Fall 2014

Sprinkles Cupcakes Co-Founder on Sweet Success

Charles Nelson ’92

Cupcakes. Say the word and your heart fills with joy and your mouth with saliva. The mere mention of the topic is enough to drive people batty.

So when Charles Nelson, a 1992 finance graduate, and his wife, Candace, a pastry chef, were cooking up ideas for a business after the dot-bomb era in the early 2000s, they decided to go the cupcake route. “People love cupcakes,” he says. But he knew cupcakes could go beyond merely delicious. “Why aren’t they made with great ingredients?” he pondered as he mapped out a business plan for a cupcake bakery. 

His motivation was simple: “Cupcakes weren’t being treated with the kind of respect we thought they should,” he says, noting that most cupcakes were baked with artificial ingredients and fillers.

The Nelsons’ innovation was Sprinkles, the first cupcake-only bakery, which they launched in Los Angeles in 2005. With hundreds of recipes designed and tested by Candace, they started delivering cupcakes to celebrity-filled parties and, before long, word got out that Sprinkles cupcakes were simply divine. 

For the grand opening of their store, they advertised their made-from-scratch cupcakes with ingredients like Madagascar Bourbon vanilla and fresh carrots shredded in-house. “We had a line of people waiting for us to open,” Charles Nelson says. 

Today there are 16 Sprinkles locations across the United States with 600 employees. As a result of a franchise partnership, there will soon be an additional 34 locations in the Middle East. The brand has grown to include ice cream, cookies, cupcakes for dogs, and — coming soon — candy bars. Charles serves as president while Candace is the chief creative officer and public face of the company. She also can be seen as a judge on Food Network’s Cupcake Wars. 

With an eye toward innovation, the Nelsons launched the world’s first cupcake truck, the Sprinklesmobile, in 2009. In 2012, they introduced the world’s first Cupcake ATM, which allows customers to buy cupcakes 24 hours a day. “I’ve always been enamored with buying things from machines. We close at 9 p.m., but a lot of people want a cupcake at midnight or 1 a.m.,” he says. 

“One night while my wife was pregnant, she wanted a cupcake. We were closed and always delivered our leftovers to homeless shelters. I realized that I own a cupcake company and even I couldn’t get a cupcake in the middle of the night.” He came up with an elegant solution: in the space next to their store in Beverly Hills, they added an automat to dispense  cupcakes (restocked 3 times a day to ensure freshness), and the concept caught on like, well, cupcakes. Soon they installed the ATMs in stores across the continent.

The UA’s impact on Nelson’s success in cupcakery is not a mere sprinkling — it’s one of the main ingredients that has helped him and his endeavor thrive. “I got a really great education there,” he says. “I learned a lot, and we were handled in such a way to push ourselves to learn things on our own. It’s done very well for me.” 

He supports his alma mater in various ways, from donating to a fellowship for the Eller College of Management to speaking in classes and mentoring teams in the McGuire Center for Entrepreneurship. “More alumni should consider giving time and money to the UA,” he says. “It’s a great reward.” Kind of like cupcakes, and just as sweet!