DENVER - I heard about Martine's Muffins from Christine. Christine found out about it from Lisa, who heard about it from Dayle. More than a year later, it's still a weekly habit.
Rain or shine, we go out the back door, cross E. 7th Ave., pass the marijuana dispensary, head down the alley between Lincoln and Sherman streets, take a left after the Dumpster and go through the black door into the red cinderblock building.
-- The secretive success --
"I don't even have a real address," Martine Alexander-Chavez says, smiling.
But her customers keep finding their way back, and bringing more people along.
"It's all word of mouth," Martine tells me. "I don't have an advertising budget."
The menus are printed in a simple font on plain white copy paper, and she needs them about as much as she needs advertising.
One look around the tiny space and you are overwhelmed with choices. Shelves are stacked with scones in every flavor and lined with perfectly-frosted cupcakes in flavors like chocolate whiskey, pancake and bacon and strawberry basil. The counter is covered with soft brownies, fresh macaroons and giant cookies like the "Diablo" (chocolate with a hint of cayenne.)
While you're looking, Martine will tell you about the quiches she made that morning, and the breakfast burritos she hasn't sold out of yet.
All of it is made by hand, and baked just a few feet behind the counter.
-- The art of beautiful food --
"Soups, sauces and baking are my passion," Martine says.
It shows. Her graying hair is pulled back in a simple ponytail and her face is scrubbed free of make-up. But when it comes to her food, no detail is too tiny to overlook.
Each cupcake is a work of art, topped with a swirl of delicious frosting and a unique garnish.
"My food is fresh, alive, sustainable and non-preserved," Martine says. She has gluten-free, sugar-free and vegan options available daily.
-- Extended hours --
Just last month, Martine extended her hours and her menu options because she wanted to start serving lunch.
She didn't get to indulge her passion for making soup enough, she explains.
"Now I do!" Martine beams.
Martine arrives at work between 2 and 3 a.m. and now keeps the shop open until 2 p.m. I ask how she manages the long hours.
"Your heart has to be in it," she explains.
-- Lunch is served --
Until last month, Martine did it all with just one employee. She hired a second when she opened for lunch.
I look over the new offerings, which include lemony hummus, a Mediterranean salad and a hot Smokey Ham sandwich.
About a week after she opens for lunch, I show up with two friends and our six kids. We take up every chair of the new bar-seating and try to coordinate our orders to sample as many items as possible. I make sure someone is ordering a slice of quiche and someone else is getting the House Pulled Pork sandwich before I decide.
"We pull our own pork," Martine says as she hands out the first sandwich.
One bite later, my friend says, "I'm in heaven," with her mouth still full.
My daughter thinks there is too much cheese on the Grilled Cheese sandwich. We all look at her like she is crazy.
Under the bakery heading it says simply, "All kinds of goodies."
The kids have no trouble picking something out.
As we're gathering our things, Martine is packing up the few remaining muffins and scones to take to a Denver homeless shelter.
Martine's heart is definitely in it. And that is the secret of her success.