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Cousins Cook Up Savory Cupcakes in Former Astoria Salon

ASTORIA — Sweets First, a new bakery set to debut in Astoria this week, may have found a way to get kids to eat their vegetables — hide them inside a cupcake.

The cafe and bake shop, located at 35-04 35th St., will have a soft opening Thursday, giving the neighborhood a chance to try some of its unusual flavors — including a Broccoli-and-Cheese cupcake that has real broccoli bits and cheddar cheese baked in the batter.

"We have some weird flavors," said Christine Mendoza, 28, who's starting the business with her sister, Sandy Nuguid, 31, and their cousin Charisse Balines, 30.

The three women decided to open the bake shop last year, and have spent the last four months renovating the space, a former hair salon. Nuguid handles the business end of things while Mendoza and Balines do all the baking.

"I think our love for baking and sweets really is from our family. We eat a lot," Balines said, saying the name Sweets First is a nod to the large and close-knit family's tendency to skip dinner and go straight to dessert.

"We have a sweet tooth, we always have," Mendoza said. "We’d rather have our sweets first before the course itself."

The cousins have been baking together for years, and are used to experimenting with flavors based on unusual requests they get from the family. Mendoza said she was inspired to make the broccoli cupcake after Balines, who was pregnant at the time, announced a craving for the foods.

"I’m like, broccoli and cheese, alright! So I put it in the batter," Mendoza laughed.

Other quirky cupcake flavors on the menu include Sweet Potato topped with spiced marshmallow frosting and caramelized pecans, and French Toast, which comes  with a dollop of maple-infused butter cream and a piece of maple-candied bacon for garnish.

More traditional cupcakes include Dulce De Leche, Red Velvet and Chocolate Nutella. Cupcakes go for $2.75 a piece, and the cafe will also serve a small breakfast menu of egg sandwiches and breakfast burritos, as well as coffee.

"We're focusing on cupcakes for now," Balines said, but added that they will likely expand to other desserts down the road.

Both Balines and Mendoza live near Mill Basin in Brooklyn, where their family runs a medical staffing company, while Nuguid lives in New Jersey. They decided to start Sweets First in Astoria when Balines' husband spotted the open storefront while playing basketball across the street.

The decor of the space is an homage to their new location. The menu is posted on a large chalkboard for the nearby Frank Sinatra High School, and each of their cupcakes are named after a classic movie or TV show in honor of nearby Kaufman Astoria Studios and the Museum of the Moving Image (the French toast and bacon cupcake, for example, is called "The Breakfast Club").

"We fell in love with Astoria," Balines said. "We've tried to incorporate the different things around the neighborhood."

They said they appreciate the many "foodies" who live in Astoria and who are open and excited to try new and unusual things — like broccoli-flavored cupcakes.

"They're not afraid to go outside the box," Mendoza said.

Sweets First will have a soft, one-day opening on Thursday, April 18, and will officially open at the beginning of June, the cousins said.