SOUTH PORTLAND — Whoopie pies that Marcia Wiggins started making in her kitchen in Cape Elizabeth eight years ago soon will be on Wegmans Food Market shelves throughout Massachusetts and Pennsylvania.
It’s been a relatively fast ramp up that eventually could place Cape Whoopies, Maine’s Gourmet Whoopie Pie, in all 106 Wegmans supermarkets across the Northeast and mid-Atlantic states, Wiggins said this week during a tour of her bakery on Cottage Road.
The high-end supermarket chain started carrying Cape Whoopies, an upscale version of Maine’s iconic sweet treat, in its six Massachusetts stores in May. By August, the butter-rich, intensely flavored confections will be heading into 18 Wegmans in Pennsylvania.
“They want to get to the point where they’re picking up a full truckload of 24 pallets each month, which would be about 120,000 pies,” Wiggins said. “If they want to put us on the shelves in all their stores, we’ll do it.”
That likely will require a major investment in additional staffing, equipment and freezer space, and possibly a second business loan through the Greater Portland Council of Governments.
At this point, Wiggins’ 15 crew members, whom she affectionately calls “Whoopettes,” are cranking out two to three pallets per week for Wegmans, or about 5,000 individually wrapped pies. Flavors range from the classic Maine-iac (vanilla cream sandwiched between two round chocolate cakes) and MaryLou’s Favorite (peanut butter cream in chocolate cakes) to Sunshine Daydream (tart lemon cream in buttery vanilla cakes) and Britt’s Fave (chocolate cream in chocolate cakes).
One of the largest privately owned companies in the United States, Wegmans also has 48 stores in New York, nine in New Jersey, eight in Maryland, 13 in Virginia and four in North Carolina.
The company recently decided to carry a line of New England bakery favorites, including whoopie pies. Dan Jackson, a regional bakery merchandiser with Wegmans, found Cape Whoopies online, where they’ve been sold since 2014 through goldbelly.com, a gourmet food purveyor. He contacted Wiggins.
‘OUR CUSTOMERS WANT THE BEST’
“He said, ‘Our customers want the best. I’ve done the research and you’re the best,’ ” Wiggins recalled. Jackson visited her 2,600-square-foot facility soon after and next week will return with bakery managers from the six Massachusetts stores.
Jackson was immediately impressed by the kindness and competence of Wiggins and her employees, and the quality of Cape Whoopies.
“They were just a perfect fit for Wegmans,” Jackson said. “The quality of her product is so good, I can’t overstate that. She said she wanted people to be able to close their eyes, take a bite and taste all of the flavors in each whoopie pie. And she has a ton of flavors, including a gluten-free option, which is important to our customers.”
So far, Cape Whoopies have exceeded Wegmans’ expectations. The company anticipated selling about 250 pies per store each week in Massachusetts, but they’ve been selling more than 1,500 pies per store each week, Wiggins said.
“They’re doing really well in our Massachusetts stores, where whoopie pies are popular,” said Marcie Rivera, Wegmans spokesperson. “We’re testing them in Pennsylvania, where whoopie pies are also very popular.”
If Cape Whoopies do well in Pennsylvania, and Wiggins can keep up with additional orders, Wegmans intends to expand distribution to all of its stores, Rivera said.
Wiggins talks about becoming a business owner as if it happened on a whim or by accident, though she clearly planned each step along the way, starting with seeking a SCORE business mentorship through the Small Business Administration.
“I had always been a mom,” said Wiggins, who has four adult children. Her husband, Dennis, was a pilot with Continental Airlines, so he was gone four days a week. He’s retired now and helps out at Cape Whoopies when needed.
A GOOD IDEA THAT COULD BE BETTER
Wiggins had always enjoyed cooking, too, and her husband’s career had allowed her to travel widely and sample some of the finest desserts made in Europe. And while she appreciated whoopie pies, which were named the official Maine State Treat in 2011, she wanted to improve on commercially available options.
“I really felt it was a good idea that could be so much better,” Wiggins said. “So I just took the Maine State Treat and gave it a twist.”
The cream filling in Cape Whoopies is made with butter and marshmallow creme instead of vegetable shortening and powdered sugar, Wiggins said. And the cakes are made with baking powder, butter and cream cheese instead of buttermilk and baking soda.
Her goal, when developing the recipe for family members and friends, was to create a more delicate dessert with lighter cakes and a creamier filling that wasn’t quite as sweet but just as satisfying.
“We leave out a lot of the sugar,” Wiggins said. But she doesn’t skimp on other ingredients, which include Dutch chocolate, vanilla bean paste, famous liqueurs and concentrated flavor extracts. Each pie is about four bites, and each bite is intended to be a flavor bomb.
“One of my first decisions was, did I want to make the best or did I want to make the cheapest?” Wiggins recalled. “I decided I wanted to make the best.”
Making the best whoopie pies definitely isn’t cheap. Still, they’re selling like … whoopie pies. Pitched on goldbelly.com as “the one treat to bring home from Maine,” according to Bloomberg Businessweek, Cape Whoopies sell for $40 a half-dozen or $59 a dozen, including shipping.
Individual pies retail for $3.50 and up. In addition to the store on Cottage Road, they’re available in Maine at Lois’ Natural Marketplace, Scarborough; Gorgeous Gelato, Portland; Pizza Joint, South Portland; Maggie Mae’s, Yarmouth; LocalCentric, Gray; Uncle Dean’s Natural Market, Waterville; and Maine Homestead Market, Alfred. Farther afield they’re sold at Superb Commodities, Bloomington, Indiana; Wicked Maine Lobster, San Diego and Los Angeles; and Sweet Shop by the Sea, Kapa’a, Hawaii.
INGREDIENTS FOR A GOOD BUSINESS
Sales of Cape Whoopies climbed steadily from the start in 2013. When rave reviews started rolling in and friends suggested she should try to market her whoopie pies, Wiggins delivered a trial box to the Whole Foods Market in Portland, which carried Cape Whoopies for a few years.
A year later Wiggins moved production from her home to a shared kitchen rental space at Fork Food Lab in Portland. That’s where she and a growing crew produced 11,000 to 15,000 pies per month for an Amazon surprise sweets gift box from 2014 to 2018.
In 2018, Wiggins decided Cape Whoopies needed its own space. She found the building at 185 Cottage Road, a former consignment store that she shares with Rwanda Bean, a socially responsible coffee company. And she applied for a business loan through the Greater Portland Council of Governments to buy equipment. Again, she showed up with a box of whoopie pies.
“The $50,000 we loaned to Marcia was for working capital,” said Josh Kochis, finance director at GPCOG. “We loaned her the money because her business plan and financials were sound. She was amazing, and of course the whoopie pies were delicious.”
Wiggins got a five-year loan at 4 percent interest through one of several government-backed loan programs administered by GPCOG.
A devout Christian, Wiggins credits much of her success to her faith, as well as a slew of people who helped her to start and grow the business. They include Kochis, who has provided business advice far beyond loan counseling. And Raynor Large, a business adviser with the Maine Small Business Development Centers. And her landlord, Craig Church, who readily responds to any problems that crop up.
“You wouldn’t expect your landlord to be so kind and helpful, but he is,” Wiggins said. “Those three people are my first phone calls when I have a problem.”
Things have gone pretty well for Wiggins overall, however, even during the COVID-19 pandemic that temporarily closed or shuttered many other businesses. None of her crew contracted the virus and everyone got vaccinated as soon as possible, so they’ve been able to keep up with demand that never waned.
Annual sales are on track to top $500,000 this year before the Wegmans expansion into Pennsylvania, Wiggins said, up from $350,000 in 2020 and $270,000 in 2019.
To meet the growing demand from Wegmans, Wiggins plans to buy a second Baxter booth-style oven that can bake 20 trays of whoopie cakes on a rolling rack in 10 minutes. She’ll also need a second 80-quart Hobart mixer and a second walk-in freezer, which would be installed in the garage behind the bakery.
“I don’t anticipate moving anytime soon, but we will have a second shift and a third shift if necessary,” Wiggins said. “It’s hard to hire people right now, and I’m looking for people who want to be involved.”
Most of Wiggins’ employees are in their 20s and many are going to college. The place hums with upbeat music, workers’ chatter and the occasional clatter of baking equipment.
“I’ve been lucky because I’ve been able to hire smart young people who will stay and do what needs to be done,” Wiggins said. That’s especially helpful in December, when her crew typically works from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily to fill holiday orders.
As the company grows and becomes more stable, Wiggins said she hopes Cape Whoopies can become a model employer and community supporter. She pays $13 to $15 an hour or more, and she strives to be a respectful, kind and appreciative boss. But she’d like to provide health coverage and other benefits for her employees as soon as possible, and the expanding contract with Wegmans could help her do that.
“Everything that happens to me, happens to them,” she said.