Anne Byrn, better known as the Cake Mix Doctor, once said, “When you look at a cupcake, you’ve got to smile.” If that’s the case, then Michael Lewis and Johnny Columbo, owners of Philly Cupcake, 1132 Chestnut St., must have constant ear-to-ear grins. I took a moment to stop in and chat with the two proprietors and sample their red-velvet cupcake. For professional purposes only ...
Michael Lewis PGN: I understand you’re not a native Northerner? Tell me about your upbringing. ML: I’m originally from the South and was raised in different areas, from Louisiana to Texas to Oklahoma. I was an only child with a single parent until my mother remarried when I was 11. It was a normal childhood; fortunately I got along really well with my stepbrother and -sister.
PGN: Was it culture shock to suddenly have siblings at age 11? ML: Yes, I wasn’t used to sharing my mother with other people, so it was an adjustment, but I think we weathered it pretty well. They were much younger than me so I became an instant big brother. I had to change their diapers and help raise them, I taught them colors and how to tie shoes, all that sort of thing, and I enjoyed doing it.
PGN: How did you end up in Philadelphia? ML: My parents moved up here when I was in high school. It was a bit of a shock. There’s a bias here against the South. People assume that we’re stupid and slow, so I got teased a lot for my Texas twang. I quickly learned to control the way I spoke so it wasn’t so obvious. High school back home was tough enough while I was struggling with my homosexuality, which I hadn’t even acknowledged yet, but then to be transplanted to a new, somewhat-hostile environment was rough. But I got very involved with the church where I made a number of friends in the youth groups and that helped.
PGN: What was a favorite thing to do as a kid? ML: I was a geek in training so I enjoyed playing with “Star Wars” figures and going to the movies. I still love sci-fi and fantasy movies and I get together with friends and play games like Carcassonne and The Settlers of Catan. Also, when we were younger, we liked to do a lot of things in the kitchen as a family. It was how we bonded, which was important, especially for a blended family. My father was definitely the more-accomplished one in the kitchen. My mom didn’t get good at it until she took a trip to Provence, France, and took some cooking classes. She was good at traditional Southern cooking, though.
PGN: What’s a favorite Southern dish? ML: I’d have to say stuffed artichokes. It’s something that’s particular to Louisiana. We have a family recipe that’s been passed down to me.
PGN: That sounds delicious. Will you share? ML: [Smiles.] No.
PGN: What was your worst job? ML: I worked at a restaurant called “The Coop” and I had to dress up as a chicken and try to lure people into the store.
PGN: Any pet peeves? ML: I hate it when people come into a positive environment and bring a negative cloud. We’ve gone out of our way to create a light, positive environment here where people can have fun and be happy while they enjoy their cupcakes. Every once in a while someone comes in who just doesn’t get it. They come in here cloaked in a dark cloud and as much as we try to be polite and cheerful and engage them, they just insist on being a downer.
PGN: Whose idea was it for the place? ML: It was both of ours. We both come from families that bake. We were both going through midlife issues and wanted a new challenge, something to put our energies into. We both love cupcakes, so it came together easily. And being gay men, we felt cupcakes were fun and festive and would allow us to be as pink and over-the-top as we wanted. We’ve been in business since December of 2009.
PGN: What’s your most popular cupcake? ML: Red velvet is in vogue these days, so we sell a lot of those. Our Reese’s Peanut Butter Massacre is one of our more popular cupcakes.
PGN: What’s your most unusual item here? ML: Chocolate-covered gummi things.
PGN: What was the hardest part of starting the store? ML: Finding people who were willing to take a risk on a new business in this economy. Finding a location that we felt would work. And so far we’ve been successful. We’ve created 14 new jobs for people with our staff and are working to revitalize this area of the city.
PGN: That’s a lot of people working in a small business. ML: Yeah, we have people here 24/7 selling, baking or decorating, there’s always something to do. We really have tried to create a healthy and growing environment for our employees where they can feel free to express themselves creatively, but also to be able to express what’s challenging for them so that we can get them the support or training that they need to feel good about what they’re doing.
PGN: Are you going to open a second location? ML: I’m not at liberty to say at this time!
PGN: What do you think makes you good at this business? ML: I really enjoy people. I enjoy customer service and I’m good at listening. I’m also a very detail-oriented person, whereas Johnny is more of a visionary and good at seeing the larger picture. Not that he can’t handle details or that I can’t do planning or see outside the box, but we know where our strengths are and really complement each other.
PGN: What was coming out like? ML: It happened when I was getting my master’s degree. It was difficult because I was still very much involved in my faith. At the time, I was thinking about working in the church environment, but my coming out was not something that was well received by my Christian friends or the church structure that I was living under. I lost a lot of friends because they began to judge me just for accepting that part of myself. It was a little rocky because everything that I’d based my life on was falling apart, but at the same time new things were coming into my life and there were some older, supportive lesbian and gay people who stuck with me and helped me find a new church. I began going to an MCC church and my family supported me the whole way. I thought my dad might have a problem with it but it didn’t faze him at all: It was my mom who had to go through the process of letting go of the preconceived idea of what my life was going to be. But from the beginning, they were accepting. We went on a family trip to Bermuda and they paid for me and my first boyfriend to share a room together. And my dad made sure that, just because it was something that he didn’t understand, that it didn’t come between us. He worked hard to educate himself so that we could be closer. I’ve been very fortunate.
PGN: What’s rewarding about selling cupcakes? ML: My life is about making people happy. People walk in here and want a pick-me-up and we provide it. Not just from the cupcakes themselves, but with our friendly staff and the way we engage people.
PGN: Any pets? ML: I have two French bulldogs named Chante and Simone. They were the inspiration behind our cupcakes for dogs.
Johnny Columbo PGN: Tell me about yourself. JC: I was born in 1969 at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Pottstown and grew up near Hershey in a small town called Hummelstown. I went to school at University of Penn for undergraduate and graduate school, and then lived in Harrisburg before I moved full-time into Philadelphia. I’m the type of person who likes to do things. I’ve had five successful businesses: two daycare centers — one called The Wonder Years and the other called Kids, Toys and Applesauce — and a coffee house called Columbo’s Coffee, all in Harrisburg. And when I moved to Philadelphia, I opened Forbidden Planet in 1999 and it’s still going strong.
PGN: What is Forbidden Planet? JC: It’s a women’s high-end vintage clothing boutique. We actually started out doing fetish. We had an adult-toys section, we did some sex therapy and then, along the way, we got into vintage and then decided to go with that and forego the other stuff.
PGN: So which is better for you: sex therapy or cupcake therapy? JC: Cupcake! This is great. It’s taking my passion for gourmet baking and turning it into something the whole community can get pleasure from. And I was able to do it the way I wanted to do it, which was to be able to put art into cupcakes. Mikey and I had so much fun putting this together. We shopped and baked and I really got to know him well. It was the first time ever I had such pure fun. I’ve never had that with someone before. I really experienced love in all sorts of ways for the first time with this endeavor. I love the creative aspect of it. We’ve created every girl’s — and some boys’ — fantasy with our pink haven.
PGN: Tell me about the Columbo family. JC: I have two older sisters and now a niece and a nephew. My mother is still living but my father passed away seven years ago April 5. My mother was in insurance and my father worked at the Camp Hill correctional facility.
PGN: So was Dad a tough guy? JC: He actually wasn’t. We considered my dad St. Nick. He was the nicest, most genuine person you would ever want to meet. He never talked badly about anyone, he never yelled at us, he was always very encouraging and had a great work ethic. He was hands-on, but hands-off. Now, my mom was extremely strict, she was the disciplinarian and the heavy hand, so they probably balanced each other out. You always knew where you stood with him but with my mother ... I used to tell her she was borderline.
PGN: What do you think you got from them? JC: I think growing up with a loving family allowed me to love others and myself. I learned honesty and a good work ethic from them, and that’s allowed me to be successful and to have good people in my life.
PGN: What’s the brattiest thing you did as a little brother? JC: Oh, everything! I would annoy them when they were on the phone or had friends over. They would call me Satan and Damien from “The Omen” and check to see if I had three 6s on my head.
PGN: I did that with my big brother. And he was born on Friday the 13th! JC: Yeah, it’s funny, I was a little devil, but I think we just responded to our environment differently at the time. They acted like girls and I was a typical little boy and we clashed. [Laughs.] Now my mom says she has three girls!
PGN: What were early signs that you were gay? JC: I think I always felt different from the people around me, male or female, and I didn’t know why. Everyone sounded different than me; they did things differently than I did. There was a point where I realized that I was attracted to a neighborhood boy and I didn’t know who to talk to. I didn’t even know what I would say. Hummelstown was backwoods Amish country and there was absolutely no one to reach out to. It wasn’t until after college that I met some gay people and thought, “That’s interesting, these people feel the same way I do.” I was finally able to communicate what I was feeling and that’s when I came out. I went to my first gay bar, called Stallions, in Harrisburg, and met the disaster of all disasters who was to become my first love. [Laughs.] It was terrible!
PGN: How did you get into fashion? JC: My attraction was always to older things and that included people, starting with that first boyfriend! I always want to be around an older person who can tell me a story. I always say, “Travel me into your life.” When it comes to things like fashion, I want that item or outfit that is aged, or there’s only one of. I like working with women and helping them find a connection with their bodies. Many women are beautiful but have a distorted image of themselves and what makes them sexy. I’m good at figuring that out and showing them what works, so over the years I’ve developed a huge following from the gal just wanting to impress her boyfriend to the client who wants to look good on the red carpet.
PGN: What’s in store for Easter? JC: We have chocolate-covered peeps and our baker is creating cupcakes with a chocolate nest on top filled with jellybeans!
PGN: What kind of cupcake would you be and why? JC: I’d be a vanilla-vanilla cupcake. It’s deceptively simple, which makes it open to interpretation and people love it. And I like the idea of so many people enjoying me!