High River sisters tunr family recipes in a widespread Crave – a cookie and a cupcake chain, featuring old family recipes made from pure ingredients and a heaping helping of farm girl fortitude.
By Pat Fream
Photos by Neville Palmer
Driving tractor, mucking out stalls and showing quarter horses – hardly the most common prerequisites for building a commercial cupcake empire. But Crave co-founders and sisters, Jodi Willoughby and Carolyne McIntyre Jackson, credit their rural roots with giving them the grit to veer away from conventional career options and take a chance on a sweet business idea.
“We grew up on a third generation farm just outside of High River,” says Jodi, the oldest of three girls in the McIntyre family. “Our father was a farmer/rancher with an entrepreneurial spirit; he grew and diversified when he saw opportunities and had the ability.”
Like most farm kids, the McIntyre sisters learned at a young age that the good things in life come from hard work, perseverance, and more hard work.”We never took anything for granted, we had to work for everything,” said Jodi, adding, “sometimes we went to school with two pairs of shoes, sometimes we only had one.”
But no matter the shoe status, Jodi and her sisters Carolyne and Antionette could be counted on to pitch in and help keep the family’s two-section farm just west of High River in good stead. “Dad didn’t have a lot of hired hands so we worked with him on the farm a lot,” she said. “In the summers, Antionette and I would tend cattle and show horses and Carolyn would either drive tractor or help mom with the cooking and baking.”
(Uh-Huh! Baking! The elusive kitchen duty that, under just the right circumstance, can turn farm girls into cupcake moguls!)
“Carolyne loved to be in the kitchen with mom,” said Jodi. “She envisioned herself as a modern day Kraft Kitchen Lady.” But baking sweet treats for a living was not the first pick for the two older McIntyre sisters, and the youngest of the trio had her sights set on a whole different career path. Then fate dealt the family a harsh blow.
“I had completed my second year at U of C and was taking a break, when our dad died suddenly of a brain aneurism,” said Jodi. “Losing him was devastating, it was extremely difficult for all of us, and not to mention our whole livelihood was at stake.” But tenacious genes run rampant in this family, and the girls and their mother pooled their strength, gratefully accepted help from neighbours and friends, and summoned the courage to carry on.
“Friends and neighbours helped mom keep the farm going for quite a few more years. It was difficult, but she wanted to stay there until we had all moved into places of our own, then she sold the homestead and moved to High River and went back to teaching,” said Jodi. Today Helen McIntyre is a retired active member in the community, and she still owns some of the family’s original land, which she farms with friends and neighbours.
All three girls graduated from Senator Riley and went on to university. Jodi continued on, earning a bachelor’s degree in community rehabilitation. Carolyne earned a Bachelor of Science degree in food business management. Antoinette got a degree in kinesiology and then went on to become a Calgary City Police Officer. All three girls were launched and employed, when the Kraft Kitchen Lady re-emerged.
“One day Carolyne came to me and said she was frustrated with having no creative latitude in her job. She asked me to join her in a cookie business,” said Jodi. “So I said ‘ya sure’, why not?” The girls (minus Antoinette who was content in her job) summoned their best cookie recipes, packaged them beautifully, and tried to sell them to a Calgary farmers’ market. They were turned down twice.
But the pair, still holding ‘real’ jobs persevered. “We really believed in the idea of a single serve dessert business, so we said, ‘Hey! We know how to do cupcakes!’” And so they did. Armed with their great grandmother’s chocolate cake recipe and their mother’s vanilla cake recipe, and steeped in their father’s staunch work ethic and keen market sense, they were off and running.
“We found a retail space in Kensington and Carolyn said, ‘Let’s go for it!’” said Jodi. “Carolyne quit her job first; I quit mine seven months later.” The pair did all the renovations themselves, and in September of 2004, Crave Cookies and Cupcakes made its debut in the Calgary market.
For several months, the pair ran the business entirely on their own. “Friends and family would come in and help, but basically it was just the two of us. We’d do the baking, open the store, sell the product, close the store,” said Jodi proudly. “We worked from four in the morning till close, seven days a week. We even had a shower in the back, we were there so much!”
But like the saying goes, you reap what you sow, or in this case, you reap what you bake. Crave became a raving success, with people lining up down the street to get their share of the decadent treats!
Today Crave has five stores in Calgary, one in Edmonton, and a new one that opened last fall in Saskatoon. Jodi and Carolyn work side by side in a suite of offices in Calgary’s Beltline. They recently added a kitchen to their head office so they can create, bake and test their own masterpieces onsite. “We source the best ingredients and all are pure and real,” said Jodi. “We use real butter; real whipping cream; we crack every egg one at a time.”
According to Willoughby, she and her sister have no regrets about the hours they have poured into the business. “It makes us truly appreciate every one of our (98) employees. All the positions, all the hard word, we know the demands, we’ve been there, and now we’re one big family.”
Echoes of farm life and the triumph over loss reverberate in all aspects of this family-run business. “Our humble roots have served us well,” said Jodi. “We never take our success for granted, we live for today and appreciate the time we have together, and we are deeply grateful to all the people who have helped us get here.”