A corner shop with a view of the grand oak tree in Main Street is now home to L.A. Sweets, a shop with a story as sweet as its cupcakes.
Letty Alvarez was living in Virginia with her husband Eddie Dominguez and their five children when news came of her father’s cancer in the form of an inoperable brain tumor. Alvarez and her family made the move back to their roots in South Florida to look after her father until his passing.
Alvarez, left grief-stricken and jobless following the move, had decisions to make. She chose to take a risk.
“I dropped everything to look after my father, including my job, and after his passing my husband was feeling the weight of being a single income family. I knew I had to go back to work, only I thought to start over,” said Alvarez. “I pitched the idea to my husband that we should start a business and when we both tried to come up with ideas for what we could do, I thought of gourmet cupcakes.”
Having no personal training or culinary experience, Alvarez tried her hand at a cupcake business. Her only background in baking came from making her children’s birthday cakes, something that began when her family’s modest income didn’t allow for her to purchase a fondant decorated cake for her daughter’s first birthday.
After taking a hobby class in creating fondant, Alvarez found her passion, one that would years later blossom into a successful business, though she had no way to be sure of success at its inception.
“I knew it was a huge risk,” said Alvarez. “When you risk it all it’s like burning your safety net and there is nothing there to catch you if you fail. But there is a saying ‘high risk, high reward’ and so many of us aren’t willing to risk it. I told my husband that instead of going to work day after day for someone else’s dreams and maybe die before ever seeing ours that I would rather bet it all on us. So we did.”
Upon starting, the name L.A. Sweets was chosen by Dominguez for it’s trendy West Coast sound though born in the East, much like its owner with the initials “L.A.” for Letty Alvarez. The catchy name and cupcakes were just about the only easy things during the business' rough beginnings, with Alvarez taking the day shifts to work the business while her husband continued working a full-time job during the day and switched off with her in the evenings when Alvarez cared for their children.
“In the beginning it was just us because we couldn’t afford employees. It was a big sacrifice but we look back on those times now immensely proud for having the guts to try. We built it up over time,” said Alvarez.
Eventually Alvarez and Dominguez enlisted the help of their children, Christian, 23, who is a Le Cordon Bleu trained baker, Danielle, Gabrielle, and a pair of nine-year old twins, Joseph and Maria who help with the decorating.
“My oldest son is my head baker and my twins help me with decorations. They do the butterflies and flowers. Although I’d say it’s really Maria who makes them and Joseph who eats most of them, so he’s not as helpful but they’re a package deal,” said a chuckling Alvarez.
Two years into L.A. Sweets’ Sunset Place shop in Coral Gables, Alvarez and Dominguez received a call from casting directors who read their Yelp reviews and were offering the opportunity to be a part of the Food Network’s hit competition series “Cupcake Wars.”
The long-running show featured Alvarez and Dominguez battling against three other pairs of contestants for the chance to win $10,000 in the “Rock of Ages” episode in the fifth season which aired in April 2012.
For Alvarez one of the highlights of the show was judge and French pastry chef, Florian Bellanger’s comments on her guava cupcakes, calling them “the best guava cupcakes” he’s ever had. L.A. Sweets is the original home of the guava cupcake in South Florida and one of Alvarez’s best selling cupcakes.
The L.A. Sweets owners placed second in the segment, a devastating blow, though in hindsight an incredible opportunity that may not be over just yet. They are currently in talks of returning to the show for another segment to claim the prize they narrowly missed.
“We went in so determined to win,” said Alvarez. “It took us like three weeks to get our mojo back after that. At the end of the day it was still an achievement to even be selected for the show out of so many bakers and it’s encouraging to know I had that strength in me. When you go into something with the mindset that this is yours to win and you fall short – that can shatter people. We picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves off, and moved forward.”
Forward they did and right into the periphery of famed baker, owner of Carlo’s Bakery and star of TLC’s hit show Cake Boss, Buddy Valastro. Thirteen bakers from across the country and nearly 75,000 applicants are hand selected to participate in Valstro’s second show, The Next Great Baker.
After Valastro saw Alvarez in Cupcake Wars, she was chosen as one of his 13 contestants. Alvarez flew to New Jersey for her chance to win $100,000 in the show’s third season though she was eliminated in the season’s seventh round after winning two challenges. Despite her elimination, Alvarez enjoyed her time on the show.
“All I ask is don’t judge me too harshly from that first episode,” said Alvarez with a laugh. “They did quite a number portraying me and though I did snap, for a variety of reasons that viewers of the show don’t know, my true nature is shown in later episodes. Also, great friendships were formed under unconventional circumstances. People that were supposed to be enemies walked away as lifelong friends and our paths crossed for a reason.”
Alvarez became close with contestants James Brown and Melissa Payne in particular. Brown, who was diagnosed with the same ailments as Alvarez’s father prompted an immediate kindred-ship. He has since recuperated and is still in touch with Alvarez today. As for Buddy himself, Alvarez says he’s the real deal.
“Buddy is such an intense person but super passionate and motivated,” said Alvarez. “He has a strong demeanor but it’s only because he had to fight to get where he is, and I can relate to that fight. It was so great to see that he wasn’t just a facade, that he really is a great person with killer instincts, and extreme passion for his family and livelihood.”
L.A. Sweets has had a few run-ins with other big names such as Ricky Martin, for whom a coconut spiced rum cupcake is named after, a creation from Cupcake Wars. Martin has tried the cupcake and loved it. The shop was also recently contacted to create a cola inspired cupcake as part of Coca Cola’s celebration of Miami Beach’s 100th birthday.
Alvarez is currently concocting a Cherry Coke flavored cupcake. Flavors are constantly created and added to the growing list of cupcakes at L.A. Sweets, so many that Alvarez has given up on trying to list them all, over 150, on the shop’s website. About 20-30 flavors are rotated every day. She is also working on sugar-free and gluten-free cupcakes.
“I’m experimenting,” said Alvarez. “I’ll give you sugar-free but it better taste good!” Her secret? Real ingredients and unique flavors. Alvarez uses only real eggs and real butter in her baking and refuses to sell customers what she would not eat herself, even at the cost of thinner profit margins.
Currently L.A. Sweets has a variety of cupcakes ranging from mango to alcohol-infused cupcakes for events. The shop caters for weddings, corporate gatherings, parties, bridal showers and more. From humble beginnings to over six years of experience in the sweetest industry, Alvarez and her family have given rise to a successful gourmet cupcakery in three locations with plans to franchise in Orlando.
Of all the ups and downs along the way, Alvarez says her biggest hurdle was herself.
“I had to get over my own self-doubt for any of it to work. Thoughts about not being college educated held me back until I realized that many greats in history weren’t held back by their lack of formal training. So my thoughts of ‘who am I to succeed’ turned into ‘who am I not to succeed?’ I am my own worst critic, but I am also my own best advocate.”
For more information call 305-558-1800 or visit www.lasweets.net and follow the shop on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. The Miami Lakes L.A. Sweets is located at 6702 Main Street.