With her bright blonde hair waving in the downtown Chicago wind, Laura Pekarik embodies joy and sunshine as she hands customers individually packaged cupcakes from her lime-green food truck. The 26-year-old owner of Cupcakes for Courage exudes the enthusiasm of youth with her winning smile and conversations peppered with exclamation points. Yet, behind ever-jubilant bagging of a French silk pie cupcake or the winsome sale of the lime in the coconut pastry is the stark reality that Laura’s new business venture is triumph over tragedy. Each cupcake helps to support cancer research. “I didn’t start this business to make money,” she explains. “I started it because of the cancer in my sister and I wanted to help others who were stricken by the disease. That came first—the idea of giving back to the community.”
It all started in 2010 when Laura’s older sister Kathryn Pekarik—a fit, svelte, 20-something—began having horrible back pains. Visits to the doctor and chiropractor didn’t help. Laura watched her older sister go from a bubbly, happy, bright woman to a shell of her former self. On Memorial Day 2010, Kathryn’s face swelled to the size of a basketball and she was rushed to the hospital. “You couldn’t recognize her, her head was engorged,” Laura recalls. “They found a large mass next to her heart. They did emergency radiation to shrink it. They did a biopsy and they found it was cancerous.”
Kathryn was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s T-cell lymphoma. Aggressive treatment began right away. Pekarik’s entire family would visit with Kathryn, often staying overnight. They’d also do the one thing that made them all feel joyous: cooking for each other. “When we were younger, my mom was a baker,” Laura says. “Kathy and I would make cookies, we would make cupcakes, and pies and just like everything … Feeding people, it brings us joy.”
During Kathryn’s stay, there was a steady stream of food—lasagna, enchiladas, stuffed peppers, chicken, and, of course, cupcakes. “I just wanted to make it feel like home,” Laura says. “I wanted her to look forward to food. Whatever she asked for, I’d make it to relieve her mind.” So, in the midst of tubes, hospital sheets and in the shadow of the C-word, the sisters talked about recipes, flavors, cakes, and other foods.
After Kathryn was diagnosed and treatment began, friends threw a benefit to raise money for her. Laura baked 250 cupcakes to sell. The bake sale was a hit and at the urging of her grandmother, who sold goods at craft sales, Laura began selling her originally flavored cupcakes at craft fairs. Around this time, Laura tried to return to her job as a marketing manager, but her heart wasn’t in it. She’d seen too much of loss, despair, and hope. She decided to do more by starting a cupcake business to raise money for cancer charities. “I wasn’t scared,” she says. “I thought, ‘What’s the worse could happen?’ I had money saved and I thought I could invest it in myself and do well or I could stink at it and still have 25 years to recover the money I lost.”
Laura took her savings and bought an oven, leased a kitchen, learned all about packaging food products and bought a lime-green truck, turning it into a mobile cupcake-selling machine.
Now, Laura has no time to cook. She’s up at 3 a.m. every day baking at her kitchen in the suburbs and then she loads up the little miracles to disperse in multiple locations throughout downtown Chicago. She’s built quite a following on Twitter and Facebook from customers eager to track her mobile green machine. And a stint on Cupcake Wars on the Food Network didn’t hurt either.
Laura donates 10 percent of every cupcake sale—not profits—to The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and Ride Janie Ride Foundation, an organization that helps raise money for people with high medical bills. So far, Cupcakes for Courage has donated $6,000 and has a goal of donating $40,000 annually.
Kathryn is in remission and helps out Laura when she can. The two are still baking together and trying out recipes. “[But,] I miss cooking for sheer pleasure,” she confesses, laughing. “I don’t get to do that anymore.”