Was the success of Cake Nouveau inevitable? Owner Courtney Clark works hard, but she admits her seemingly bottomless well of free national publicity doesn’t hurt. “The wedding cake business is going great,” she says, “because, well, you know, the TV thing.”
Since she opened her bakery in 2006, Clark has been a contestant nine times on the Food Network Cake Challenge, winning five of them. Though the cupcakes and cake slices she sells at retail are dainty and polite looking, in competition she creates whimsical, bulging, swooping, asymmetrical confections–what she calls “Dr. Seussy, Alice in Wonderland cakes.”
Clark had outgrown her previous space on Fourth Avenue. “When we moved in, we thought ‘Oh, it’s so huge!’ because before I’d been working out of my house.” Now she and her five employees have more spacious digs next to Morgan & York (which is leasing Clark its former office and storage space) on Packard. “I don’t suppose too many people go strolling down Packard wanting cupcakes,” Clark said wistfully last April as she was saying goodbye to the old location, but Sarah Mayfield, one of her longtime employees and usually the perky face behind the counter, says of the new space, “It’s been just as busy. We haven’t seen a decline.” Whatever was lost in foot traffic has been made up in Morgan & York spillover or drive-bys with a cupcake jones.
Drive-by customers have a much easier time finding her now too: since her Fourth Avenue shop was in a historic district, Clark couldn’t “have anything on the building or anything that sticks out. Sometimes [we would] see people driving by on the phone calling us, saying ‘we can’t find you.'” Now she’s got a huge sign across her entire storefront. And she’s kept the Willy Wonka-esque fantasy decor of purple, pink, and green stripes, squares, and curlicues.
Clark says her television career was completely unsought. In 2006, the Food Network “found my website and called me. I didn’t call back immediately. I thought they were just trying to get me to advertise.”
Clark turned out to be a natural: blond, lithe, and beauty-queen pretty, with an open, engaging conversational style, all wrapped around the soul of a cutthroat competitor. “I was a gymnast for almost twenty years, so I have this perfectionist mentality. If I don’t win, I’m not OK with it,” she smiles.
In addition to cupcakes, the Cake Nouveau counter is stocked with cake slices, cookies, and Clark’s newest creation, “cake truffles”–little bombs of buttercream and cake dipped in chocolate. “We don’t know the calories of anything,” says Mayfield. “That’s a scary thought.”
Mayfield notes that the hours have changed–the shop is now closed on Monday for cake-making classes.
Cake Nouveau, 1924 Packard. 994-4033. Tues.-Sat. 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Closed Sun. & Mon. cakenouveau.com
On the other side of Morgan & York, Morty’s Secret Garden opened in May, brightening what “used to be a weedy field, full of dog poop and trash,” says owner John Arms. But it was the fauna, not the flora, that had everyone talking last month: a little lamb named Tails lay in a box by the cash register. “They say a sick sheep is a dead sheep, so I wasn’t going to give it a name,” says Arms, “but my son named it Tails, like maybe he was thinking ‘heads you make it, tails you don’t.'”
Arms owns a mobile petting farm that travels to children’s parties and convalescent homes. Tails is the runt from a set of twins born at the farm. “He wouldn’t hook up on the teat. He was languishing. I literally had to pry his jaws open and force a syringe of milk down his throat.”
Tails is now thriving and back in the fold, though he will be making frequent visits to Morty’s because “he’s become kind of an icon.”
There is no Morty–the name is in honor of Arms’ late father-in-law, whose last name was Mortellaro. “People ask for Morty and I say, ‘It will be a one-sided conversation,'” says Arms, a rotund, jovial guy who loves the turn of a phrase.
“You get the Sears and Roebuck of plant material and a few quirkies and figure out what people want,” is how he describes his business plan. He stocks trees, shrubs, perennials, and annuals. “I’m still working on ways to define myself apart from everybody else. Basically, I guess the idea is to sell something Home Depot doesn’t sell. Dwarfs! I’ve been trying to buy a lot of dwarfs for our Ann Arbor postage-stamp lots–like this Colorado blue spruce that will never break fifteen feet in width.”
“And,” he continues, “you’ve got to have a good price point. Most of our perennials we grow ourselves. That’s how we keep our prices down. Like we grow Shasta daisies from seed, so we can afford to sell these gallon pots for $6.50.”
Though the only building is a tiny, toll-booth-sized shed Arms uses for an office, he plans to stay open at least through December, selling potted live Christmas trees, and maybe all winter.
Morty’s Secret Garden, 1928 Packard. 717-8423. Mon.-Sat. 10 a.m.-7 p.m., Sun. 10:30 a.m.-6 p.m. (shortened hours beginning in August).
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