From MIT To A Bakery: The Story Of The Sweet Lobby

Feb 13, 2012
Originally published on February 14, 2012 12:33 pm

Valentine's Day is a time for tasty treats, and one Washington, D.C.-based boutique bakery bills itself as the "ultimate advocate for your sweet tooth."

The Sweet Lobby is based in Washington, D.C., but it didn't get its name from the interest groups that try to work their magic on politicians around the nation's capital.

Instead, the name comes from the lobbies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that showcase innovations and host events — which might sound strange until you learn that The Sweet Lobby's founders, Winnette McIntosh Ambrose and her brother Timothy, both graduated from MIT with degrees in chemical engineering.

Ambrose first got the cupcake bug while studying abroad at the Sorbonne in Paris as an undergrad.

"I became really mesmerized, captivated by the beauty, the craft of French patisserie," she tells Michel Martin, host of NPR's Tell Me More.

Her sweet dreams continued as she pursued a doctorate degree in biomedical engineering and worked in the medical technology industry.

Ambrose says she's been "practicing, obsessing over recipes [and] developing them" for years.

Apparently, the hard work has paid off, because the brother-sister duo from Trinidad won the $10,000 first-place prize on a recent episode of Cupcake Wars.

They got to display their prize-winning cupcake concoctions, including a chestnut caramel cake with black sesame cream with chestnut cream frosting, at the Los Angeles Chinese New Year's Festival.

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We're switching gears now, from chocolate to cupcakes.

You might have noticed that we've gone a little cupcake crazy in this country. In a lot of places, cupcakes are all the rage. Well, there's a new sheriff in town, people - or maybe we should say sheriffs. They are Winnette McIntosh Ambrose and her brother, Timothy McIntosh. They are the unlikely owners of The Sweet Lobby, a bakery here in Washington, D.C.

The brother-and-sister pair recently won an episode of the show "Cupcake Wars" on the Food Network, and they took home a prize of $10,000. They grew up in Trinidad, and each studied chemical engineering at MIT before getting in the cupcake business. And Winnette and Timothy stopped by to tell us more about their story - and thankfully, they brought some treats.

Welcome to you both.

WINNETTE MCINTOSH AMBROSE: Thank you, Michel. It's wonderful to be here.

TIMOTHY MCINTOSH: Thanks for having us.

MARTIN: There is a Food Network show that pits bakers against each other for cash prize. And let's play a little bit of that.



AMBROSE: This is the final stretch. Let's go. Keep going. Keep going. Keep going.

MCINTOSH: Guys, you've got to frost like crazy, crazy, crazy. Crazy.

AMBROSE: We cannot go out like punks in this round, Timothy.

MARTIN: Well, certainly not.


MARTIN: You won the competition.

AMBROSE: Mm-hmm.


MARTIN: Congratulations.

AMBROSE: Thank you.

MCINTOSH: Thank you. Thank you.

MARTIN: So we have to talk about this story - I mean, not one but two MIT engineers.

AMBROSE: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: How did cupcakes happen, Winnette?

AMBROSE: Yeah. So, you know, we - first of all, we're born and raised in Trinidad and Tobago. We both came to the U.S. to study chemical engineering at MIT. And I had the opportunity, while I was doing my undergrad at MIT, to double-major in French language and literature, which took me to Paris at the Sorbonne. And that is where I became really mesmerized, captivated by the beauty, the craft of French patisserie. And really, in the years since then, I have been practicing, obsessing over recipes, developing them. And a couple of years - I guess it's almost two years now - I called Timothy up and said, hey...

MCINTOSH: She said hey, you are kind of like the coolest guy I know, and I just need you to come to D.C. and be a part of this...


MCINTOSH: ...and feel like this X factor in this business that's going to happen.

MARTIN: I have to know what your parents thought of this. Because here you are - they managed to raise not one, but two engineers who made it all the way to one of the premier educational institutions in the United States...

MCINTOSH: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: And then you want to make cupcakes. And I want to know - did they just think that you had lost your minds?


MCINTOSH: No. I mean, actually, our parents - I think Winnette and I have always been very self-motivated in what we wanted to do. And growing up, academics was always something that was just inherently important to us. And it wasn't that our parents didn't encourage that; they definitely did. But they just supported us in whatever we wanted to do. So our parents were never the types who would be like, you have to get all A's; you have to go to MIT; you have to apply. That was just something that we did, you know?

MARTIN: Talk to me about the Food Network program "Cupcake Wars" itself. It seems awfully hard to come up with a recipe on short notice, using ingredients...


MARTIN: ...that you may never have worked with before...


MARTIN: ...and the conceit of that particular episode was that you were going to be featured in a Chinese New Year celebration.


MARTIN: So the cupcakes used flavors that are common in Chinese cuisine.

AMBROSE: Exactly.

MARTIN: I was wondering whether your Trinidadian background was helpful ...


MARTIN: ...because Chinese cuisine is very prominent, too. It's one of the – Trinidad is a very diverse country.

AMBROSE: Absolutely.

MCINTOSH: Yes. You've done your homework.


MARTIN: And people of Asian descent are also, you know, very much a part of the mix. And I was wondering whether that made it easier.

AMBROSE: You've hit the nail on the head, Michel. I think one of the privileges of growing up in a cosmopolitan place like Trinidad and Tobago is all the cultures that make up this melting pot that we have in Trinidad and Tobago. And it was very normal for us to, you know, go down the street and have a meal from the Chinese restaurant around the corner; we have, you know, lots of friends of all sorts of ethnicity. So familiarity with global fare, global ingredients, is something that is common for us.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking sweet treats for Valentine's Day. Our guests are brother-and-sister bakers Winnette Ambrose and Timothy McIntosh. They're the owners of the Washington bakery The Sweet Lobby. They were recently featured on the Food Network program "Cupcake Wars."

One of the winning entries was chestnut caramel cake with black sesame cream.

AMBROSE: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Chestnut cream frosting, and black and white sesame chopsticks.


MARTIN: I'm like - I'm like...


MARTIN: I can barely get the words out. My mouth is watering.

AMBROSE: Well, we have one in that box right there.

MARTIN: I know. And I'm trying to not like, knock past you to get it.


MARTIN: I'm basically trying...


MARTIN: avoid just sticking my whole face in the box.


AMBROSE: Well, the idea behind that cupcake, specifically, was really to meld - East and West blend is what it's all about.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

AMBROSE: We wanted to take a forum that is a familiar forum in French desserts; namely, that Mont Blanc frosting, where chestnut cream is piped to look like a white mountain. And we also - it turns out that noodles are symbolic of prosperity, particularly for Chinese New Year. And so we thought, how cool would that be, to have a noodle-like appearance?

and we've got to make chopsticks to go with noodles, right? So why not make chopsticks out of sesame seed? So it just seemed to work together. The black sesame seed is a little bit of elements - exotica, you might say, in the filling that is a bit savory at the same time, but recognizably Chinese.

MARTIN: Mm. Mm-hmm.


MARTIN: So what will you do with your winnings now...

AMBROSE: Fantastic question.

MARTIN: ...that you won a...

AMBROSE: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: You win a cash award.

AMBROSE: We win the 10K, mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And you get to display your wares at the...


MARTIN: ...big festival, which was in...

AMBROSE: Which was the Los Angeles Annual Chinese New Year Festival.

MARTIN: Which is a big, big deal.

AMBROSE: Yeah, it was. That was a blast. And the 10K - well, you know, we're just getting started.

MCINTOSH: So I'm taking like, maybe eight grand out of that 10K. There's some D.J. equipment that I really want to get.



AMBROSE: But no, we're a startup so really, it's just going to go into helping to defray some of our startup costs and hopefully, take us to that next level. We are very much interested in expansion. You know, our slogan is that we're the ultimate advocate for your sweet tooth. So we're about being wherever you have folks with a sweet tooth, that's where we want to be.

MCINTOSH: That's where we are.

AMBROSE: So it's going to be a building block toward that goal.

MARTIN: Timothy McIntosh and Winnette McIntosh Ambrose are brother and sister. You can probably tell that.

MCINTOSH: Think so.

MARTIN: Owners of The Sweet Lobby in Washington, D.C. And they were the victors in the recent Food Network "Cupcake Wars." They came out on top for their amazing cupcakes. And they were kind enough to stop by our Washington, D.C., studios.

Thank you both. Congratulations, and Happy Valentine's Day.

MCINTOSH: Thank you for having us. Thank you for having us.

AMBROSE: Thank you, Michel. Happy Valentine's Day to you, too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.