One afternoon in 2012, the idea for a cupcake that looked like a bagel with cream cheese popped into the head of Richmond alumna Ashley Foxen, ‘10. Foxen was going to see her younger sister in Long Island that weekend, and they decided to see what they could create.
“We spent all day Sunday testing out different cupcake ideas,” Foxen said. “We did the egg and cheese [cupcake], the bagel and cream cheese [cupcake] and the sushi [cupcake] all in one day.”
That was the moment when some of Foxen’s first creations for the cupcake company that she started out of her small Manhattan apartment that same year were born.
Foxen’s cupcakes are not ordinary cupcakes, and thus have gained the attention of the Food Network. Her cupcakes are created to look like different foods and items, such as a hot dogs, popcorn, ramen noodles and sports equipment.
“The goal was to tease your taste buds,” Foxen said.
After Foxen brought in cupcakes that looked like cheeseburgers for one of her coworker’s birthdays in 2012, she soon realized that her work could be something special, she said.
“People kind of went nuts,” she said. “I just decided that it made people so happy to see things that were kind of messing with their minds a little bit that I just kept trying to see what I could do and just spent the next couple of years seeing how far I could go with it.”
Foxen graduated from the University of Richmond in 2010 with a degree in studio art, but it wasn’t until she started her company, Reality Bites Cupcakes, that she was able to fully pursue her passion for art and love of invoking happiness.
She worked at three different media agency jobs after college before deciding in 2014 to move in with her mother in Long Island, quit her job and fully devote her time to Reality Bites Cupcakes. She had originally planned to move back to Richmond to open up the store, but after some advice from one of her mentors in the industry, she decided to establish her company in New York, she said.
“It was kind of a little passion project that came up,” Foxen said. “I was working in the media world and wasn’t feeling like it was a very creative space at the time … so I needed a creative outlet.”
Around the same time Foxen moved to Long Island, Richmond alumna Brady Leifer, who was in Foxen’s sorority, Kappa Kappa Gamma, called Foxen and asked whether the production company Leifer worked for could come film Foxen’s cupcakes.
Leifer said her production company had not had any big projects at the time, so her boss had tasked her with bringing him some new ideas.
“I was like, ‘Oh I have this friend. She makes these crazy cupcakes that look like food,’” Leifer said.
Leifer's boss accepted the idea, and what started as the filming of a few instructional cooking videos soon turned into the production of the pilot for Foxen’s show, "Reality Cupcakes," that now airs on the Food Network, Leifer said.
The original pilot was filmed in 2015, and the production company then shopped it around to see whether any networks were interested in it, Foxen added. After a little over two years, the Food Network accepted the project, and they started filming this past summer. "Reality Cupcakes" became an eight-episode series that aired in August and highlighted Foxen’s company and family as they made some of these unique creations.
Leifer had originally seen Foxen’s work on social media.
“When I first started seeing her cupcakes on Instagram after we had graduated, I was very forthcoming with her, probably too much so, because I was just so impressed by it and hadn’t seen anything like it at that point," Leifer said. "So I was like, ‘You should really do this professionally. People would be into this.’”
Having a show on the Food Network to highlight Foxen’s unique cupcakes was an incredible moment in her career, she said. But filming was not always a simple or easy process.
“You get so much time with your family, and it’s really special to be able to work with them… and experience the first time being on television together,” she said. “But it’s a challenge being in a confined space with anyone for that long.”
Nonetheless, her family is an integral part of "Reality Bites Cupcakes."
“In the beginning, it was just me, and then they all jumped in when they could,” she said. “My brother was helping me with the finances and my mom was helping me with some of the logistics and my sister is absolutely integral to getting the orders done. I don’t know what I would’ve done without her.”
Foxen was also still working full-time for Twitter while filming "Reality Cupcakes." She worked Monday through Thursday and then filmed Friday, Saturday and Sunday, while also trying to plan her wedding, for three or four months, she said.
While at UR, Foxen knew she loved creating things, but she did not realize that she would someday become a baker, she said
“I loved art, and I loved making things that make people happy, but my art was more for me in college,” she said. “It was really fun, and I got a lot of self-expression. Whereas, the cupcakes are more about making other people happy. … People’s reactions are pretty priceless, and they make you want to keep doing it."
UR created an open environment that allowed her and other students to explore their many interests, she said. Foxen was also inspired to be more independent and pursue her passions because she knew that she had this smart community of people from UR who were supporting and encouraging her, she said.
“I come from a graduating class of a lot of entrepreneurs. There was clearly something in the water,” she said with a laugh.
One of the notable alums from Foxen’s graduating class is David Burd, who is also known as the rapper Lil Dicky. Along with fellow students, such as Burd, Foxen’s courses at Richmond also inspired her to develop Reality Bites Cupcakes, she said.
“All of the art classes that I took … really made me see what was making me happy on a day-to-day when it came to work – and it was being creative and doing things that were a little bit different from everyone else,” Foxen said.
Her classes with art professor Erling Sjovold were particularly memorable to her, she said. Sjovold frequently encouraged her and the rest of the class to find ways to make themselves and their work different, which she said she had carried with her the rest of her life.
Richard Waller, who advised Foxen during her senior thesis capstone course at UR, said he could tell that Foxen was very involved in developing her own vision through her work.
Foxen developed a photography project for her thesis, Waller said. She still loves to take pictures, noting that sometimes one of her favorite parts about making the cupcakes is getting to photograph them once they’re done.
Ironically, Waller noted, Foxen's class’ senior exhibition was titled “Feed me Art.”
“That is so apropos of what she ended up doing,” he said.
Waller said it was truly exciting to see what Foxen had done with her artistic ability and her art.
“I was just up in New York," he said. "I wish I had known. I would’ve stopped to get a cupcake."
Contact co-features editor Melanie Lippert at firstname.lastname@example.org.