| Magnolia Bakery sticks to basic flavors for both cupcakes and icings. |
Product names like Coconut Bunny, Lemon Drop, Pucker Up and The Devil Made Me Do It from places named Tart; Sugar, Sweet, Sunshine; Sprinkles and Cake Fetish, denote a dream world. But it is not a dream. It is the world of cupcakes.
The cupcake craze has swept the nation with cupcake-only bakeries opening in New York City, Chicago, California and even Albuquerque, N.M. Some full-line bakeries are becoming known more for their cupcakes than any other product. Many credit the beginning of the craze to New York City’s Magnolia Bakery, where lines would extend down the block, even as late as midnight. When the bakery’s cupcakes were featured on the television show, Sex and the City, the phenomenon spread nationwide.
Beyond the pop culture allure, cupcakes harken back to many peoples’ childhoods. “It’s sort of a childhood thing, and people like things from childhood,” says Alyssa Torey, owner of Magnolia Bakery.
New York-based Buttercup Bake Shop’s Jennifer Appel agrees. “They have a very nostalgic appeal,” she says.
Add to the childish appeal the inherent small size of cupcakes, and it’s no wonder they are a winner for bakeries.
“People see it as an individual portion,” says Kristin Rahal, owner of Tart pastry boutique in Dallas. “It’s easier than buying a cake and slicing it.” Cupcakes are extremely popular for parties, Rahal adds, because people often don’t want to worry about portioning and cutting desserts.
For customers walking into a bakery to treat just themselves, they also offer great grab-and-go convenience. “It’s really easy to grab one and eat it,” Torey says. And, for busy customers, the opportunity to eat and walk is always appreciated.
Does size matter?
Cupcakes also are perceived as less of a “sin” than cake or other desserts. “Because they are not as large as a piece of cake, cupcakes are a small, guilt-free dessert,” Appel adds.
While cupcakes may be small, their size varies from Leda’s Bake Shop’s mini version to the super size 4-in. varieties available as special orders from Tart. Prices vary as much as the sizes, from $1.75 for Magnolia’s treats to $4 for Tart’s super-sized cake.
Flavor choices and the number of varieties available at each bakery also run the gamut. Cupcakes, a cupcake-only bakery in Chicago, offers 36 varieties to ensure it offers something for everyone.
Magnolia does not offer a huge variety and sticks to basic flavors. However, when the bakery has batter remaining from its Southern-style cakes, it offers more unusual varieties, Torey adds.
Dallas’ Tart offers six different varieties of cake flavors, with sales spread evenly among the flavors, Rahal says. “Vanilla is really popular, but so is our chocolate cake with sweet cream icing and our strawberry,” she adds.
Leda’s Bake Shop, Sherman Oaks, Calif., features 12 to 14 varieties daily. Chocolate buttercream, lemon and dulce de leche top its customers’ list of favorites, says Leda’s owner, Ledette Gambini. The bakery adds and changes flavors as the seasons change. Gambini is dedicated to using only the best and freshest ingredients, and since her bakery is located in California, she has access to a variety of local fruits to help inspire her. Some of her recent flavor additions include vanilla strawberry and coconut lime.
Fun with flavors
Other bakeries have fun with flavor combinations, and give the resulting cupcakes names to match. Cake Fetish, a cupcake-only bakery in Albuquerque, N.M., offers the Drama Queen, a chocolate cupcake iced with vanilla French buttercream and topped with jewels. Sleepless in Albuquerque is another twist on the chocolate cupcake. This version features mocha French buttercream icing with a chocolate espresso bean reigning supreme.
Cupcake Royale in Seattle showcases the Coconut Bunny. The Coconut Bunny can be chocolate or vanilla cake topped with vanilla icing coated with coconut. The citrus Orange You Glad features chocolate cake and orange infused buttercream icing.
Tart takes flavor customization to a whole new level. About a year ago, the bakery opened its cupcake bar. Customers choose between vanilla or chocolate cupcakes, fudge or sweet cream icing and from a variety of mix-ins for the icing, such as candy bars, cookies, candy pieces and Gummi Bears. “Kids love them,” Rahal says.
Tart also keeps a variety of decorated cupcakes available for customers who want to be able to grab and go. She estimates that cupcakes sales are evenly divided between the cupcake bar and the grab-and-go varieties. “We sell ridiculous amounts of cupcakes. They are probably 30 to 40 percent of our business,” Rahal adds. “We’ve been open for 1 1/2 years, and we didn’t plan on cupcakes being such a huge part of it, but now they are one of our biggest sellers.”
Many other full-line bakeries are experiencing the same phenomenon. Magnolia’s cupcake product line began as a way for the bakery to use leftover cake batter. The bakery opened over 10 years ago and offers a large variety of cakes and pastries. “About a month after we opened, I noticed we had extra cake batter, so we just started making cupcakes,” Torey says. “They turned out to be popular.”
Buttercup Bake Shop offers cakes, desserts and breakfast items, but more than half of its sales come from cupcakes, Appel reports. “Everyone is trying to capitalize on the cupcake trend, even my local deli. It has a sign in the window advertising that it sells cupcakes,” Appel adds.
If bakeries aren’t offering cupcakes, they should, Rahal says. “One thing people don’t stop eating, no matter what diet they are on, is dessert. People feel like they deserve it, and they do.”
Origin of cupcakes
Many have wondered how cupcakes began. Klaus Tenbergen, Modern Baking’s Workbench Editor credits human ingenuity, technological advances and simple demand for the introduction of cupcakes into society.
Cupcakes first arrived on the scene in the late 18th century, according to Cupcakes, a cupcakes-only bakery in Chicago. The bakery’s Web site credits the coining of the word ‘cupcake’ to E. Leslie’s Receipts, published in 1828. The name likely came from the amount of ingredients used to create a cupcake–a cup each of flour, butter and sugar. Or, it could come from the fact that they were baked in teacups or cup-shaped moulds. The original popularity of cupcakes may have been due to the fact that their small size ensured even baking on the open hearths common to the times.
Exhuming cupcake sales
Jimmy Hoffa cupcakes.
Cupcakes, a childhood favorite, are experiencing a revival of popularity among adults, and they also can offer a way capitalize on local events. When the FBI descended on the small town of Milford Township, Mich., to search for the remains of former Teamsters chief Jimmy Hoffa, Milford Baking Company and other community businesses decided to make light of what they considered a waste of taxpayers’ money.
The full-line bakery’s decorator came up with an idea for Hoffa cupcakes. She iced chocolate and yellow cupcakes with chocolate icing, and dipped them in a mixture of cake crumbs and chocolate graham crackers to give the appearance of dirt. The topper…a green plastic hand extending out of the cupcake.
“It started out as a ‘ha-ha’ thing,” says Co-owner Elaine Aittama. “But the whole town has jumped on it.” Since the FBI came into town on May 17, the bakery has sold more than 4,000 of the 95-cent Hoffa cupcakes. “We normally sell a dozen and a half cupcakes a day,” Aittama adds. Even though the FBI has left town (empty handed), Milford Baking Company is still selling the Hoffa cupcakes. Customers in town and from out of state are still gobbling up the slightly ghoulish desserts.
“We’ve been in 40 newspapers and we’ve had seven news crews in the bakery,” Aittama adds.