I don’t know what heaven looks like but I’m sure it tastes like a Swirlz cupcake. This feeling comes from a self-confessed gelato addict who scoured five cities in Italy one summer to find the best of the best gelato. Admittedly, that was before I tasted the confectionery art of Swirlz founder and CEO, Pam Rose.
My Swirlz journey began when I attended an art gallery event hosted by Hilton Asmus Contemporary in Chicago. Gallerist and painter, Arica Hilton, was celebrating world-renowned, high-fashion photographer, Hugh Arnold. She had gathered a few friends, patrons, and members from the arts community and press industry to enjoy a savory feast.
The night was a smash hit with art, violin music and the most gorgeous looking cupcakes. What I loved most were the miniature replicas of Arnold’s underwater photography scenes that were recreated in white chocolate as dessert toppers for each perfect confection. They seemed too beautiful to eat.
But good manners and temptation thankfully got the better of me. I devoured my first rich chocolate-flavored treat, wrapping the topper in a napkin to bring home for others to admire. Ever a stickler for quality control, I didn’t stop at one and found myself eating two or three more when no one was looking.
Okay, so the gates of heaven didn’t burst open, but the airy-textured cakes and creamy cloud-like frosting danced in my mouth for a long time in melodious cantilenas. I was happy and I have followed Pam Rose and her inventively decadent creations ever since.
The Business of Swirlz
No surprise, Swirlz is a reflection of Pam’s creativity, goodness and love for others. Swirlz opened in 2006 and delivers cupcakes and related treats to 30 Whole Food stores around the regional Midwest. There are 13 staff members that keep the business running smoothly, and inspiration comes from everywhere including Pam’s brilliant imagination and the students she mentors in community programs.
A visit to the Swirlz website reveals the complex and varied breadth of product offerings, as well as the quality of ingredients that bolster Pam’s integrity within the competitive field of bakery goods:
“Swirlz has created more than 1500 unique flavors. As Chicago’s original discrete cupcake store they primarily carry full size and mini cupcakes, but have now expanded their offerings to include custom cakes, brownies, and other specialty items, as well as a full line of gluten-free and vegan gluten-free cupcakes offered daily.”
When asked about the ever-expanding cornucopia of flavors, Pam points to her wonderful employees, customers and friends as well as the beauty of embracing diversity. Chicago is an extremely international city, so the people who enjoy Swirlz come from all over the world. Customer conversations about sweet treats from their childhoods, or their mothers’ secret cookie recipes, or the nostalgic flavors unique to their cultures help inform the business of making people happy.
As the first bakery in Chicago to focus exclusively on cupcakes, Swirlz continues to use local and fresh ingredients, including Grassland Farms European style butter for all of their cakes and frostings.
Happiness means everything
When I interviewed Pam for this article, I was struck by her boundless energy and bottomless goodwill. Perhaps it’s the simple motto she’s infused in everything she does: cupcakes make people happy. And happiness means everything to Pam.
It doesn’t matter that her life is spent racing around town and dealing with the never-ending challenges of being an entrepreneur. On any given day, when Pam isn’t greeting walk-in customers, taking custom orders, or curating organized Chicago food tours and “bike hikes” around the city, she manages the countless never-ending jobs that demand her attention.
Through it all, Pam is happy and upbeat. Even when the freezers for a bride’s order of seven wedding cakes– yes, seven – went on the fritz, Pam made sure they didn’t melt in Chicago’s recent heat wave of 105-degree temperatures. She rented cooling units and is always prepared for the unexpected. Even though balancing life’s personal demands adds an extra layer for Pam who is the central caregiver to the older members of her family, she seems to swing with the long days and sleepless nights .
As Pam shares these stories, it’s clear why Swirlz is a neighborhood landmark. Pam leads by example and has created a happy place that’s garnered national attention and accolades as the “best cupcakes in the country” (Food and Wine Magazine). Swirlz is also an Illinois favorite for large catered parties and DIY weddings where Pam shares her joy and creates beautiful memories.
“It doesn’t take much to make people happy,” Pam told me. “There are so many people who are suffering that I’ve always felt a responsibility to families and kids.”
Of all the incredible gifts and heavenly joy that Pam and her business bring to the world, one special story involves the former Children’s Memorial Hospital (now Lurie) that once stood across the street from Pam’s bakery. It has moved since then to Streeterville and the old lot has been filled by a mixed-use development complex called Lincoln Common.
The two, twenty-story residential towers are separated by a plaza that contains an enormous, white pergola-like structure called “the trellis.” Thoughtfully created by developers McCaffery and Hines, its branches reach into the sky, stretching up in remembrance of the brave children and their families who once sought healing and treatment within the walls of the hospital.
Regardless of the outcome of their children’s treatments, many of these families still visit Swirlz to relive the happy memories of sharing a much-needed cupcake during a stressful time. The store was a happy place where they could temporarily escape the harsh reality of treatments and surgeries, and be treated to a comforting cupcake in a safe space free from worry. Pam recognizes many who return, and the cycle of her de facto ambassadorship continues to make people happy. With good fortune, Pam’s magic cupcake formula for life will bring many more sweet years of happiness.