Elizabeth Holland tilts her head in concentration, one hand holding a perfect little cupcake, the other, a piping bag full of buttercream. Applying just the right amount of pressure, she squeezes the bag and pulls the piping tip up and away, up and away, in deftly timed precision, producing amazingly lifelike rose petals.
Within seconds, more than a dozen petals daintily curl around the central rosebud, and the icing flower is complete. Across from Holland, Robin Ross is likewise focused, piping a minutia of green leaves, yellow petals, and brown seeds until a sunny sunflower smiles up from the top of another cupcake. It’s just another day in the life of Luxe & Lilac, the mother-daughter duo who has been wowing the North Shore for nearly a year now with their floral fantasia of cup-sized cakes.
Available in vanilla, lemon, and chocolate flavors, big and small, and in myriad groupings for every imaginable occasion, the cupcakes bloom with a bouquet of buttercream floral options. There are roses and peonies, dahlias and hydrangea, daisies, sunflowers, and lilacs.
For Ross and Holland, who share both a love for baking and a love for flowers, teaming up to launch Luxe & Lilac was the natural outgrowth of the family’s entrepreneurial spirit and celebration of food as the heart of the home.
“From my earliest memories growing up in Highland Park,” says Ross, “my family was always a cooking family. Love centered around coming together for meals, large and small. There was also a passion for experimentation and learning.”
That spirit thrived as Ross raised her children including Holland, who was the eldest. “We are a very creative family and are frequently brainstorming new business ideas,” says Ross. “Most get caboshed by one or more of our family members. But this one seemed right from the beginning.”
The timing was certainly right. Ross, for 10 years a management partner at Levy Restaurants in Chicago, had just finished 28 years at Kraft Foods/Kraft Heinz (leading the Culinary Group for more than 15 years.) And Holland, who has a degree in biology and elementary education, had stepped away from work as an educator to raise two children.
“While I was beyond blessed to be home with my two little boys,” she says, “I needed to find a passion or outlet that was just for me and separate from Elizabeth ‘the mom’ and one that I could do around my kids’ schedule.”
Artisanal, small-batch cupcakes have proved to be just that. The idea was born simply enough: Holland took art classes throughout her life and was skilled artistically, often taking inspiration from nature. Asked to bring something sweet to a baby shower, she baked cupcakes and discovered that the talent she had for drawing flowers translated well in 3D buttercream.
Putting that artistic gifting together with Ross’ background in culinary-team leading and recipe development, it wasn’t a long leap conceptually to build the cupcake business. But as simple as cupcakes may seem, there has been a lot of complexity behind the scenes.
Because the cakes are produced from a home kitchen, the pair had to jump through many hoops to secure the Illinois Cottage Food License needed to sell them. Developing the perfect batters for each cupcake flavor took months. “They not only needed to taste delicious, have quality ingredients but also had to have an optimal crumb texture that could support the buttercream,” Ross explains.
Creating a buttercream that could hold the shape of the flowers, had a good mouthfeel and an excellent flavor was even more challenging. Tinting the frosting to create perfect, sophisticated hues took much experimentation. And packaging the cupcakes in a way that they could be used for both gifting and special occasions and could be safely contained through transport and plucked out of boxes without muss, was also difficult.
To get there, creating systems for efficiency and consistency has been key. “We are constantly evolving to create better processes so that we can work more quickly and increase our capacity—especially during key holiday time periods,” says Ross.
Likewise, the pair continues to grow artistically, honing piping skills, adding new flower and color palette creations, and responding to customer requests. “We listen to our customers’ input for ideas,” says Holland, “and are always scoping what could be next.”
In the short term? A wheat-free cupcake is nearly ready for launch.
Through it all, Ross and Holland say their strengths balance well. Ross develops the batter recipes, bakes the cupcakes, and handles accounting. Holland heads design, manages social media, and leads the artistic direction of the buttercream flowers. Other tasks are shared. “Elizabeth is always bursting with ideas and is ready to energetically tackle anything and everything. I have a more methodical approach,” says Ross. “But that’s the beauty of our relationship. We build on each other and respect our varying thoughts and approaches.”
As they near the finish line of their first year in business, both are optimistic about what lies ahead.
“As a family, connecting over food and creating memories has always brought us closer and given us joy. We want to help others create these types of moments with our cupcakes. It’s really important to us,” sums Holland.
“Whether it be for a happy birthday or a large holiday gathering, our hope is to help others connect over food with a sweet and happy sharing experience.”
For more information, visit luxeandlilac.com.