Karen Henderson '94 (Environmental Studies)

Cupcake War-rior

Karen HendersonMix a competitive spirit with a passion for great food and you get Karen Henderson’s recipe for winning—one that took her from all-American volleyball star at Sac State to champion on Food Network’s Cupcake Wars.

“I’ve been a competitor my whole life,” says Henderson. “After I opened my cupcake store (The Cupcake Shop) my daughter said, ‘You should go on Cupcake Wars.’ Baking’s my sport right now so why wouldn’t I compete? It was fun and I was game for it.”

She submitted a video showing off her skills and was selected to compete on the show. Her vivacious, competitive spirit carried her to the final. Henderson impressed the judges with her elegant cupcakes in the finale: a lavender and honey with vanilla tangerine mascarpone frosting and a black velvet with dark chocolate ganache filling, anise, Italian meringue filling and white chocolate.

“I don’t have the ability to hold back so I just went for it,” she says. “As far as being on TV, I know who I am very well so I just tried to be authentic and laugh at myself. And I have teenagers, so I have thick skin.”

Henderson has taken the same go-for-it approach throughout her life. She earned induction into Sac State’s Athletic Hall of Fame after an outstanding career as a setter for the Hornets from 1988-91.

Before earning her degree she defied advice from family and friends and took a summer trip to Europe. Her time in Italy stoked her fires for baking.

“I visited every bakery over there,” Henderson says. “We lived in a villa over Lake Como and everybody grew their own herbs and tomatoes for their kitchens. There were open-air markets and I was totally enamored by everything there. Unfortunately I had to come back. I wanted to be on Italy time for the rest of my life.”

Inspired by her travels, Henderson got a job as a bread maker at now-closed Greta’s Café in Sacramento. As she honed her baking skills, she wrapped up her degree in environmental studies with plans to go into city planning, or possibly teaching. But the mountains, and her sense of adventure, were calling her.

After working at several different restaurants and bakeries and making wedding cakes on an informal, part-time basis, Henderson decided to tackle another challenge.

“My grandfather passed away and left me enough money to open a commercial kitchen,” she says. “I baked bread, cakes, cookies and I knew I had the passion for what I was doing.”

Henderson officially opened her catering and baking business—Lila and Sage—in the gold rush town of Murphys in 2005 and the cupcake store opened in 2011.

More than 300 friends, family and community members gathered to watch the pre-recorded Cupcake Wars finale in July of 2012. The day after Henderson’s victory, which earned her a check for $10,000, she had a problem.

“We sold out in an hour,” Henderson says. “We weren’t used to lines. It wasn’t a bad problem to have. We had to make some adjustments. Some of our employees got full-time jobs immediately. The store got crazy and the local notoriety sustained it.”

Business at Lila and Sage is still booming a year later. Henderson has a strong local niche in the town of 1,200 people and tourists are flocking to the store, eager to taste the award-winning treats.

She has aspirations to expand, possibly to the Sacramento area, but right now Henderson is busy grooming the next generation of competitors in the family. Her daughter Madeline, 15, is a standout setter at Bret Harte High. Her son Ethan, 12, is a budding soccer player. Both attended sports camps at Sac State this summer.

For a go-getter like Henderson, staying put is sometimes tough, but she’s learned that it can pay off in the long run.

“I started my company eight years ago and there were times when it was slow and I would say, ‘Well, I guess it’s time to go back to school and get my master’s,’” Henderson says. “It wasn’t until about three years ago when I finally said, ‘I guess I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.’”

This article was originally published in the Fall 2013 issue of Sac State Magazine.