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.
"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.