But FuManChu cupcakes have found a passionate following. People call from all over the Carolinas and beyond, arranging stops in Charlotte, N.C., around getting them and watching Facebook for his daily flavor lists. Jackson gets ideas from bartenders and random inspirations, even song lyrics. His most famous flavor is a cupcake flavored with Guinness stout, filled with chocolate ganache spiked with Jameson Irish whiskey and topped with Bailey’s Irish Cream frosting.
He calls it the Irish Car Bomb.
“I ain’t right,” he admits with glee. “Ain’t even close.”
FuManChu’s business model, or the closest thing to it, is so improbable, it would give an MBA nightmares. Even the name was an afterthought, based on Jackson’s most obvious facial feature, an extravagantly drooping mustache last seen on Yosemite Sam.
He dresses like a cross between the biker he used to be — well-worn jeans, tattooed arms and keys jingling from his belt loop — and the artistic soul he is today, with silver jewelry and a hunk of amethyst hanging around his neck. He carries a pouch full of stones, chosen each morning for the strengths he thinks he might need that day.
He believes in the energy of stones?
“I believe in the energy of everything,” he says.
THE UNDERGROUND BAKER
If you wander unawares into FuManChu, the small bakery Jackson opened in April off Central Avenue in Plaza Midwood, he might warn you off.
“We’re not a kid-friendly cupcake shop,” he says. “I can read whoever comes in. Some people, I’ll say, ‘Are you easily offended?’ ”
Don’t hold it against him. Jackson never actually planned to open a shop.
A Charlotte native — he calls himself “a Pres-BY” baby, born in Presbyterian Hospital, and raised off Freedom Drive – he spent most of his life running his family’s business, P.C. Jackson Plumbing. He didn’t do the actual plumbing. He was the guy running the business, dispatching 30 employees, wrestling with contracts and regulations, and spending too much time with spreadsheets.
It was stressful: “Construction has turned into lawyers.”
Five or six years ago, he started finding himself with a beer in his hand too many times a day. He didn’t want to quit drinking, exactly, but he wanted to slow down. He needed something to do that would keep him busy.
His wife, Beth Jackson, is an artist. One night, they went to a gallery reception in Huntersville where cupcakes were being served. He bit into a salted caramel cupcake and his life changed. It was the most delicious thing he had ever tasted.
Jackson hit the Internet, or, as he calls it, “the University of Google,” and found a recipe. He had never baked anything. But baking, he discovered, took concentration. You have to pay attention. You can’t bake if you’re tanked.
“It’s a science, you can’t just throw things in. You can’t mix up the baking powder with the baking soda. If you’re drinking, it doesn’t go right.”
He started playing around and making improvements, like making caramel from scratch. Then he branched out, coming up with more flavors. Pretty soon, he was making more cupcakes then he and Beth could eat.
So he started giving them away. He’d hang out in NoDa, stopping by bars and handing out cupcakes. He’d ask his bartender friends to suggest flavors. They’d suggest what they knew – beers and cocktails. So he’d make cupcakes based on them.
Around certain circles in Charlotte, he became known as the underground baker. Before long, people were asking to buy cupcakes. One day in 2012, he got a call from someone who was passing through town and wanted one of every flavor.
“It was drug-deal style – I met them at Smelly Cat,” the NoDa coffeehouse.
It turned out to be someone from the Democratic National Convention. He ended up getting a big order.
Jackson would rent space in commercial kitchens, usually in the middle of the night, and run the plumbing business by day. And people kept finding him. One woman called from Knoxville, Tenn., wanting cupcakes for her dad’s birthday. He wouldn’t ship them – he only sells fresh cupcakes, baked that day. So the woman asked if he’d meet her halfway. He and Beth turned it into a weekend trip, stopping on Interstate 26 near Asheville and waiting under a bridge to drop off the goods.
“I don’t know how they find me,” he says.
Jackson finally decided to take the plunge and open a real bakery. He located a little building, a former cabinet shop on Lamar Avenue, across from Pint Central. He hired a young chef, Josh Cannon from 5Church, and set up shop with a display case and walls covered with local artwork.
Until then, Jackson’s baking had been sort of made-up. He just fooled with recipes until he got them to work. Baking with alcohol can be tricky. Odd things happen, like butter creams that slide into goop, or bourbon marshmallows that collapse.
“I’m a plumber,” Jackson admits. “I had no knowledge. My biggest thing is, I don’t know what I’m doing, so I don’t know what I can’t do.”
Cannon is helping him figure out better techniques, and he introduced professional pricing, figuring out what to charge. Jackson had been charging $3 for cupcakes that cost $4 or more to make.
They adjusted prices, mostly to $4 to $6. Yeah, it’s a lot for a cupcake, but he says customers haven’t complained. Many of the cupcakes have a full shot of alcohol, and what cocktail sells for $5? With Cannon’s help, Jackson has quit the plumbing business and now is a full-time baker.
The shop hours are as eccentric as the cupcakes, though: 4 p.m. to 9 or 10 at night. Many regulars are artists or bar crawlers, people who want something different and get a hankering for something sweet late at night — for reasons we may not want to know.
His biggest failure, so far, has been The Carlos, based on Carlos Diaz’s hot dog stand in NoDa. Diaz makes a fiery hot pepper and onion relish with cilantro and lime. Jackson made a cumin-flavored cupcake with the relish as a filling and a tomato-cilantro buttercream.
“It scares people,” he admits. “People say they like it, but it’s scary. I’ve tried giving them away.”
Even on bad days, though, he’s having more fun than he ever did in plumbing.
“That’s stress,” he says. “This? This is fun.”
Web: fumanchucupcakes.com or on Facebook; also on Twitter (@fumanchucupcakes) and Instagram.
FUMANCHU BLUEBERRY NIGHTMARE SOUR BEER CUPCAKES
From Andy Jackson of FuManChu Cupcakes. Jackson likes to match his flavors to unusual beers.
3 tablespoons butter
1 1/2 cups cake flour
A dash of salt
1 cup light brown sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 (11.2-ounce) bottle My Blueberry Nightmare Sour Beer (see note)
Beat butter and brown sugar with an electric mixer until fluffy. Beat in eggs one at a time, until mixed.
Combine dry ingredients (flour, salt, brown sugar, baking powder and baking soda). Add a quarter of the dry ingredients and mix. Pour in some of the beer and mix. Continue mixing, alternating dry ingredients and beer, until all ingredients are mixed in.
Pour into lined cupcake pan and bake at 350 degrees until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool completely before topping with Spicy Chocolate Frosting (see recipe).
Note: My Blueberry Nightmare Sour Beer is available at Good Bottle Co. in Charlotte.
Yield: 8 to 12 cupcakes.
SPICY CHOCOLATE FROSTING
Andy Jackson likes to use Saigon cinnamon, a very hot cinnamon.
2 cups butter
2 1/2 cups confectioner’s sugar
2 ounces semisweet chocolate chips, melted
1 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon (preferably Saigon cinnamon)
Dash of salt
Beat the butter with an electric mixer until fluffy. Beat in the confectioners’ sugar and melted chocolate, then beat in the chili powder, cayenne pepper, cinnamon and salt. Spread or pipe onto cooled cupcakes.