The Gluten Free Queen
You may know Kyra Bussanich from the television show Cupcake Wars. Or perhaps you’ve been to her bakery Kyra’s Bake Shop in Lake Oswego, where she likely knows your name and favorite dessert. But what you may not know about this cupcake queen is that she never set out to intentionally do any of this. While Kyra, 36, has been living gluten free since 2006, she never set out to make “good gluten free treats.” She just wanted to make treats. Really good ones.
Kyra was 8 years old when she started baking and was endlessly fascinated with the way bread smelled. After graduating from Le Cordon Bleu, she worked as an assistant pastry chef at Saucebox, 23 Hoyt, Clark Hoyt and Blue Hour. Kyra loves working where she lives and where she knows all of her customers and what they like. The sense of community has kept her there instead of relocating to the center of Portland. I had a chance to not only sit down with Kyra, but to try some of her delicious treats as well.
I was always sick growing up and I never knew exactly why. I would feel sick to my stomach, have no energy and never felt like leaving the house. When I was 20 and a junior in college, I got so sick that I couldn’t even go to class. I went to the doctor and after a series of tests, he told me I was anemic. I basically became a human pincushion after that. We went through a process of elimination of diseases. I didn’t have cancer, lymphoma or diabetes. Then it was suggested that I had Chrones disease, and I spent eight years on steroids. I tried all kinds of medications but nothing made me feel good. I gained weight, lost my hair and had trouble standing for long periods of time. When the Chrones wasn’t in remission, I wasn’t even sure I could leave the house. The doctors told me it would cost $2,500 a month for treatments and that they would basically have to take out my intestines. But I didn’t want to live on steroids my whole life and feel the way that I did. My mom was gluten intolerant, so I had heard of having a gluten free diet. My doctor told me it wouldn’t work, and I would eventually have to start treatments. But in 2006, I decided to go completely gluten free and have been ever since. If options would have been available for me back then, I guarantee you I wouldn’t be doing what I am now. In May 2011, I opened my own bakery as Crave Bake Shop.
How did you hear about participating in Cupcake Wars?
I was watching the show one night with my husband and one of the competitors participating tried to hide a main ingredient on one segment. I started yelling at the TV and getting upset that this competitor was doing that! The main ingredient should always be highlighted, and she wasn’t doing that. It was then that my husband suggested that I try going on the show. I immediately said no way, I didn’t like competition and knew that I would get really stressed out. At the time I also didn’t have a brick and mortar shop, I was just doing it on the side for friends and family mainly. Also I was doing all my treats gluten free and no one on the show had ever done that before. But he convinced me, and so I sat at my computer while still watching the show and wrote an email about who I was that I could beat regular cupcakes with mine. An hour later, I got a reply from the casting director saying they were interested and asked if I could send a video of myself by the next day. I had someone record me in my kitchen with a little handheld camera and just tried to show my personality and techniques as best as I could. They emailed back and thought I was super cute and had a great personality, so I got invited to be on the show. Right before I was supposed to leave I actually got food poisoning and landed in the hospital. I was okay of course, and the first thing I ate after five days of being on an IV was four cupcakes. Three hours later, I was on a plane to Los Angeles to be on the show.
What was the experience like, being on the show and on TV in general?
Stressful! But really, it was so fun. After my first appearance in December of 2010 on the Christmas Lighting episode as the first ever gluten free competitor I got a thousand phone calls and emails from people on the East Coast wanting cupcakes made by me and telling me their story. It was surreal. I was the runner up on my first try, but it was still amazing to be there. I knew I would regret not trying and I don’t like thinking about “what ifs” in my life. After my first go around, I said I wouldn’t come back. However, a year later the producer called and told me they were having a redemptive episode and invited me to come. So I got back on a plane to LA and went back for the closer episode in December 2011. I still remember one of the other competitors on the show actually saying, “how good could gluten free be?” But the judges thought otherwise, because I won! After this time I said I was done for good, but they wanted me back on for the grand champions episode a year later. So in May 2012 I won first place for the Madagascar episode. I went back in June of the same year and was the runner up for the overall championship, and then one last time in December 2013 for the Barbie episode and won that one.
I definitely learned so many life lessons from being on the show. I learned to be quick in all of my techniques and motions and especially in my thinking process. I pushed my creativity more than I ever have and learned how to compete above all. I also learned what it was like to not win. All of the times I didn’t win or get first place, the other winners were absolutely lovely to me. I mostly went on Cupcake Wars because I wanted to show that gluten free is not a death sentence for taste buds. My mission has always been not to just have the best “gluten free” cupcake, but to just have a really good pastry.
Will you ever go back on the show again?
I won’t say never, because I already said that and look how many times I went back. If time allowed I would consider it. I want my own TV show though! I don’t have an agent or anything but I’ve brought it up to the people at the Food Network before. Maybe I could just start a web series on cooking techniques or something, who knows.
What has been the biggest struggle of owning your own bakery?
Managing people. I started with just myself, and have grown so much as time has gone on and I opened my own shop. I have to remind myself that my employees are young and sensitive, so I can’t just critique them the same way I did with myself when it was just me. It’s also difficult figuring out what tasks I’m good at. I’m terrible with HR related things and also really bad at math. I’ve had to figure out what my strengths are and what they are not. I currently have 22 employees, including my friend Jackie, who is the lead cake designer and manager who went on the show with me originally, even though she had never done any gluten free baking before. She has stuck around ever since!
Have you considered expanding and opening another bakery?
The original plan was to open three more, maybe one in Gresham and the surrounding areas. I would really like to open a bakery in Tennessee; Boulder, Colorado; Chelsea New York; and one in New Jersey. I’m not trying to grow too quickly though, I want to go slowly and make sure to build up the one I already have before expanding. I have seen so many businesses fail because they tried to grow too quickly and I don’t want that to be my case.
Can you tell me about the book you wrote?
My book is called Sweet Cravings. It came out in September 2013 and it’s split into seven chapters of dessert occasions to bake for. Weekend desserts, childhood desserts, what I made on Cupcake Wars, etc. I wanted to give people gluten free recipes but make them approachable for home baking. Gluten free baking is not beyond anyone and I wanted people to really feel and experience that when they were making something from my cookbook. I have been talking with my literary agent about my plan for a future cookbook and project, so we’ll see what happens with that.
What is your favorite thing about what you do?
I love the creativity of it all. I get the chance to play with new ideas and recipes and having customers enjoy the new things I try. I love that we don’t just do cupcakes, but that we do bagels and bread and cake and a multitude of savory and sweet treats. It gives me the opportunity to try new things, to push myself to do things I’ve never tried before. That’s what a job is all about, growing and pushing yourself to new challenges.
I heard you just made cupcakes for the Golden Globes. Can you tell me a little more about that?
Out of the blue they just called me up and asked me if I would be interested in doing it. They probably heard about me through the producers of Cupcake Wars, since often people in the industry pass along things to one another. I made caramel corn with gold dust for the gift baskets, as well as hazelnut cream cookies, ginger macadamia cookie bars and espresso caramel ganache brownies, all sprinkled with gold dust of course. I got to go to LA and deliver them myself. I met a lot of awesome celebrities like Tony Denneson, Rebecca Field, Michael Ricker, Tamala Jones and Coach Beast from Glee. I’ve also been contacted about doing treats for the Emmys, but everything is on hold right now until the expansion finishes. I like to allow things to happen organically. I feel like I’m good at taking advantage of opportunities when they present themselves. I chose to learn a new skill that turned into something I loved. It’s frightening, I’m scared everyday. However, it’s important not to let fear hold you back
Who is your biggest inspiration?
When I was growing up, I had a subscription to Martha Stewart Living. It was inspiring to look at the pages and see all the recipes and wonderful things she was capable of creating. I also watched the Food Network and was constantly inspired by Giada De Laurentiis (which was awesome to meet briefly too!) I’ve always watched Chef Elizabeth Faulkner as well, she’s incredible. My husband is also one of my biggest inspirations. He pushes me to do things I wouldn’t normally do and always tells me that I’ll be great at them. He’s been my support through everything. My parents have also inspired me so much. My dad is an entrepreneur and told me that I was never meant to work for anyone, and I listened to that.
Why did you change the name of your bakery?
My bakery was originally called Crave, which coincidentally is also the name of many other food-related things. Usually the other brands were Krave with a “K”, but this made for some confusion with other people. There was Crav vodka, Krave cereal, Krave jerky, etc. You wouldn’t believe the kind of phone calls we were getting! People were calling and telling me that my cereal made them sick and threatening me because of the things I wasn’t even making! So in December 2011 I decided to rename my bakery to Kyra’s Bake Shop in order to avoid all the confusion. Since then it’s been. Although we did get a message on our machine recently from an 8-year-old girl who’s aunt also has baked goods under the name of Kyra telling us that we “sucked butt.” Can you imagine? It was hysterical.
What is a piece of advice you would give anyone looking to open their own bakery?
I went to a conference once, and heard the author Gretchen Reuben say something along the lines of, “find what makes you jealous.” That has always stuck with me. Follow your passion. Figure out what lights you up and makes you jealous.