By Karen Billing
The San Diego Union-Tribune.
For the past nine years, Mara Fortin’s life has been Nothing Bundt Cakes. As she prepares to open her seventh bakery in the Village of Pacific Highlands Ranch in October, Fortin reflects on years of baked goodness, of hard work swirled with fun and a whole lot of cream cheese frosting.
Fortin was the first-ever franchisee for the brand in 2007, and the Pacific Highlands Ranch bakery will be the 188th location nationwide. Fortin owns the most franchises in the company, including her small shop in Del Mar’s Flower Hill Promenade.
“I think this bakery will do very well because there are a lot of young families moving in here and there is a lot of new development,” said Fortin, who is buying a home in Pacific Highlands Ranch neighborhood. “This is all our demographic — I couldn’t pick a better fit for what we offer.”
Dena Tripp and Debbie Shwetz founded Nothing Bundt Cakes in 1998 in Las Vegas, where Fortin was living at the time and working a very busy life as a medical malpractice attorney. The “ridiculous hours” were taking a toll and as she was preparing an argument in front of the Supreme Court of Nevada with a 2-month-old at home, she decided she had hit the breaking point.
A native San Diegan, Fortin began crafting a recipe for a new life, drawing on her undergraduate degree in business.
“I started thinking about this really great bakery I loved that had an amazing buttercream frosting,” Fortin said. “Would they let me take the idea to San Diego?”
After about a year of working with the founders, she opened her first bakery in Poway in 2007.
“I was completely starting over — I walked away from my career cold turkey,” Fortin said. “The first couple of years were really scary — it was a tough transition and I had a lot of anxiety. I was raising two young children and starting a business, and people would ask me, ‘Bundt cakes? You know you’re in healthy San Diego, right?’ They thought I was joking. People told me I was going to be out of business in a year.”
Fortin stayed confident that the business would work and after two years, the bakery started building up its base and people loved the cakes. She opened her second bakery in Flower Hill in 2009 and it took off “pretty much right away.” At the time, Del Mar was the 15th franchise location.
Fortin opened Mission Valley in 2011, which continues to be the top two bakery in California.
“In four years I had built three bakeries, but here I was thinking I’m invincible and not knowing my limitations,” said Fortin, who between October 2013 and October 2014 opened four more bakeries and closed one.
The new locations were in Chula Vista, Carlsbad, San Marcos and Santee, and it was an exhausting yet satisfying time. The bakery Fortin closed was Poway, her first, in September 2014. The bakery was profitable, but she had to make a business decision to close it in order to open a better location.
“For me, personally, that was very difficult to close because that was my baby,” Fortin said. “It was where I earned my stripes and learned to be a big girl, and where I learned to accept all the risks of being a small-business owner.”
As she expected, the location she decided to open in Santee has become one of the top- selling bakeries in the region.
Fortin’s clear understanding of the Nothing Bundt Cake demographic landed her a position as the chairwoman of the Franchise Advisory Board. As she was the first franchisee and owns the most franchise units in the system, she has a strong voice in the company.
It was Fortin who approached the founders and persuaded them to keep red velvet cake on the menu year-round. The best-selling cake used to be available only seasonally in February. Now the “velvety rich” cocoa and buttermilk cake with the secret weapon of chocolate chips folded into the batter is available daily at the bakeries.
As much as she understands the demographic, Fortin understands the cake just as well.
She talks with the bakers as they’re swirling raspberry into white chocolate raspberry cake batter, offering tips about the best way to swirl without overdoing it and making sure there is raspberry in every bite. She is always reviewing what works and what makes the best product, aiming for high quality and consistency.
“I can look at a cake and tell if it’s overcooked or if too little pan spray was used,” Fortin said. “It’s in my DNA. Being around cakes for nine years, I’m one with the cake. I just know.”
Nothing Bundt Cakes is known for the thick, frosting petals that top each cake, some cakes adorned with colorful flowers as an added decorative touch. Cakes can be sold in eight-inch, 10-inch and tiered varieties. Customers can get their fix with individually sized “bundtlets,” and bite-sized “bundtinis” are sold by the dozen.
The bakery always has nine permanent flavors, including carrot, marble, white white chocolate, cinnamon swirl and of course the top-selling red velvet and chocolate chocolate chip. And there is always a seasonal selection — this summer’s flavor is a lemon raspberry.
When the Pacific Highlands Ranch location opens in October, Fortin will celebrate not only its grand opening, but the birthdays of all San Diego Nothing Bundt Cakes, as they all opened in the August-to-December time frame.
The opening will have a special giveaway of a free bundtlet every month for a year, which Fortin said people go bananas for. She said when she opened her Mission Valley location, two women were waiting at the front of the line to win the free bundtlets. When she opened San Marcos, there they were again, asking whether she remembered them. Of course she did.
“The relationship part of the business I love. I love talking to people and hearing how much the cakes (have) made a difference in their lives,” Fortin said.
She has heard how her cakes have been used to brighten people’s days for special occasions and even sad occasions, such as after the 2007 wildfires, when she received a thank you from a firefighter who said the cake was the only thing that made a woman who lost her home smile.
People use the cakes to say “thank you” or “feel better” and to celebrate school events, wedding or baby showers.
“I clued in early on how important the cakes are as a community relations tool and a way to give back,” Fortin said, who regularly donates proceeds to Susan G. Komen for the Cure and Rady Children’s Hospital. “Business can grind you. I’m a single mom with an 11-year-old and a 9-year-old, but things like that keep me going.
“I’m not in the business of selling cakes, I’m in the business of relationships, of community and neighborhood celebrations, of people coming together.”
Being able to be a part of people’s lives is just the flower on top of the cream cheese frosting.