Icing on the cupcake

Denine Shern

PHOTO BY Catherine Beeghly

Denine Shern insists she never meant to open a cupcake business. But since July 3, Denine’s Cupcakes has resided in the brown building nestled between Tres Hombres and Ellis Art & Engineering Supplies on Broadway. Shern researched the building with the help of the Chico Heritage Association, and discovered the first occupant, in 1884, was a confectionary. If you visit the bathroom, it’s decorated with a timeline chronicling all the businesses that have called the space home—a tailor, restaurant, grocery, pharmacy and florist among them. With its original bricks, delicate crystal chandeliers and fixtures, stepping through the door feels like a step back to a simpler time. Shern, 41, grew up in Redding, and lived throughout Northern California before settling in Chico 15 years ago. She and her partner of about a year, Tricia Daverson, have 12 children between them, ranging in age from a first-grader to a freshman in college. Several of their children attend Chico Country Day School, and the walls are adorned with about 70 of their colorful portraits of cupcakes. During the month of October, Denine’s is donating $1 from the sale of each pink-topped cupcake to breast cancer awareness. As of mid-month, she had raised $200. While most businesses have interesting stories about how they started, Denine’s is the result of an unlikely win.

How did you “accidentally” open a cupcake shop?

It all started back in 2006, when Good Morning America hosted a national contest to find the best cupcake recipe. That was at the beginning of the cupcake craze. My mom suggested I enter. I had never really baked before, but I was good at winning things. On a whim, I went ahead and submitted my 3-minute video and recipe for a “s’mores” cupcake. I got a call saying I was one of three finalists. They had me make them on TV—as if I were some serious baker or something. And I won. So, you just never know. People come in here, and see the trophy here and I tell them the story—and they can’t believe it. You should have seen me trying to get that trophy through airport security. After the article ran in the Sacramento Bee [framed behind the counter with the large trophy], I started getting requests. I told people, “I don’t bake,” but more requests and orders kept coming in. And the next thing, it just seemed the right time to open up.

Who are your customers?

We get moms and kids, men with their dates, grandparents, and some regulars. Some people come in every day, get the same cupcake and same drink, and sit in the same chair at the same table. Some people come in and say they’re having a crappy day, and a cupcake makes them feel better. People come in when they’re happy, too, for celebrations. We keep birthday candles behind the counter, and we’ll sing for them for birthdays.

Why do people enjoy cupcakes?

They’re individual treats people can afford, and it’s a small portion. If you have 100 people at your wedding, you need 100 cupcakes. It’s simple.

What are your most popular flavors?

The Little Brown Dress is a chocolate cupcake with chocolate frosting. The lemon. The Quincy is carrot cake with maple-infused cream cheese frosting. And the cookies ’n’ cream. But you never know. Tomorrow, it might be all orders for the red velvet. We also make a gluten-free cupcake.

What’s next?

We’re taking it all “one cupcake at a time.”