Baking beyond imagination

Mother/daughter team Li-Yen and Elizabeth Johnson grow together as owners of Imagine Cupcakes and More

Elizabeth Johnson always dreamt of working in movies.

She made it.

But after 10 years of living in Los Angeles, working in post production for a large movie/television producer, she realized it had never made her happy. She returned to her Center Grove home and began to contemplate what to do from there.

“I was trying to find therapeutic ways to heal myself,” she said. “I struggled a long time. I started baking and found it was really calming.”

Elizabeth and LiYen Johnson. *Photos by Nicole Davis

Fortunately, her mother, LiYen Johnson, had recently retired as Assistant Superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools. LiYen laughs that she was ready to go to the Caribbean, Florida or somewhere warm. Instead, she and her daughter decided to take a business adventure.

The mother/daughter team opened Imagine Cupcakes and More at 8914 S. Meridian St., Indianapolis, in February.

“I want to support her vision,” LiYen said. “When we talked about how we want this store to be, because of my background as an educator, we want the store to be the center of family. When children come in, they can feel the wonder of imagination. She was insistent that the name of the store has to be something about imagination, how we inspire imagination. It does your heart so much good when you watch the kids walk in the store. They just love it.”

LiYen moved to Indiana from Taiwan to go to college at Indiana University. She said because of her background in special education, she quickly got a job teaching, in 1976. She worked as a teacher, became principal in 1990 and rounded out her 40-year career with IPS as assistant superintendent.

Growing up in Center Grove, Elizabeth graduated from Center Grove High School in 2000. She attended IU and moved to LA after.

The two now reside only half a mile from where Elizabeth grew up, not far from their store on S. Meridian Street.

“The most rewarding thing about this business, even though we are dead tired and exhausted at the end of the day, it has helped our relationship,” LiYen said. “When she left, she was gone for 14 years. We almost had to reestablish our relationship. It’s hard for me to see her as an adult, and I had to remind myself. We learn ways to support each other.”

Elizabeth started her baking journey with a strawberries and cream cupcake, handing them out to friends who she said “were going gaga over them.” She started creating more recipes, trial and error with the help of a lot of Youtube videos.

They keep the selection of cupcakes and other baked goods small so that they can focus on quality while they grow the store. There’s usually around five varieties of cupcakes plus cinnamon rolls. The store also sells Abbott’s candies. The Strawberries and Cream cupcake is the best seller.

“This is our first time owning a business and it’s a learning curve, for sure,” Elizabeth said. “I think we’re learning quickly, streamlining, trying to get ahead of the demand. Valentine’s Day, we were not prepared. We had no idea. They cleaned us out of everything. We didn’t have any milk left, butter, eggs. We used every single bit. It was nonstop, amazing. We’re hoping Mother’s Day will be like that, too.”

Currently, Elizabeth is the only baker and LiYen is the one running the front end of the store, but they are looking to add another baker in the near future.

“We compliment each other,” LiYen said. “She’s the artistic person. I’m the business person. That’s a good combination. I’m the one (saying) ’get it done.’ She won’t compromise on quality. I’ve learned to trust her artistic talent.”

The Johnsons say the support from the community in the short time they’ve been open has been wonderful.

“People come in and tell us this community can use a store like this,” LiYen said. “That is really encouraging. They want us to be successful. They give us ideas. Our success is their success.”

Among their biggest supporter is Southside Cigar & Tobacco, located in the same plaza.

“We come in every day and buy coffee and cupcakes,” said Tom Gibson, employee of the cigar shop. “We want to have an excellent relationship with our partners in this complex. When she moved in, we wanted to not only support her in a friendship way, but by sending all the guys down to buy cupcakes. Our growth helps her growth and her growth will help ours. She’s received us really well, too and has been a great support for us.”

Southside Cigar & Tobacco is hosting Southside Scramble, a golf outing on May 21, 8 a.m. at Valle Vista Golf Club in Greenwood. Proceeds will benefit local nonprofits such as the Mount Pleasant Food Pantry, Healing Waters and Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Imagine Cupcakes will be there, passing out samples of cupcakes.

“They’re thinking about ways to help us advertise our business,” LiYen said, as another example of that community support.

As Elizabeth and LiYen look toward the future and work toward making the business a success, they are glad to have had the opportunity to work together in this way.

“I’m so happy it has come to fruition,” Elizabeth said. “I love the idea that the amount of hard work that we put in is directly correlated to what we get out of it… And I love making people happy. They seem really happy after they come in here.”