Meg Murray left her job as a Capitol Hill staffer and lobbyist about a year ago to turn her passion for baking into a business. After graduating from L’Academie de Cuisine, a culinary school in Gaithersburg, Murray has been leveraging the region’s network of food entrepreneurs and enthusiasts to help her nascent confection business, Thunder Pig Confectionery, gain traction.
One Monday evening this spring, Murray nervously watched as a small crowd of foodies filed into Hello Cupcake, a bakery on Barracks Row in Southeast Washington. She was introducing some new concepts — Szechuan butter pecan toffee and chocolate cashew bark, among other items — and testing out a few different consistencies for her signature marshmallows (the green tea marshmallow was the firmest, raspberry was the middle and chocolate was the softest). She called the event “Thunder Pig’s Flying Circus”, arranging the samples like circus rings — marshmallows in one, biscotti in another, and candies in the last.
Hello Cupcake isn’t Murray’s business; through an agreement with the shop’s owner, Murray has been operating a “pop-up” out of the store every week. Patrons buy tickets for $18 or $25 — the latter includes cocktails paired with the sweets — sample all her treats, and fill out feedback forms.
“Was the consistency of the caramels too tacky, too hard or just right?” Murray asks patrons on the feedback form, for instance. “Rate the quality of the marshmallows (1 being the worst, 5 being best quality).”
George Washington University undergraduate Eliza Hecht attended one such pop-up event, and was sampling Murray’s gluten-free items. “The raspberry squares are way better than you’d ever expect for a raspberry bar,” she said, but noted, “the marshmallows could be more saturated in color, and that might make them more appealing.”
While Murray said she appreciated the opportunity to “hone in on [Hello Cupcake’s] customer base” to raise awareness about her brand, she was particularly eager to collect feedback about her products. Based on the few forms she’d read, and the murmurs she overheard at the events, “maybe the middle of the road is the way to go” for marshmallow firmness, she said.
The connections helping Murray crowd-source her business didn’t fall into place naturally — in the past few months, she’s had to actively seek them out.
Last month, she competed in and won a bake-off event organized by StartUp Kitchen, a D.C. start-up incubator, whose prize included mentorship with Hello Cupcake owner Penny Karas and the opportunity to run a pop-up out of the store. Murray is also a member of Union Kitchen, a shared commercial kitchen space and business incubator in Northeast Washington, where she prepares her treats.
The kitchen is more than just a work-space for Murray, who pays several hundred dollars a month for membership and works there a few times a week during the day. It’s also a place where she turns casual conversations with fellow food entrepreneurs in the kitchen into business opportunities.
Murray is currently working on a collaborative pop-up concept with a French pastry-chef who she met at Union Kitchen, and Jonas Singer, who owns and operates the space, introduced Murray to Washington’s Green Grocer who now purchases her products wholesale.