Vista cupcake shop named California’s best

Don Hein, owner of Little Cakes Cupcake Kitchen, moves a fresh tray of Chocolate Dip Banana flavor cupcakes. (Charlie Neuman)
(Charlie Neuman / San Diego Union-Tribune/Zuma Pre)

If you’re wondering where to find the best cupcakes in California, look no further than Vista.

On Feb. 27, the foodie website named Little Cakes Cupcake Kitchen in Vista Village the state’s top pick for cupcakes. Shop owner Don Hein said he wasn’t aware of making the list until he got an email about it, and then a rush of curious cupcake-buyers followed.

It’s been a busy year for the shop, which Hein started with his wife, Becky, 6-½ years ago.

In January, Little Cakes began selling four-packs of cupcakes at nearby Frazier Farms supermarket, where Hein said sales are “going like gangbusters.”

The shop has also joined Uber Eats for deliveries with a five-mile radius. And in February, the shop signed on as a local fruit bouquet supplier for online retailer 1-800-flowers. Hein said he usually makes and delivers about two fruit bouquets a day, but demand grew by 10 times on Valentine’s Day, which Hein said required staying up all night to cut fruit and arrange the displays.

Little Cakes Cupcake Kitchen

Hours: Opens at 11 a.m. daily. Closing hours vary.

Where: Vista Village, Suite #180, 30 Main St., Vista

Phone: (760) 842-5138

Meanwhile, he recently introduced a redesigned business logo with a more vintage look. It’s showcased in a hand-painted gold-leaf sign on the shop’s glass storefront.

Little Cakes opened in 2010 just as the cupcake craze was on the rise. During the cupcake heydey, hundreds of shops opened nationwide and TV producers took notice.

Food Network’s “Cupcake Wars” sought out the most creative bakers for a fast-paced competition. Little Cakes first competed on the show in April 2012 with Hein and then-head baker Amanda Suvia winning the top prize. Food Network invited Little Cakes back for a second round in 2013, and Hein returned with the shop’s new head baker, Jessica Sanchez (Suvia had moved away), and the shop won again. The notoriety led to Little Cakes being featured in national TV commercial for U.S. Bank.

Hein, a Vista resident, said that his shop has had its ups and downs, but it has weathered the downturn by offering a consistent product, a stable team of employees, good social marketing, diversification and networking with other Vista businesses (he’s used Mother Earth beer in his cupcakes and buys his fruit from Frazier Farms).

“I felt that if you were doing a high-quality product and not just cashing in on a fad, it would eventually pay off,” Hein said. “We always saw cupcakes as individual cakes, and cake has been around in American culture forever. It isn’t going anywhere. Making everything in-house from scratch costs more and it’s labor-intensive, but that’s what you have to do for the best product.”

When the store first opened, Hein was using borrowed recipes from his brother Mike’s shop, Yellow Leaf Cupcake Company, in Seattle. But over time, Little Cakes developed its own style and flavors (there are more than 100 varieties, with a dozen or so featured daily). One popular flavor that caters to Vista’s large Latino population is the new Tamale de Elote variety, a traditional Mexican sweet corn cake with vanilla buttercream frosting.

On a typical weekend, Little Cakes will sell 400 to 500 cupcakes a day. Top-sellers include the almond Champagne, the tuxedo (cookies and cream) and the colorful lemon lavender berry. On Friday, the shop will celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with a savory “corned beef and cabbage” cupcake (potato cake with caramelized cabbage, vanilla buttercream frosting, corned beef and maple syrup). Hein said the shop has become known for its creative holiday items, like its “edible Christmas trees,” which were made with sugar cones and shredded wheat.

Hein now serves as president of the Vista Village Business Association, which produced its largest and most successful WinterFest community celebration in the center this past December. His shop employs nine workers and six of them work full-time and receive health insurance. He said the benefits have helped him maintain a stable workforce who know their customers, which is a big plus in a retail operation.

What’s next for Little Cakes? Possibly a second location. Hein said he was very close to opening another shop two years ago but his investor became ill and has only recently recovered. They’re looking at possible locations either in North County or San Diego. Like the original store, the second location will have the same focus on community collaboration.

“We’re very much about supporting the community and other businesses. That’s how you become a good community partner,” he said.