Bob and Ellen Paulus transformed their Port Washington print shop into a bakery and hit the road to business success with a dessert food truck
One moment on the road in a used vehicle confirmed that Bob and Ellen Paulus made a life-altering happy choice.
The friendly married couple who successfully ran a printing company together in Port Washington for 20 years switched to the business of baking, but not just any kind.
The Pauluses transformed their pressroom into a food processing plant and joined the food truck industry by creating Cupcake-A-Rhee.
“We knew we did the right thing when Bob was driving and I was sitting in the jump seat and we looked at each other and we both had this big grin,” Ellen said.
Neither has formal training but aren’t strangers to the kitchen. Bob grew up in Port Washington helping his mom bake pies, cakes, stollen and breads, while Ellen specialized more in cooking.
“We took our hobby of baking and made a business out of it,” Bob said.
They already had some experience in bulk baking.
“We both have big families so there were always 100 cupcakes for Christmas,” Ellen said.
Now there are hundreds more. A month into their new venture their former hobby is already in high demand. At a food festival in South Milwaukee this month, Cupcake-A-Rhee sold 600 cupcakes in three hours.
“We’ve gotten so many calls to bring the truck to different places we have to figure out where logistically we can go,” Ellen said.
The Belgium couple realize they found a niche in the area.
“There’s a need to fill. There’s not really a dessert truck,” Ellen said.
There is now, and it goes by Clarence. The Pauluses bought an original FedEx truck from another food truck operator and named the vehicle after Bob’s uncle. Clarence made deliveries for the Port Washington Bakery in the early 1940s, and one of his customers was Bob’s future mother, Betty. She was 6 years old at the time, and Clarence was 18.
“She would run out and pay for donuts,” Bob said.
Betty later married John Paulus, and Clarence married John’s sister, Adaline. The family used to joke that Clarence knew John’s wife before John did.
Besides the truck, the business itself is named for Ellen’s late brother, Richard Ghere, pronounced like the actor’s name. Richard always wanted to be a baker as a child, and friends who couldn’t pronounce Rick called him “Rhee Rhee.”
The Pauluses said they know Uncle Clarence and brother Richard are gazing down from above.
“You can never have enough divine guidance,” Ellen said.
When it came to the human version, Mary Pat Carlson of the University of Wisconsin Extension assisted the Pauluses in making the transition from ink to edibles. Carlson told the couple they had a leg up on other startups since they were already running a business.
“Mary Pat was a big help,” Ellen said.
So were other food trucks like Curbside Cupcakes in Washington D.C., which provided business advice.
“They were an inspiration for us,” Ellen said.
Another key is Bob and Ellen’s relationship. They are one of those unique married couples who can successfully work together.
“It’s all about the communication,” Bob said.
“And we’re each other’s best friend,” Ellen said.
The Pauluses also cater to man’s best friend. Through Greyhound Pets of America, they have fostered 150 former racing dogs. They operate a private dog park next to their business and bring their own dog to work with them each day. Sugar, the 8-year-old greyhound, isn’t allowed in the kitchen and does not get cupcakes.
“She gets pup cakes,” Ellen said.
The Pauluses make dog cakes at home using many of the same ingredients in their cupcakes but without sugar.
Bob and Ellen met as students at UW-M, and each brings a different expertise to the business. Bob has a finance degree and had worked in a bank before taking over his father’s printing business in 1995. Ellen has a master’s degree in anthropology and has worked in archeology.
Now, Bob handles the base cake and measuring, and Ellen does the artistry and decorative frosting. She created the designs on Clarence.
“We really do work well together,” Bob said.
While the blue truck stands out in a crowd, it does not serve as the best transporter of delectable desserts, the Pauluses have come to learn. Rearranged frosting, however, didn’t slow business.
“Even the speed bump discount sold out,” Bob said.
The Pauluses now deliver cupcakes in another vehicle and sell them out of Clarence. People are often already waiting for their arrival.
“We had a lady message me from Milwaukee, ‘What’s your ETA?’” Ellen said.
It’s that kind of thrill Bob loves the most.
“The thing I like is people coming up to the window so excited,” he said. “Seeing a mom and daughter, ‘We’re at the food truck!’”
The plan is for Cupcake-A-Rhee to stick to Southeast Wisconsin and Madison. This summer, it will be at Fish Day and Race the Harbor in Port Washington and Luxembourg Fest in Belgium.
The biggest sellers so far are chocolate peanut butter and lemon raspberry. Bob’s favorite is turtle and Ellen’s is pink champagne.
While the couple specialize in cupcakes, they may expand to items like breads and other desserts. Bob has his grandmother’s stollen recipe.
“We’re just going to see where it goes. I could see it getting bigger,” Bob said.
“This year is all going to be about fun and seeing where we can take it,” Ellen said.
For now, cupcakes are delivering the smiles.
“Everybody’s happy,” Ellen said. “We could use more happiness in the world.”
For more information, go to www.thecupcakearhee.com.
Photo by Sam Arendt