Talking muffins with Chef Ivy Wolf
1. Tell us about The Ugly Cupcake Muffinry
We are a breakfast and lunch cafe serving sweet and savory Texas-sized muffins, breakfast specials, full salads, soups, and creative muffin-centric meals.
2. What’s an example of a creative, muffin-centric meal?
Today, for example, we’re serving a Spinach and Feta Benedict, which is made on a special muffin base. We also have a Taco Pot Pie that’s made with muffin products. The only bread we have on premise is muffin based. We do stuffed muffins, smothered muffins, and, of course, fresh baked muffins.
3. How did you come up with the idea to have a menu built around muffins?
About 5 years ago when the cupcake craze was in full effect, my children were 9 and 11 years old, so we ended up going to every cupcake place that opened. My daughter would continuously say “your muffins are so much better.” I would laugh because I never thought of myself baking muffins - I’m a chef - I don’t do a lot of pastry work. One day, after yet another disappointing cupcake, my daughter said: “everyone knows, a muffin is just an ugly cupcake, and yours taste so much better.” We laughed, and I thought to myself, that’s a really cute name for a business.
My kids agreed about the business, and being tweens, they both wanted a way to earn some money, so I worked on my muffin recipe until I got it just right. My kids played around with different flavors and we began selling our muffins at the Jarboe Farmer’s Market on Saturday afternoons. We set up at the Market every other week and we were regularly selling out 200 muffins.
4. How did you go from the Farmer’s Market to your own restaurant?
We were at the Market for about 3 1/2 years. By then my kids were getting older and our business had plateaued, but wasn’t growing. I knew our concept could be much bigger and I began getting the restaurant bug. My children are both in high school and it’s important to me to spend time with them when they’re home - I didn't want to be married to a restaurant the way you need to with a dinner and full service.
In addition to selling muffins at the Market I also owned a growing catering company that needed a home base in the Jacksonville Beach area. Through the grace of some very good friends I found the property where we’re currently located. Everything came together and here we are!
5. Did you ever consider adding cupcakes to your business?
I did, but I really try to stay away from overly sweet and overly processed food. The only wheat flour we use is a European-milled, no-bleach, no-bromide flour. Cupcakes can look pretty but there’s often not a lot of substance. Additionally, so many bakeries are focusing on cupcakes and very few, if any, focus on muffins. I have very high standards for myself and I wanted to put out a product that people would feel good about buying. I wanted people to feel like they could indulge without having to hurt themselves to do so.
6. How would you describe your muffins?
They’re big, Texas sized! They come in sweet and savory varieties, running the gamut from a simple blueberry muffin to a chicken pot pie muffin that’s made with chicken pot pie swirled and mixed inside the muffin. We also have what we call Muffinwiches, which are like sandwiches but made from muffins. So, for example, we have a Muffinletta, that’s made with all the traditional muffuletta ingredients on the inside. We also have a Muffinletta Muffinwich which is made in a traditional sandwich style.
7. How many different flavors do you make?
We have over 150 different flavors. We usually make 4-5 different flavors each day, and 9-10 on the weekends. If something's fresh, seasonal, and sounds really good to us that morning, that’s what we bake. We always want at least one option that’s very familiar, and that’s typically a fruit choice. I also try to always have one muffin that includes chocolate. For our savory muffin of the day we see what looks good, what else we’ve been making, and make something up from there.
8. How did you come up with the idea to have all these wild muffin flavors?
I think it’s just me! As a chef I’m very, very conscientious about waste with my other endeavors. When I started, muffins were a really good way to utilize what otherwise would have been wasted. Even today, we’ll do a big berry compote when the berries are fresh and bursting with flavor but when they don’t look good on a plate - instead of wasting them we’ll turn them into something delicious, without compromising quality.
9. What are some of your wilder flavors?
We have a Reuben that we do two different ways. Both use our own in-house corned beef. As a Muffinwich we use two pieces of muffin as the bread and then it’s like a classic Reuben sandwich. As an actual muffin, we dice our corned beef, swirl in a little Thousand Islands dressing, add some caraway seed for rye flavor, and put the filling into the muffin with a little sauerkraut. The sauerkraut bakes up beautifully. There’s a little Reuben in every bite!
10. Can people order any flavor of your muffins?
Yes. We make certain types of muffins each day but you can pre-order anything we can do. As long as the ingredients are available and you give us at least 24 hours notice, we’ll make it for you. For special orders we do request a minimum order of 6 muffins of one flavor.
11. For your Muffinwiches, do you have a standard flavor for your muffin?
No. The bread part of the Muffinwich is something like a muffin top. We make them in batches and have flavors that either match or complement the type of Muffinwich we’re featuring. For example, if we’re making grilled cheese Muffinwiches then we’ll make a 3 or 4-cheese muffin top to go with them.
Our Peanut Butter and Jelly Muffinwiches are crazy good, and they’re usually on a honey top.
We almost always have a cheese and a honey flavored top for our Muffinwiches; otherwise it depends on what the special is.
12. Do people prefer sweet or savory muffins the most?
I think they come in thinking they’ll get sweet and they’re really surprised how much they like the savory.
13. What’s your most popular muffin?
On the sweet side it’s the Blueberry, hands down. On the savory side it’s the Spinach and Feta or our Piggy, which is made with our own house roasted pork, bacon, ham, Canadian bacon and cheese.
14. Were there any surprises in terms of what became popular?
Yes, the Bruffin! We had people coming in who wanted more breakfast options, though we have always had a standard 2 egg breakfast plate We had people asking us if we had something as a sandwich, as opposed to a platter. I thought, yeah, we can do a breakfast sandwich muffin, and me being me, it came out as a Bruffin…because it’s fun to make people say funny things when they order. They’re simple for us in the kitchen and they’re very popular. We have people who come in 4 times a week to grab a Bruffin. We have begun making different types of Bruffins as well, from smoked salmon to pulled pork.
15. Are there trends in muffins?
Muffins are really under the radar in terms of trendiness. Cupcakes have been really popular and toast is very big now, but I don’t see anything in the muffin world. I don’t know anyone offering the huge numbers of flavors or types of muffin-based creations we’re doing. Maybe we’ll create a trend!
16. Besides muffins, what other food do you offer?
We have our Muffinwiches, which are traditional sandwiches. Although we introduce different Muffinwiches regularly we always offer a grilled 5-Cheese Muffinwich and a Peanut Butter and Jelly version. We also have Gyros and Philly Cheesesteak Muffinwiches most days.
Besides our Muffinwiches we always offer at least one salad, including a seasonal dark green salad. We also have a soup, which changes around. We always have the Deluxe Breakfast, the Bruffin, and then we have a lot of specials that change regularly.
17. Can you tell us about your espresso bar? Was your original idea to combine muffins and coffee?
I always wanted great brewed coffee and iced tea, but originally I was not planning to have an espresso bar. The more I thought about it the more I realized that an espresso bar just goes so well with the rest of the cafe theme. We work with Sweetwater Organic Coffee Roasters in Gainesville. They are all fair trade, organic roasters. I’m a master barista and am very particular about my coffee. Sourcing local and organic goods whenever possible is important to me, and I also wanted something different from what other cafes were offering. I absolutely love the products from Sweetwater and we have a great relationship with them.
In addition to our espresso bar we also offer a range of delicious teas that are served loose leaf style in a French press. We also offer bagged teas and brew our own iced teas.
18. What’s nitro coffee?
Nitro coffee is a cold brew coffee concentrate. It's very lightly diluted - not as much as a regular cold brew. It’s put into a keg and compressed with nitrogen. We have a nitrogen generator on site. It’s poured through a stout tap, which gives it a consistency like a Guiness, although it’s not alcoholic. The pressure from the nitrogen affects the coffee and makes it a little sweeter and creamier. It’s pretty high test but it’s very smooth. A lot of people who are used to putting cream in their coffee or their iced coffee will drink nitro coffee black. Nitro coffee is popular in Los Angeles and some of the bigger cities, and we’re excited to serve it here in Jacksonville Beach.
19. Do you have take-out?
Yes. We also do something a little different - we offer breakfast and lunch all day. With that, we get a lot of people who drop by in the morning for a coffee and muffin but also pick up lunch to go. People can just come in or they can call ahead and we’ll have their order ready for them.
20. Any thought about doing dinner service?
We’re thinking about it. The catering company will be doing some chef’s table dinners where we’ll have ticketed dinners with set menus and live music. We’re hoping to be able to start those this Spring.
21. Are you doing the cooking?
Yes I do. On busy weekends, and when his schedule permits, my son helps me in the kitchen.
22. Where did you learn to cook?
I grew up cooking from the time I was very young. We had a big Jewish household where cooking was very important. I was also privileged when I was young because my family was good friends with some great chefs in the New York, Baltimore and DC area. I had the opportunity to apprentice with these amazing chefs and that allowed me to learn a great deal. I did take some classes here and there but I never went to culinary school to get a degree. When I was growing up, being a chef was not on my radar, though cooking has always been a passion. I have been catering, sometimes part time, since I was a teenager. I just loved food. So, when I stopped my last career I decided I was going to do what I loved.
23. What do you love about being a chef?
Part of it’s a cultural thing; I feel that feeding people is love. It’s so important to feed people nourishing, delicious food - it’s a really good way to share something positive with them. The food you eat every day has such a huge impact on your life - whether it’s impacting your health or creating a memory, or whatever it is - it’s a very interesting psychological perspective. I’m a very busy minded person and cooking is almost meditative for me, while still allowing me to be creative.
24. Has your approach to cooking changed over time?
It has! About 5 or 6 years ago I realized that I couldn’t eat fast food anymore. It’s not that I didn’t want to - I’m an “everything in moderation” type of person. I started doing a lot of research and saw that the food we are eating has been changing dramatically and isn’t the same as what we were getting 20 or 30 years ago. People are getting sick all the time and I thought that was a real shame. If I can provide them with a good product, then that’s what I’m going to do. If I can’t provide the quality I want, I’m just not going to do it.
25. Can you tell us about your cooking classes?
I’m teaching classes a few times per month. There’s typically a standard cooking class that's geared to beginners and intermediate cooks and there’s a date night cooking class. Neither class will send you home with a recipe - I’m a very big advocate of non-recipe based cooking. I teach people about how food works and flavors combine so they can go home and be practical about what they’re making. Pulling out a recipe is not practical. People often get intimidated by recipes or worried because they don’t have one ingredient or another.
26. Who’s the audience for your classes?
For the standard class we get everyone from the complete beginner who’s intimidated by their stove but is determined to learn the absolute basics, to the cook who’s looking for more consistent techniques and wants to be able to cook a perfect chicken breast every time, or work with the beautiful seafood we have around here. Classes are small - no more than 10 in a class - so I’m able to work individually with people to get concepts across. The class is hands on and is very relaxed with a lot of fun and laughing.
The date night class is a little different. It’s more of a guided cooking of a meal. I’ll demonstrate something and the couples will go for it. It’s very entertaining. Those classes are always over-booked.
We have flyers at the front to advertise the classes and we post information on our website and on Facebook.
27. Can you tell us about your catering company? Is it part of the Ugly Cupcake?
The catering is a separate company, but we use our space here to prepare the food. The restaurant itself is available for private parties and events, and we also work at external locations. Most of our work is in private homes where we focus on private dinner parties. A lot of my catering business is in south Florida and New York, with the local Jacksonville area business growing very nicely, especially now that we’ve had a chance to move into a permanent space.
In addition to our dinner party catering we also offer deli platters, boxed lunches, and office-based catering for lunches and meetings. We have quick serve menus online for that.
28. How did you choose your location?
I knew that I didn’t want to be located in a strip mall. I wanted something local and truly special. The Beaches area here in Jacksonville is really unique because of it’s truly local feel. Our landlords are wonderful people and really great to us. This is everything I wanted - it’s very unique, it’s charming, and while it’s not right on the beach we still have a great ocean view with beautiful breezes and a park right across the street. UNF is also going to put a sculpture garden in the lot next door to us. We fell into the space and are very, very happy we found it. We feel truly blessed to be here.
29. You’re paying a lot of attention to minimizing waste - can you tell us about that?
It's a big thing to us - we try to have as little environmental impact as we can. All our disposables are compostable and bio-degradable. We are striving to be a zero waste restaurant, which is why the menu changes all the time. Restaurants can easily go upwards of 60% waste and we try to stay under 5%; right now we’re about 3%.
30. Anything else?
We want to be the place where an entire family is able to come in and eat. We’ll have something for carnivores, and something for vegans, and everyone will be equally happy. We don’t serve gluten-free or vegan food because it’s a market, we serve it because it’s good food.