For 22-year-old Maddie Carlos, it all started with cupcakes.
Since high school, Carlos has charmed friends with her decorative confections — a hobby inspired in part by her own sweet tooth.
“I can’t go a day without sugar,” Carlos said.
Specialty cupcakes are now a staple in the bakery she opened in May 2015, fresh out of Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts. The Anoka High School grad runs the Coon Rapids shop, Something Sweet by Maddie Lu, with her mom and business partner, Laurie Carlos.
The cupcake pro also recently tested her skills against eight other bakers on the Food Network’s “Holiday Baking Championship.” The show features holiday-themed baking challenges, with contestants eliminated along the way and a $50,000 prize reserved for the winner.
Carlos was invited to audition through a comment on her Instagram photo of decorated Christmas sugar cookies. After several weeks of interviews, the young business owner found herself in Los Angeles, where she spent about a week and a half in April, filming for 10 to 12 hours a day.
“It was a lot more stressful than fun at the time,” Carlos said. “It’s always scary to go into a new kitchen, and most people were like a decade older than me.”
Competitors came with varied levels of experience, with Carlos squaring off against other bakery owners, a cafeteria manager and even executive pastry chefs.
In the first episode, which aired earlier this month, contestants were tasked with baking a Bundt cake wreath — a novel challenge for Carlos.
“I have never made a Bundt cake before,” she admitted during the episode. Things got dicey when the Anoka baker flipped her cake onto its stand and watched it crumble. “I wanted to cry,” she said.
Instead, Carlos reshaped the cake with her hands and chilled it — a cool save rewarded with high praise from the judges, who placed her in the top two for that round.
While the next episode’s pie challenge ended her run on the show — “pie isn’t my thing,” she wrote on her shop’s Facebook page — Carlos has still received plenty of praise from fans at home, including her kindergarten teacher, Maureen Ledin.
“She looked so confident even though she’s so young,” said Ledin, who can still recall Carlos’ vibrant creativity as a kindergartner at Crooked Lake Elementary School. “There’s a sense of pride and a great following for her from this area.”
That following, built originally through word-of-mouth and social media, helped give Carlos confidence to open her own bakery, said her mom. While still in culinary school, the aspiring chef made sweets out of her home.
“She was turning customers away at the end,” Laurie Carlos said.
Now, the well-lighted shop in Coon Rapids gets roughly 150 customers a day, with 40 to 50 custom orders a week, Carlos said. Clusters of cake pops, rows of specialty cupcakes and a rainbow array of French macarons adorn the counters and shelves.
Carlos arrives at her sugary kingdom around six each morning to prepare that day’s delectables.
Inspiration for her creations comes from everywhere, with images, flavors and colors swirling around in her head and even filling her dreams, she said. The bakery, she added, is always on her mind.
“I don’t ever dread coming in here,” Carlos said. “It’s one of my favorite places to be.”