repeat. Resting on your laurels with what is “good enough” is not good enough; Other brands will swoop in and perfect what you have started, if you do not.

Continuous improvements–either in the quality of the offerings or an expansion of new products is what keeps customers returning, even while retaining some fan favorites. 

A good entrepreneur should exhibit strong leadership skills, guiding their team with a clear sense of direction while also being open to feedback and new ideas. I find this balance between decisiveness and inclusivity to be a key to nurturing a dynamic and collaborative work environment. And when your team buys into what you’re doing (and more importantly why,) they become fan loyalists and ambassadors for the brand.

To build a successful team, the entrepreneur should first recognize their own shortcomings and challenges and then surround themselves with complementary talents. I like to say that I hire people who are better than me to specialize in the tasks where my skills are not best suited (and sometimes to do the things I don’t love doing and that I resist.) This is the only way to grow. If the entrepreneur doesn’t recognize their limitations, or they insist on being the expert in all the fields, this will result in a bottleneck in the business and prohibit growth and excellence.

Any successful business really does take a team and a team that brings together varied perspectives, expertise, and problem-solving approaches is much more equipped to tackle challenges (both creatively and effectively). 

Trust within the team is essential. When team members trust each other (and their leaders), they feel more confident in taking initiatives, sharing ideas, and supporting one another. Open, two-way communication and a sense of transparency regarding the direction of the business fosters trust, and builds a strong team spirit and a sense of belonging, which are vital for long-term success.

10. Let us know where we can go to learn more!