When Gigi Butler went on Undercover Boss, she couldn't have guessed the bad behavior that was going on at some of her Gigi's Cupcakes locations, nor how vulnerable she would allow herself to be on national television.
If you missed the episode, Butler goes undercover to check in on clueless Gigi's Cupcakes employees. As is often the case, some well-intentioned employees at franchised locations were bending the rules.
"Every second I was biting my tongue!" says Butler, who transformed from the instantly recognizable CEO (her face is in every Gigi's Cupcakes store) to a frumpy woman wearing a retainer to ensure employees didn't recognize her.
However, one part of the episode that broke from the typical Undercover Boss mold was Gigi's willingness to turn the scrutiny on herself. As Butler took a hard look at Gigi's Cupcakes locations around the country, she also opened up on the show about family tensions that grew out of working with her parents and brother, and wanting to be the best CEO possible as the company plans for massive expansion.
"I have to let some painful things go that I've experienced with my family the last couple years, going through this business and growing out of this business with them," Butler says in the episode. "It's so important for me to heal these wounds that I've maybe caused in some ways."
For some people, opening up like this on national television would be terrifying. But for Butler, putting herself out there and taking risks is the only way she knows how to live.
"Every day I wake up being comfortable with being uncomfortable," she told Entrepreneur. "That's the true spirit of an entrepreneur."
Butler says that this determination to follow her own path began at age 7, when she began keeping lists of her goals. At the time, she wanted to be a country singer – a dream she would chase for more than a decade. She moved to Nashville in 1994 using money she had saved from a cleaning business she had founded at age 15. A career in music didn't pan out, but Butler continued to sharpen her skills as an entrepreneur by relaunching Gigi's Cleaning Company in Nashville.
Then, in 2007, in the middle of the cupcake craze, her brother spent two hours waiting in line for a cupcake in New York City – and it spurred an idea. After eating the treat, he called her to say that her cupcakes were actually better. So, Butler decided to take a chance yet again, and began working on her own cupcake shop in Nashville.
Gigi's Cupcakes opened in 2008 and quickly began to bring in more customers than Butler anticipated. The company began franchising one year later. Today it has 92 locations, including one in Korea, with plans to add 25 new shops in the upcoming year. As the cupcake craze has died down, the menu has expanded to keep the company relevant, with new cheesecakes, breads, cookies and even wedding cakes and cupcakes.
Undercover Boss provided Butler the chance to assess and monitor the company as franchises proliferate – including some with employees that tinkered with corporate recipes or designs.
"I was consistently frustrated every time I walked in undercover," says Butler. "The second I got home, off that plane, I went into the office and I was like, 'Okay. We've got to strengthen our infrastructure.'"
With new hires and regulations to ensure franchised locations stick to the standards that define the Gigi's Cupcakes brand, Butler is confident that the company can continue to expand without losing what makes the chain unique. She has also reconnected with her family since the episode was filmed. And, no, she doesn't regret shedding a few tears on national television.
"I was okay with being vulnerable because I think people connect to people that are real and vulnerable, and that have real struggles," says Butler. "People connect to that, because that's what life is. It's messy sometimes."