Smallcakes Baton Rouge is a franchise of a national chain, but it's no cookie-cutter business.

For owner Michelle Salim, it's very personal.

She's spent the last three years getting to know her patrons — and their pups.

At Salim's shop, 18135 E. Petroleum Drive, she and her staff take requests for special treats for customers and have created a separate cupcake line for dogs.

Salim has been so successful she hopes to open a second location near LSU next spring.

But right now, her hands are full crafting LSU-themed cupcakes despite the university's tailgating ban, and Thanksgiving and Christmas are looming.

First, there are lots of Halloween Dirt Cake cupcakes — chocolate cupcakes filled with Bavarian chocolate cream and topped by gummy worms slithering in and out of chocolate icing — to make.

In the coming weeks, she'll also be whipping up Pumpkin Spice cupcakes frosted with a combination pumpkin spice and Bailey's Irish Cream icing, chocolate Peppermint Crunch cupcakes with Andes chocolate mints and, soon after, King Cake cupcakes for Mardi Gras season.

The business runs smoothly these days, but it was all new to Salim when she bought the franchise. She'd just retired from a job in information technology and was traveling in Florida with her husband when they happened upon a Smallcakes, which has about 200 locations.

"I'd worked in IT for 30 years, and I was on a little celebratory retirement trip on (Highway) 30A in Florida," Salim recalled. "We saw a Smallcakes there, and we'd go every day, and the cupcakes were so good. I started thinking about how Baton Rouge was missing this, because we just didn't have this quality of cupcake and ice cream."

Salim signed a contract soon after and opened her shop in 2017.

"So, my retirement lasted about a grand total of six weeks, and I was on to the next adventure," she said. "Baking was something my daughter and I always enjoyed doing together, but I never pictured it as being something that would turn into a profession and another phase of my life."

The Smallcakes chain brought in the kitchen and baking supplies, spent two days showing Salim and her workers how to operate it and then left the rest up to them. Salim was involved in the baking process in the beginning but now leaves that to her chef, Lauren Buriege.

She now has seven employees, and no one was furloughed during the state's coronavirus lockdown or reopening phases.

"It's definitely been a learning process, and in three years, I'm just now feeling comfortable in knowing how to run the business side and in knowing my customers, what they want and what they look forward to," Salim said. "So, we bake for them."

Salim said she and her staff have complete creative freedom.

"What's nice about our franchise is there's not this hard, fast rule about what you do," she said. "There are proprietary recipes, which give the cakes the base for the Smallcakes taste, so we don't change that part of it, but we've tweaked the rest of it."

The tweaking increased when customers began making suggestions in the shop and on social media.

"We have tweaked so many of the recipes for our what our customers enjoy," Salim said "And our customers who have gone to other Smallcakes shops have told us, 'Your cupcakes are so much better.' It's because we've tweaked and come up with new cupcakes for them."

All of the shop's 15 signature-flavored cupcakes — including Wedding Cake, Chocolate Cream, Lemon and Red Velvet — are baked fresh daily, usually between 150 to 300 cupcakes on weekdays and up to 400 on the weekend days. 

"Our Birthday Cake cupcake is hugely popular, because everybody loves sprinkles," Salim said. "And we also make ice cream in-house, which, I think, is the big key to why everyone loves it."

Ice cream flavors include Birthday Cake, Salted Caramel, Cookie Monster, Mint Chocolate Chip and Cookies and Cream.

"I was probably more drawn to the ice cream, actually, than to the cupcakes because we make it in small batches, so it's fresh and creamy," Salim said. "We use Kleinpeter products here, because we like supporting other local companies."

And if you can't decide between a cupcake or ice cream, you can order the Smash.

"That is our signature dish," Salim said. "We let the customer choose their cupcake and ice cream, and then we layer two scoops of ice cream between the layers. It's the best of both worlds."

They're also baking up Zoe Pupcakes, which have been a shop staple since its opening.

"The Zoe Pupcakes are for the dogs," Salim said. "It's something special that we do in this shop. We named them for our dog, Zoe. We know people love their fur babies, and we wanted people to be able to bring their pets, which was the point of putting tables outside. We bring the water bowls out so their dogs can come and sit."

The Pupcakes are nondairy cakes that also are people-friendly. The only thing that's specific to the dog is a milk bone mini treat on the top.

"But we do have customers who get the Pupcakes for their kids who don't eat dairy," she said. "They just buy them before we put the Milkbone on top of it."

As for her future shop near LSU, Salim is thinking about a drive-thru operation.

"In year three, I feel very comfortable, and I'm ready to go the next level," she said. "I think I really understand the business and the customers."

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