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Sweet Reasons to compete on Saturday episode of ‘Cupcake Wars’

Juli and Lenny Schafer own Sweet Reasons in Central Park.

Juli Schafer can’t say whether she’s more excited to watch her family’s cupcake shop featured on Food Network—or to finally be able to talk about the experience.

Sweet Reasons, the 2-year-old bakery owned by Juli and Lenny Schafer, will face off against three other cupcake shops on the network’s popular “Cupcake Wars.”

The fast-paced reality competition airs at 8 p.m. Saturday.

The Schafers and head baker Kelsey Gibson couldn’t talk about being on the show until just last week, and they still can’t reveal how far they advanced in the Miss America-themed episode that was filmed back in June.

Lenny, who’d never done any sort of baking competition before, much less with cameras in his face, said the whole experience was “the great unknown” and nerve-wracking, but also a great learning opportunity.

On “Cupcake Wars,” the country’s best bakers are faced with challenging ingredients, a surprise theme and a fast clock; one team is eliminated after each of three rounds, and the last one standing receives $10,000 and the claim to fame.

Juli describes herself as “the face and the mouth” of Sweet Reasons. She runs the front of the shop while Gibson is in the kitchen, mixing up batches of from-scratch cupcakes, cheesecake fillings and buttercream frostings. Twelve or more flavors are available daily at the Central Park shop, along with cheesecakes, cookies and other treats.

Lenny Schafer, 50, created the cupcake recipes but primarily runs the couple’s other restaurant in Locust Grove, Clearwater Grill.

The 60-minute TV show will feature him and Gibson, and three other pairs of bakers, competing for the chance to make and serve cupcakes at the Miss America pageant. The 2013 reigning Miss America, Mallory Hagan, was the guest judge.

Juli, 43, said the team received a high compliment from one judge: “You really make a great cake,” said Florian Bellanger, a chef and co-owner of an online macaroon company.

But they had to keep the praise hushed.

“It was terrible,” Juli said. “It was like keeping a secret from your family.”

‘Immediate gratification’

The Pennsylvania natives opened Clearwater Grill in 2005, featuring from-scratch American cuisine. At first, desserts came from an outside vendor—and they were pricey but not tasty, Juli said.

So Lenny started making cheesecakes, the dessert they had sliced at their wedding 13 years ago. Watching early seasons of “Cupcake Wars” then led Lenny—who had started baking as a child with an Easy-Bake Oven—to try his hand at cupcakes, a niche treat that was gaining popularity across the country.

Baby steps for the company took them to a wine festival, a small space by Lake of the Woods, as well as a kiosk at the Spotsylvania Town Center, right by Santa Claus during the holidays. “We knocked it out of the park,” Juli said.

In November 2011, the Schafers opened shop in Central Park, at 1672 Carl D. Silver Parkway, and are one of just a few specialty bakeries in the area.

Gibson said in the casting video on YouTube that her husband—who works at Clearwater Grill—was buying cupcakes frequently when they moved to the area, and she figured she’d learn what Sweet Reasons was all about.

While some shops that opened during the heyday of the cupcake craze have since shuttered, Juli said Sweet Reasons is growing in the stagnant economy.

Cupcakeries are the “immediate gratification shops,” and Sweet Reasons sells between 300 and 700 treats, depending on the day. This past Saturday, they prepared to sell 1,000 cupcakes with special orders and a wedding.

Two new employees have come on board in the past few weeks as the Schafers prepare for the rush after national television exposure.

“We’re not quite sure what is really going to happen,” Juli said.

Ingredients a ‘shock’

For two years, customers had asked if the Schafers would go on the reality-based competition show, in its ninth season.

They emailed Food Network when a casting call was posted on Facebook, and Sweet Reasons was invited to formally apply. In late May, the 18-month-old business was selected to compete.

But as excited as they were, they couldn’t tell anyone. Even family members and employees couldn’t know until just a few weeks ago. A public announcement was made two weeks before the show’s airing.

Schafer and Gibson flew to Los Angeles in June, and spent the first day being chauffeured to buy the ingredients they use for their base recipes that get “gourmeted up.” Their favorite expensive Dutch cocoa made the trip in their suitcases.

On the 15- to 20-hour day of shooting, producers and cameras were in the team’s faces as the pressure mounted.

“At first, it throws you, especially in the first round, but you have to get used to it, and then it’s just part of the scenery,” Lenny said.

Schafer and Gibson took in their arsenal of recipes—which they’d practiced baking in short amounts of time—and adapted them to the theme and ingredients, and to the new equipment.

That’s about all bakers can do to prepare as they can’t guess what host Justin Willman will challenge them with.

“I learned I don’t like to cook in a convection oven,” said Lenny, who said he and Gibson gained confidence in themselves as bakers, despite a completely new kitchen setup. “You’ve gotta get used to it, and you’ve got to do it while baking cupcakes.”

In the first round, competitors choose from an assortment of surprise ingredients. Consider the episode that aired this past Saturday: Bakers faced with fermented garlic, cardamom and ghost peppers to put into “nightmarish” vegan cupcakes for the opening of Rob Zombie’s monthlong haunted music attraction.

Anything is possible.

“I was very surprised by the ingredients; some matched, some didn’t match,” Lenny said. “When you get there, your wheels start to spin. It’s definitely a shock when you see the ingredient table.”

Juli said the first cupcake was “a twist on a classic” at Sweet Reasons. She worried about revealing any more details about it before Saturday night.

This cupcake—and up to three more if Sweet Reasons advanced to later rounds—will be for sale starting Monday.

In the casting video, Lenny says he’s not worried about the final challenge, when competitors must bake 1,000 cupcakes, with help from a team of Food Network bakers, and fashion an elaborate show-stopping display.

“People come in all the time and they want something, but they don’t know what they want, and we have to do that for them,” Lenny told the camera.

And if they win?

Sweet Reasons would use the $10,000 to start a food truck that could go to Northern Virginia and festivals.

“We have a great business here, but we want to take it forward.”