Cupcake gridlock

The trend of the cute confection is way beyond the saturation point. So why are they still here?

Cupcake gridlock

Getty Images; Photo Illustration by Bradley Reinhardt

Cupcake gridlock
Getty Images; Photo Illustration by Bradley Reinhardt

By now Steve Abrams is used to the gushing that inevitably occurs when he tells people what he does for a living. “They go, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe it. I love you.’ Everybody wants to talk.” That’s because Abrams and his wife, Tyra, own New York’s Magnolia Bakery, which in a cupcake-obsessed world is like owning Mecca, only a lot sweeter. When the Abrams bought the the retro, hole-in-the-wall Greenwich Village bakery in 2007 it was already a tourist destination known for lineups around the block, thanks to a 20-second scene in a 2000 episode of Sex and the City that showed Carrie and Miranda sitting in front of it nibbling on cupcakes. Since then, the Abrams have been in expansion mode, opening four locations in New York, one in Los Angeles and a franchise in Dubai’s Bloomingdale’s.

Abrams is sitting in a corner table at his shop in the Upper West Side, which, like many urban neighbourhoods across North America, is in cupcake gridlock. Around the corner there’s an outlet of Crumbs, a New York-based cupcake chain publicly listed on the NASDAQ stock exchange this year, which plans to open 200 North American locations by 2014. Across Central Park is the equally ambitious Sprinkles, the upscale Los Angeles-based chain opened in 2005 by Charles and Candace Nelson, former investment bankers who fled the profession in 2001 after the dot-com bubble imploded. Famed for pioneering side “shots” of pure frosting and for using high-end ingredients like Nielsen-Massey Madagascar bourbon vanilla and Callebaut chocolate, Sprinkles took off after Barbra Streisand sent a box to her good friend Oprah, who gave them a shout-out.

Abrams waves away the suggestion that we’re approaching cupcake saturation. He points to his own shop, which is suffused with the vintage, been-here-forever vibe that’s now part of Magnolia’s corporate identity. On a weekday afternoon, it’s packed with mothers with strollers, teenagers and tourists. Most are lined up for the small, all-natural, thickly iced cupcakes, which come in a range of flavours and cost $2.75 to $3.25. Cupcakes make up half of Magnolia’s business, says Abrams, who won’t discuss sales figures, though the company is estimated to net some US$20 million annually.

He has plenty of theories about cupcakes’ appeal—from “nostalgia for a simpler time” to “sugar-delivery system” to “global geo-political” forces. But a little boy holding a chocolate cupcake tells the story. “There’s nothing like the face of a kid with a cupcake,” Abrams says. “It’s a birthday cake all for yourself.”

For grown-up kids, cupcakes are an indulgence—a “guilty treat,” an affordable luxury that makes the business recession-proof, he says. He receives calls from people every day from around the world wanting to open Magnolia franchises. “The rest of the world is 10 years behind the U.S.” He’s positioning Magnolia as a luxury-lifestyle brand, like Louis Vuitton. In Dubai, they’ve partnered with the group that runs the Armani, Jimmy Choo and Bloomingdale’s franchises. “They understand how to treat it,” he says.

Classifying a baked good with one-day shelf life that leaves crumbs as a “luxury-lifestyle” product is telling of the outsized grip the cupcake has on the cultural imagination, one so tight even non-cupcake products are capitalizing on it. Cupcake Winery in California sells a “Red Velvet” wine, named for a popular flavour, and describes its sauvignon blanc as possessing the “zing of a lemon chiffon cupcake.” Reality TV is all over them. Cupcake Wars on the Food Network pits cupcake bakers against one another. W Network’s The Cupcake Girls, starring Lori Joyce and Heather White, the owners of Vancouver-based Cupcakes by Heather & Lori, is in its second season. The childhood friends founded the company in 2002 as North America’s first stand-alone cupcake store, says Joyce, who cites Magnolia as their inspiration. Four years ago they began empire-building; they now have one corporate location and seven B.C. franchisees with plans for a national rollout. The show, which is filled with angst over filling impossibly big orders, abets that goal nicely. Clearly there’s an audience for cupcakes being iced frantically: TLC’s DC Cupcakes focuses on Georgetown Cupcakes in Washington, a thriving enterprise operated by sisters Katherine Kallinis and Sophie LaMontagne.

But you have to ask: why hasn’t the cupcake bubble burst, as bubbles historically do? Alison Fryer, manager of Toronto’s Cookbook Store, says she’s amazed by cupcakes’ longevity as a trend. “Every year more cupcake cookbooks come out and we put them on the shelf and we think, ‘This is the year this ends,’ but no.” She credits the 2008 cookbook Hello Cupcake, which offers instruction on decorating the desserts with convenience-store candy, for making the cupcake popular with home bakers. Cupcakes are all about the toppings, not what’s inside, Fryer points out: “No one makes cupcakes for the cake. They’re making them for what they look like on top, which is why Hello Cupcake was so popular.”

Plenty of naysayers dismissed cupcakes as a passing fad when they opened their first store nine years ago, Joyce says. She agrees flavours follow trends. But she sees the cupcake as a classic dessert that has been around as long as doughnuts: “They just weren’t marketed properly.”

Certainly the childlike, indulgent treat speaks to the moment, a time when single-serve portions and commodified individualism are embraced. Consider last week’s announcement that British intelligence had hacked into an al-Qaeda online magazine and replaced bomb-making instructions with a Web page of recipes for “the best cupcakes in America” from The Ellen DeGeneres Show. It wasn’t merely a military coup: it was a declaration of Western values.

“The cupcake represents the society we live in,” says Joyce. “It’s all about fast, it’s all about convenient, it’s all about individual.” Abrams agrees: “In an age of specialization, you get to express that individuality in your cupcake choice,” he says. Sprinkles has it down to a science, with its vegan and gluten-free cupcakes, “doggie” cupcakes for canines, Oscar- season cupcakes and flourless cupcakes for Passover.

Joyce calls this “customization”: “Bagels were really big in the ’80s but you can’t customize a bagel and you can’t take them to weddings or corporate events.” Cupcakes are a win-win for both buyer and seller, compared with cake, which must be shared, she says: “They’re a lot less expensive to buy than cakes for a festive occasion. If you have a cake, you have to cut it, plate it, and eat it sitting down.” She even makes a case for cupcakes replacing the traditional wedding cake, a symbol of shared community: “You can have different colours and flavours and it’s cheaper because you don’t have to pay a ‘plating’ fee.”

When you think about it, it’s the ideal treat for a culture in thrall to cute kitten videos, one that wants to put a happy face on every event. “Our whole mission statement is for cupcakes to be part of every celebration,” says Joyce, which now even includes wakes. “You wouldn’t have gotten away with doing cupcakes for wakes 50 years ago.” For businesses, they provide the fusion of adorable product and high margins. “But you need volume,” says Joyce.

Not everyone is besotted. Pastry chefs dismiss cupcakes as lacking culinary finesse. “People in the food industry are sick of them,” says cookbook author Bonnie Stern, who’s weary of the confection’s ubiquity and the quality of many of them. She likens the trend to the mania for customized cookies that came and went. “Pies are the new cupcakes,” she predicts.

Shifting taste trends won’t affect her business, says Joyce, who notes the tiny cakes are even becoming popular in Italy. The suburbs, where most of The Cupcake Girls’ avid fan base resides, are their big growth frontier. Their new franchise in a Victoria mall is three doors from Wal-Mart, positioning Joyce couldn’t have imagined nine years ago. “We had the Holt Renfrew customer, the trendsetter,” she says. “Now we have regular people eating our cupcakes, which is more important to our business model.” Eighty-five per cent of their customers buy six-packs and shop at Wal-Mart, Joyce says. “They are very loyal to brands—far more than trendsetters.” As Joyce presents it, being out of fashion will only tighten the sugary grip of the cute confection: “After all, fashionistas don’t eat a lot of cupcakes.”