Individually, the ingredients didn’t look that appetizing: one out-of-work football coach, two frazzled mommas, and a handful of family cake recipes. But when mixed together in Las Vegas, back in 2001, they created a pretty sweet confection that is still rising today.
Clemson University Head Football Coach Dabo Swinney first met Dena Tripp and Debbie Shwetz, when he was 31 years old.
“They had a great passion about what they were doing,” says the coach, who turns 50 this month. “They let me try their product and it was awesome! I just believed in them.”
Deep into the fourth quarter, it’s easy to see the victory at hand as Clemson aims for yet another national title, and Nothing Bundt Cakes opens 45-50 shops annually. But highlights reveal perseverance and instincts early in the game that have brought multi-million-dollar success to each team.
Coach turned leasing agent
While Swinney sports Tiger orange with pride, there was a two-year period when he questioned if he’d wear any team’s colors again. He’d started his coaching career at his alma mater, Alabama, but was released at the end of the 2000 season, with the entire staff. After several months of unemployment, his former strength coach invited Swinney to join his real estate-development business, AIG Baker.
The one-time wide receiver traded his playbook for traffic and demographic reports, and started booking tenants for a massive project in Las Vegas.
They let me try their product and it was awesome! I just believed in them.” -Dabo Swinney, head football coach, Clemson University and leasing agent
“It was kind of a hot spot,” Swinney says. “Everybody wanted to be there. We had major national tenants like Nordstrom Rack, and Bed, Bath & Beyond. Dena and Debbie were two gals who had called me several times. Basically, they were working out of their kitchen. They were great, just great.”
Tripp and Shwetz were still perfecting their Bundt cakes and business plan, while running a single shop in Vegas. Demand was growing, and they wanted to open a second brick-and-mortar on the other side of town. They spotted Swinney’s face on a sign.
“We thought his name sounded interesting,” says Tripp. “Oh my gosh! When we talked with him, we really didn’t understand what a Southern gentleman was, but we soon found out. He was hard-working. He was receptive. He would meet us wherever we needed to meet. He took care of us.”
The Nothing Bundt Cakes co-founders had their sights set on a 2,300-square-foot space in Swinney’s hot spot.
“We were barely keeping our heads above water, but we knew we needed to expand,” Tripp says. “We had this fabulous, high-quality product with a really unique name. Our concept was interesting, but people didn’t even know what a Bundt cake was. We were fairly new. We didn’t have a big financial package, but Dabo really went to bat for us.”
The Hail Mary
Swinney met the ladies for dinner. The evening concluded with cake.
“I knew they probably would not get approved. We didn’t do a lot of mom-and-pops at the time,” Swinney says. “But I thought it would be a good fit in that space. I actually got one of my bosses to kind of back me on it, and stood on the table for me a little bit.”
Swinney, always a people-person, relied upon the same instincts he uses to recruit players today.
“It’s very similar,” he says. “You just get a sense. You’ve got to have the right fit. When you’re in the shopping-center business, your tenant mix is important, and the chemistry of the tenants. You might get some of those five-star recruits who don’t pan out, and sometimes those who weren’t highly rated coming out, turn out to be some of the best tenants you have.”
The ladies signed the lease, and started building their second shop. Swinney stayed with AIG Baker for two years, before Clemson called him back to coaching. He never saw the completed Nothing Bundt Cakes on Eastern Avenue.
“Many years later, I was in Nashville and there’s a Nothing Bundt Cakes,” says Swinney. “It took my breath away! I actually Googled it, and they’re like 200 stores all over the country, and a couple outside the country.”
Actually, 325 bakeries as of this printing. Most shops are owned by women, and employ 15-20 team members each.
Meanwhile, elbow-deep in icing, the ladies never followed ACC football.
“We didn’t know he came from coaching,” Tripp says. “We just thought he was a real estate agent. We reconnected to congratulate him on his success a few years ago; it was as if no time had passed. We picked up where we left off.”
Shwetz retired from Nothing Bundt Cakes three years ago. Tripp continues to run the multi-million-dollar company, which still operates in the space Swinney leased to them all those years ago.
“He’s a wonderful person,” says the chairwoman. “He was influential in our growth, because he took the leap of faith to get us into that second location. He believed in us not only as a business, but as hard-working ladies.”
Not too long ago, Swinney texted the bakers a photo.
“He was recruiting someone and went to their home,” says Tripp. “They served him one of our Bundt cakes! He wrote, ‘Look what I’m having.’”
Dabo’s favorite flavor: chocolate.
“Oh, I love to hear that,” Tripp says. “That’s my recipe, and our first run at the whole concept. It’s what we served him when we first met. That was the launch of Nothing Bundt Cakes, and it’s our most popular flavor.”
Good instincts. Great taste buds.
Nothing Bundt Cakes – Greenville
101 Verdae Blvd.
Bakeries in South Carolina
Greenville, Lake Murray, Mt. Pleasant, Summerville, Tega Cay, Columbia – opening soon
Nothing Bundt Cakes Flavors
Chocolate Chocolate Chip, Classic Vanilla, Red Velvet, White Chocolate Raspberry, Confetti, Carrot, Lemon, Marble, Pecan Praline