“Hardcore Sweet Bakery” is typed out on a piece of white computer paper next to the elevator in the Siemon Business Park, an industrial building located at 27 Seimon Company Dr. in Watertown, Connecticut. “2nd floor take a left off the elevator and head straight down the hallway through the threshold. Sweet is on your right. Enjoy!!” Upon taking the left off the elevator, I walk through a maze of rented office spaces until I reach the bakery. There is a balloon arch made up of black and white stripes, lime green, gray marbled, and dark purple balloons on the wall to the right of the entrance accompanied by a cardboard cutout of Beetlejuice, the main antagonist in the 1988 movie Beetlejuice, directed by Tim Burton. A life-size cardboard cutout of Jack, Sally, and Zero from The Nightmare Before Christmas is to the left of the entryway and a pride flag is draped over the open door. Inside, “HARDCORE SWEET BAKERY” is painted in white on the black wall to the left along with an enlarged picture of a cupcake, a Cupcake Wars logo, and the Food Network logo.
Nicole Braddock co-owns Hardcore Sweet Bakery with her husband Jeremy. They won the Food Network’s Cupcake Wars in 2013. Braddock, dressed in all black with her hair tied up in a messy bun, walks around the front counter with a smile on her face as she looks around. “I think bakery items weren’t something that was essential,” Braddock says. “We always joke that Tiger King paid our rent for the first two months of COVID because we did Tiger King cupcakes and everything.” The popular true crime documentary starring Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin launched on Netflix in 2020 and gained close to 35 million viewers.
On March 23, 2020, Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont issued an order for nonessential businesses to close. BakeryInfo reported that “with shops and high streets basically closed overnight, bakeries had to switch up their business models fast.” Hardcore closed their storefront to the public and revamped their website to allow customers to place orders online using DoorDash for curbside pickup and delivery. Hashtags like “#shopsmall” and “#ctsmallbusiness” were tagged under most of their Instagram posts.
“The first week,” Braddock says, “we kind of panicked. I mean, every call was someone canceling an order. So, we went to the bare minimum. We had a skeleton crew and we just did take-out for a very long time.” At the time, COVID-19 restrictions were updated quickly with the CDC telling the public to wear masks, stay six feet away from others, and avoid crowds and poorly ventilated spaces. Braddock stands looking around, her hands resting in the pocket of her hoodie. “[S]o, we did everything that the CDC required for our staff. If they were sick, they would get sent home and tested. Now, everyone here is vaccinated.”
Hardcore did as much as they could to keep their customers coming. “We tried to make it still fun for people while also keeping it safe. We would have take-home cookie dough kits, art kits, and cupcakes for frontline workers. We just tried to get creative,” Braddock says as she glances back to the kitchen where her employees are making cakes. An article by Dawn Foods titled “10 Tips for Pausing Your Bakery When COVID Causes You to Close Doors” says, “Kits can also come in a variety of sizes … giving you another way to mix things up for customers and keep them coming back.”
Inside the glass display counter are the Tim Burton-inspired cupcakes. Mars Attacks! Brain Cakes, vegan Goth Girl Tears Cake, vegan Spiked Lemonade, and round cakes with frosting, sprinkles, and fondant decorations are placed perfectly in the case. “It’s not like bread or food. It’s kind of a luxury thing. You don’t really need it to survive, but we made it to be something to kind of connect people with,” Braddock says. They had days dedicated to baking special treats to thank healthcare workers, first responders, and teachers who transitioned to online learning. This would be a trial-and-error process to find something that would work.
Today, business has not fully returned to pre-COVID-19 levels at Hardcore. “We weren’t getting the same number of orders, but we were doing small personal cakes,” Braddock says. “We did a lot of drive-by birthday parties in our cupcake truck. Everything was downsized so we still made cakes, just very last minute. It was ‘I need a cake for today,’ so we would have cakes on hand and ready to go.”
A middle-aged woman stands with her daughter in front of the display case. She orders Dumbo’s Donuts, vegan Rabbit Watch Cupcakes, and Sally’s Cookies, and the cashier places them carefully in the box. Braddock says, “When COVID started, it was like, ‘Oh my god, who’s going to stay, who’s not going to stay.’” She says that the workers that stayed are the people that are core to their business. Braddock acknowledges how dedicated and close they are, not only to the business but to each other.
I surveyed the new treats being brought out and customers coming in and out of the bakery holding white cardboard boxes. The workers trying to maneuver their way around each other bring a multitude of different trays with desserts and set them behind the counter. I ordered a Pumpkin King Whoopie Pie, a Queen of Heart Sammy, and a Red Velvet Beetlejuice cake pop which were all to die for. On my way out, I passed customers taking pictures in front of the whimsical balloon arch.
“Would you like some Beetlejuice?” asks the two teenagers giving out samples at the front door. Plastic cups of bright green soda with a gummy finger plopped in each lay on the silver tray. I take a sip. Simply terrific.
Farzana Lachhman is a Staff Writer for the Blue Muse Magazine
Header Photo Credit: Farzana Lachhman