There’s an ancient Chinese proverb that reads, “When the winds of change blow, some people build walls and others build windmills.” It lands in my mind as Gina “Gigi” Butler and I are burrowed at a corner table in her cozy, French farmhouse-inspired eatery in Brentwood.
“I feel like I’m on the precipice of something big,” says Butler, a celebrated entrepreneur who grew her one-woman brand, Gigi’s Cupcakes, into a culinary empire with an astonishing 120 locations in less than eight years.
A passionate advocate for fearless entrepreneurship, last fall, within months of putting her final signature swirls on her famous cupcake masterpieces, Butler swung open the doors of her latest endeavor, Pies by Gigi, which has since been rebranded as Gigi’s Kitchen, nestled at 330 Franklin Road. Upon entrance, patrons are greeted by a stylish pink neon sign that reads: “Love is homemade.”
But Butler’s life hasn’t always gleamed with notoriety. An Oklahoma native who transplanted to Nashville in pursuit of country music stardom, she wandered into the culinary realm on an unremarkable Labor Day weekend in 2007. While hovered over a toilet inside of an A-list singer's home, her phone buzzed with a call from her brother who’d just visited a trendy bakery in New York City.
“He told me he’d spent two hours standing in line for a cupcake that didn’t impress him at all. Then he said, ‘Why don’t you open up your own shop in Nashville?’ It sounded like a crazy idea at first, until it didn’t,” says Butler.
Mopping floors by day and singing by night, she’d devoted a decade to her chart-topping
aspirations. But, instead of traipsing along red carpets with Leann Rimes, she was emptying her trash bins.
She recalls the moment the vision clicked into focus–when she turned away from the soapy toilet water and toward her reflection in the bathroom mirror. Baking, while not her original dream, was a skill she’d inherited and adored.
“I can still see those pink cleaning gloves I was wearing. I looked myself in the eye and decided to just go for it. Two years before, I’d cried my eyes out because I was realizing my music dream was dead, so I thought I may as well try something else,” says Butler.
Two days later, at the dawn of a recession, she pulled into the parking lot of her bank, praying for a business loan.
Four denials later, and more than a few sympathetic glances from clients and friends, Butler scraped together $100,000 in cash advances on her credit cards to cover the necessary expenses. With $33 to her name, she tied herself into her apron and opened the shop in February 2008.
Miraculously, on the afternoon of the opening, a line of customers trickled out of the store and into the parking lot. And, in the weeks that followed, Butler watched in amazement as the “crazy idea” took on a life of its own.
Soon after, franchises began crawling from the woodwork at an head-turning rate. Butler
appeared on Undercover Boss and was featured in top media sources like Forbes and Business Insider. It was an absolute whirlwind of success.
As franchise growth further exploded, Butler realized her schedule was unmanageable: “I was exhausted. As a single mom, I was shuffling my daughter onto planes for store openings every week. That’s when I made the hard decision to sell to the venture capital company in Texas,” says Butler.
She opted to stay on in operations at her original store, located in Nashville’s Midtown, but to her disheartenment, the new owners; decisions swiftly turned the brand sour.
“I told them specific things not to do, but they did them anyway. It was disastrous, and I was then chastised for actions I hadn’t taken. Those were very dark years,” says Butler.
Still, she charged forward. Butler authored her first book, The Secret Ingredient: Recipes for Success in Business and Life, and wowed an audience with her wisdom from the TedX stage. She claims every challenge fed her spoonfuls of resilience.
“A lot of people see me as the cupcake lady. They don’t know about the heartaches and setbacks I’ve experienced. But I want to be an example of courage, and of how to see fear and failure as nothing more than blocks. They might be mountains, but there’s always a way to go around the mountain. Or climb it,” she says.
As cupcake sales continued to tumble, Butler closed her original store in February 2020, exactly 12 years after having turned on the lights.
“Selling my last store felt like a loss of identity. And, while I was trying to find my way through it, Covid hit,” says Butler.
While people all over the world were being shoved into isolation, and long-successful businesses were barring their doors and windows, a disoriented Butler decided to pivot in the most thoughtful of ways.
“I was watching television when I heard a reporter say, ‘If you’re a designer, stop making
clothes. We need masks!’ I thought, ‘Well, I can’t sew, but I can cook.”
Within days of creating a menu and announcing on Instagram and her website that she’d be offering both home deliveries and scheduled pickups at a Whole Foods location, orders were spilling into her inbox.
From sunrise to sundown, Butler ambled about her kitchen, measuring and mixing, doling out pans of delectable lemon bars and savory chicken pot pies that would not only satisfy taste buds, but feed hungry souls. Perhaps providing the spirit of home for those who needed home more than ever, but weren’t able to be there.
Having long fantasized about opening a pie shop, months later, when a realtor friend informed her of an available space, she leapt at the opportunity.
“I said, ‘Yes, I’m ready!’ I knew it was a risky thing to do during a pandemic, but I also knew
that love and comfort were what the world was starving for most. And those are key ingredients that get tossed into all of my recipes,” says Butler.
Less than a year later, Gigi’s Kitchen is attracting comfort food aficionados like bees to honey. Some come for the biscuits, freshly-brewed coffee and hearty quiches, and others wander in for her amazing pies–from whipped peanut butter to boston cream. There’s also the take-and-bake casseroles that make it easy for busy families to enjoy home-cooked dinners. And the shop boasts complimentary WiFi, which Butler hopes will support aspiring entrepreneurs on their quests.
But, despite being a household name, Butler swears her tenacious work ethic isn’t for glory. Rather, she’s driven by an insatiable desire to give birth to new and delicious things that might enhance the world–not despite the trials of life, but because of them.
“I don’t want to be on a porch when I’m 80 years old, thinking, ‘Why didn’t I just go for that?’ No matter what happens to me, I’ll never stop dreaming up ways to share my purpose,” she says. “I want to be a forerunner for comfort food, offering love to hearts and feeding bellies, because I can’t imagine a better use of my earthly time.”
Mother’s Day Tea Hosted By Gigi Butler
Gigi’s Kitchen in Brentwood is hosting a treat for moms and women on May 2. Spots are limited, and tickets are required. Included will be: a Southern-inspired brunch and high tea experience; recipe demonstration by Gigi; and a takeaway gift.