Correction to This Article
A March 14 Food article about online bakeries misstated the location of ShoeBox Oven and the previous job of its owner, Krishna Brown. The business is based in Arlington, and Brown was a graphic designer in the Peace Corps.

Cupcakes That Click

The crew of tasters: from left, Nycci Nellis, Amanda McClements, Melissa McCart and Adam Bailey.
The crew of tasters: from left, Nycci Nellis, Amanda McClements, Melissa McCart and Adam Bailey. (Bill O'leary - Bill O'Leary)

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By Kelly DiNardo
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Chocolate cupcakes, topped with a deep brown frosting and dotted with sprinkles, crowded one platter, alongside vanilla cupcakes covered with cloudlike swirls. Filling a second were large yellow cupcakes that had malt balls tucked into their ribbons of icing, and more chocolate cupcakes, this time with three-inch mounds of spun sugar crowning their tops. A rainbow of cupcakes with light brown, bubble-gum pink and crisp white buttercream overflowed off a third plate.

As each plate emerged from the kitchen, a chorus of oohs rang out. As each platter was set down, a jumble of observations -- "It looks like matted hair." "Oh! They're so pretty, I want one of each!" -- poured forth. And as each taster took another bite, the din of commentary grew.

"The frosting tastes like chocolate pudding."

"It's like eating a stuffed animal."

"I like how dense and moist this one is."

I had lured four friends, all online food writers, into an unofficial taste test. Nycci Nellis, 37, of TheListAreYouOnIt.com; Amanda McClements, 28, of Metrocurean.com; Melissa McCart, 34, of CounterIntelligence; and Adam Bailey, 27, of DCist.com had indulged in this sugary bacchanal to see whether they could taste the difference between online and storefront bakery products.

Such Web-based purveyors as igourmet.com, Tienda.com, LeVillage.com and even Amazon.com have long offered a plethora of foodstuffs, from olive oils to cheeses to bonbons, online. Of-the-month clubs have delivered wine, bacon and potato chips to doorsteps every month since Harry & David started their Fruit-of-the-Month Club in the 1930s. In fact, Forrester Research estimates that U.S. online food and beverage sales will reach $7.2 billion in 2007, up from $6.2 billion in 2006. Food sales, though, are the smallest percentage of online commerce; in 2006 computer hardware and software topped the list, with projected sales of $16.8 billion.

Shipping speeds and plastic foam containers with ice packs have made it possible to send even perishable items. Shipping ice cream, however, still remains drastically different from mailing a dessert with a delicately whipped topping. Yet even for bakeries hawking fragile, frothy confections and wary of the "smushed" factor, selling their wares online is a growing business. For some, an online bakery is preferable to a traditional bricks-and-mortar shop.

"I can't imagine how much money it costs to have a storefront," says Krishna Brown, owner of ShoeBoxOven.com, a Silver Spring-based online bakery. "I didn't have the funding to support an actual infrastructure, but I didn't think that should stop me."

Brown, 32, began selling her baked goods at the Arlington Farmers Market last May and had so much success she quit her full-time job doing Web design for the Peace Corps to open ShoeBox Oven in November. Now, each morning at 2 she takes over the kitchen at Ray's the Classics restaurant in Silver Spring and whips up desserts for wholesale and individual retail patrons. In the months she has been open, individual sales have fluctuated between four orders a week and more than 30 a week. The desserts are delivered the same day they are made, and pickups are available at both Ray's restaurants (the other is Ray's the Steaks in Arlington). While 85 percent of her business is for pickup or delivery, she has shipped by two-day mail to destinations as far away as Albuquerque.

ShoeBox Oven is one of the few solely online bakeries in the area, but other shops with traditional storefronts are looking to expand in that direction as well.

Within months of opening five years ago, CakeLove took phone orders and delivered buttercream cupcakes around the Washington area. In 2003, the U Street bakery began shipping other desserts, but it quickly discontinued the operation until about a year ago, when it began offering Box-O-Luv, a package containing brownies and a vanilla poundcake.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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