He ought to know. Cupcakes represent half of his company’s $20 million in annual sales, which surged following the bakery’s 2000 cameo appearance in HBO’s “Sex and the City.”
Among portable, single-serving desserts, cupcakes stand out for their red-carpet glamour and infinite flavor combinations. Since the Food section’s Cupcake Wars in 2008, at least 30 cupcake shops and six cupcake trucks have sprung up around Washington.
The more the merrier, says Adnan Hamidi, owner of Alexandria Cupcake in Old Town: “It really helps out to know that there are more bakeries opening up. It shows the strength of the industry. As long as no one’s opening next door to me, I welcome the competition.”
One food trendspotter attributes cupcakes’ retail ascent to a convergence of factors.
“If you look back at the modern arrival of the cupcake, it happened to coincide with and was the motivator for the niche, specialty bakery that evidently was ripe to come,” says Kara Nielsen of the Center for Culinary Development in San Francisco.
At the same time cupcake-only bakeries started to multiply in the mid to late 2000s, food blogs, review sites and user-generated content took off on the Web. People who could suddenly self-publish their opinions needed something to talk about, and the cupcake proved noteworthy, she says.
As household budgets tightened during the down economy of the past four years, cupcakes became an affordable luxury, a means to relieve the angst of repressing big-ticket desires.
“People are tired of constantly worrying about what they’re spending,” says economic analyst Domenick Celentano, who writes about the food business on About.com. “With a cupcake, recession-weary consumers can treat themselves.”
Taking ownership of a gourmet cupcake is a qualitatively different transaction from buying a candy bar at a drug store, says Chris Carbone.
He studies consumer trends for the market research firm Innovaro and says cupcakes appeal to post-modernists who value creativity, authenticity, aesthetic design, personalization and locally sourced goods.
Because these consumers possess a “desire for experiences rather than just more stuff,” they’re in the market for more than a sugar rush. Patronizing a boutique cupcakery “has a high experiential component and connects [consumers] with a larger narrative,” he says.
Washington is among the more than 60 global cities to host a Cupcake Camp, an informal, predominantly female gathering and competition with professional and amateur bakers and dozens of consumers to taste and judge.