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.
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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)

"We don't have the facilities that are really required for shipping," says owner Warren Brown, 36, who plans to expand CakeLove's shipping business by midsummer. "When you go to a place that does ship, you see how much room they use; it's the size of two or three CakeLoves."

Teresa Velazquez, owner of Baked & Wired in Georgetown, has considered adding online ordering but remains cautious for different reasons.

"There's always that factor of not stretching yourself too far," says Velazquez, 43. "I don't want to lose the quality of the product in mass producing things. If I can do it and not sacrifice the quality, I would."

There are challenges besides shipping logistics and growing a business too quickly. Getting customers to make the leap of faith about buying an item they haven't seen or smelled might be the biggest hurdle for an online bakery. In fact, Forrester Research found that the main reason people don't like to shop for food online is that they like to see or touch food items before they buy them (the report didn't mention taste).

For just that reason, owners of the new Alexandria bakery Buzz have thought about adding online ordering but decided against opening an exclusively online bakery. The bakery is part of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, a local chain of restaurants that include Tallula, Vermillion and Rustico.

"Part of the bakery experience is to see and smell the products being made," says co-owner Michael Babin, 39. "We have a kitchen that allows that. We have things out to taste. That's all part of the experience."

Taking that leap of faith was the biggest hurdle for our Web-savvy tasters, who all agreed they would order online -- but only from a storefront shop they already knew, liked and trusted. Nellis, the only one to have ordered from an online bakery before, epitomized why. She bought something sight unseen -- well, unseen in person -- and got burned.

"I ordered these beautiful cupcakes for my son's birthday," Nellis says. "They looked just like they did on the Web site, but unfortunately they were tasteless. To spend that kind of money on cupcakes that didn't taste good wasn't worth it."

ShoeBox Oven's Brown has found most of her sales are by word of mouth: Customers she met at the farmers market or who made the leap tell their friends about their experience. Not having a storefront does pose challenges for Brown, who says she plans to return to the Arlington Farmers Market again this year.

"I can't wait for the market to open up again so I can gauge my customers' responses," she says. "It's a test kitchen of sorts. We use them as guinea pigs. We were able to see what worked, what didn't work."

As for what worked and didn't for our four tasters, well, they all knew which desserts had come from ShoeBox Oven. Our tasters thought the exaggerated presentation, the slightly crushed spun sugar topping and a "prepared" flavor gave ShoeBox Oven away. The group sampled cupcakes -- something everyone carried, which made comparing easier -- from Baked & Wired, CakeLove and ShoeBox and thought Baked & Wired was tops for its moist cakes and cream cheese frosting.

After tasting the cupcakes, the group looked at the Web site for ShoeBox Oven and thought the "over-the-top" cupcakes made sense because they needed to make a visual impact. In person, the cupcakes were "impressive initially" but came off as "overdone." For now, all four prefer to wander into a traditional bakery, press their noses against the glass cases, take a whiff and see which decadent confection calls out to them.

Kelly DiNardo is a freelance writer who lives in Washington.

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