In Cupcake Land, Neither Size Nor Age Matter

By Ashley Torres • Jan 24th, 2011 • Category: Editorial, Lead Story

By Ashley Torres, Melissa Julien and Ariel Marx

Picture the perfect dessert. It’s no bigger than the palm of your hand, comes in a seemingly endless variety of flavors, and costs less than a slice of pie.  It may sound like something out of a fairytale, but this confectionary treat is available at nearly every bakery in every major city across the United States and Canada.

Even beyond the corner bakery, cupcakes seem to have taken the American imagination by storm, firmly cementing themselves in popular culture. Television shows like Cupcake Wars on the Food Network and DC Cupcakes on TLC push smaller businesses to meet higher standards of quality and service. Bookstores like Barnes and Noble offer cupcake calendars. Other retailers, like Amazon.com, have featured items such as cupcake rain boots. Shops are constantly creating new ways to present and serve the savory delights.  Some, like the Little Cupcake Bakeshop in Brooklyn, are focusing their business on mini-cupcakes.  Another shop in Toronto offers “cuptails,” cupcakes baked in the flavors of popular drinks and served in the appropriate glassware.  Its menu includes the “Mango Manhattan” and the “Cherry Cosmo.”

Cupcakes are becoming more than just a food fad; they’re becoming the next American idol.

Google the word “cupcake” and history traces the sweet thrill back to the 19th century, when bakers discovered that it was possible to make a small cake in a cup. They were sometimes called “number cakes,” a reference to how easy it was to remember the number of ingredients required.  Since the 19th century, there is no question that these pint-sized delights have become America’s pride and joy.

The excitement that children have experienced for years is now being (re)felt by older generations.  Cupcakes have become the talk of the town, so to speak, and the focus of many online blogs such as, Cupcakes Take The Cake. But why now? How have these little delights recaptured the hearts of parents and professionals, long after their own halcyon days of youth have passed?

One possibility lies with a 2005 episode of the Emmy award winning show, Sex and the City. In the episode, Carrie Bradshaw (played by Sarah Jessica Parker) and Miranda Hobbes (played by Cynthia Nixon) are discussing Carrie’s new crush.  Before the camera focuses on the characters, there is a widescreen shot of the now-famous Magnolia Bakery, located in New York’s Greenwich Village.  While they are chatting, Carrie, the show’s main character, chows down on a delicious Magnolia cupcake.

In 2007, Oprah Winfrey chose cupcakes from Williams Sonoma as an item on her Oprah’s Favorite Things of 2007 list.  The entire audience at her show’s taping that day received a gift box of the delectable goods, baked by Perfect Endings, a bakery in Napa Valley, California. It is widely believed that anything Oprah Winfrey says is good as gold, and cupcakes got yet another boost thanks to her show.

In recent years, the popularity of cupcakes has led to the opening of several chain bakeries in and around New York City.  One of New York’s largest and most successful cupcake bakeries is Crumbs Bake Shop.  In March of 2003, the first shop opened on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Mia and John Bauer, who are married, founded the company that has since opened 34 shops from the East Coast to the West, and in January this year they took Crumbs public on the New York Stock Exchange.

Jason Bauer, another co-founder of Crumbs, says, “Mia has always had a ferocious sweet tooth and happened to be a great amateur baker.  We decided to open a small neighborhood bakery and while we baked over 150 different items every day, it was her cupcakes that everyone loved the most.  We started with just a few varieties and in a short period of time, added more and more until it became the focus of our business.”

Crumbs currently offers more than 100 varieties of cupcakes, with its Red Velvet being the top seller.  But what separates this bakeshop from its competitors? Simple: according to some, Crumbs developed the original gourmet cupcake.

Other now-famous bakeshops like Magnolia and Sugar Sweet Sunshine aren’t the only ones making a killing with these indulgences.  Many bakeries that have traditionally focused on other pastries are finding that if they don’t offer cupcakes, they may lose business.

In Manhattan, on 8th Avenue between 30th and 31st streets, D’Aiuto Baby Watson Cheesecake is experiencing an overwhelming boost in its cupcake sales.  Alan D’Aiuto, the shop’s manager, says, “Our bakery is famous for the cheesecake, it’s been that way for decades. But now with this cupcake craze, we’ve expanded our selection of cupcakes. They’re starting to sell more than the cheesecake and other pastries, which is surprising to us.”

The recent demand for cupcakes has left the D’aiuto Baby Watson Cheesecake shop with no option but to expand its selection to keep the customers coming. The D’Aiutos now offer over 15 varieties of cupcakes, three times the original selection.

“We have everything from the basic vanilla cupcake to red velvet cupcakes and seasonal ones. We did really well with our Halloween cupcakes,” Mr. D’Aiuto says, adding that his shop offered Thanksgiving-inspired cakes in November and that its Valentine’s Day cupcake is among its best sellers. “We also have peanut butter cupcakes, Reese Pieces, Oreos, and a new one made from German chocolate,” he says.

Another bakery facing the same changes is Ciro’s Pastry Shop, in Belle Harbor, Queens.  The shop is an Italian bakery and its business is primarily based on cannolis and other Italian classics. “We have noticed that there’s a higher demand for cupcakes,” says Meghan Wheeler, who has been working at the shop for over five years. “We’ve always sold cupcakes, but now we offer a larger variety since it’s becoming a bestseller.” Like the D’Aiuto Baby Watson Cheesecake shop, Ciro’s has recently expanded its cupcake selection.  They are now offering twelve different varieties.

In the race to keep up with such high cupcake demand, New York City has unleashed some of its most powerful sweet-slinging weapons ever.  The introduction of mobile gourmet cupcakes has sent New Yorkers into a frenzy.

The birth of CupcakeStop came in 2009, when a recent law school graduate became frustrated with the economy and rotten job market.  Lev Ekster hired a team of culinary students and professionals to help bring his dream to life, and before long, there was a bakery in New Jersey, a spot in the Limelight Marketplace in Manhattan, and two cupcake trucks.

With over 50 types of cupcakes to choose from, the goal is to make sure that there is something for everyone.  Many food review sources, including Zagat and Serious Eats New York, have listed the CupcakeStop truck as one of their favorites, and customers have raved about its Banana Nut and Red Velvet cupcakes on review sites like Yelp.com.  The whereabouts of the trucks change every day and remain a mystery until they are announced on social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook.

But CupcakeStop isn’t the only truck serving up fresh-baked goodness at affordable prices.  Founded in Brooklyn by a few close friends, the Cupcake Crew offers a surprise menu and a new location every day, which allows the team to gain a following citywide.  Like CupcakeStop, followers must tune into tweets and updates on Facebook to find out where the truck will be parked for the day.  As demand grows, the Cupcake Crew is always expanding its selection and hopes to cater private events in the future.

Although these food magicians all have different takes on what makes their cupcakes stand out amongst others, they share similar opinions on the impact of cupcakes and how convenient they are for their customers. “They’re smaller and can be decorated. People seem to like that cupcakes can be individualized,” says Meghan Wheeler of Ciro’s Pastry Shop. “People are ordering more cupcakes than cookies. I’ve heard customers say that cupcakes cause less mess than cookies, which I guess would make any mom happy. Also, this bakery is located in a residential area, so we get a lot of parents coming in and ordering cupcakes for their kids special occasions.”

As for Crumbs, customers seem to like the fact that there is no loss of flavor despite the relatively small size of a cupcake.  They can get just the right amount of sweet to satisfy a craving. Cupcakes have made their frosted way throughout bakeries in New York and across the nation.  Everyone has hopped on board the sugar express, and it’s showing no sign of losing steam.

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