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For Two Sisters, Little Cakes Are a Big Hit

By Walter Nicholls
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 27, 2008

"I was five blocks away when I heard someone scream, 'They're sold out!' And a little part of me died."

Georgetown University senior Christine Gallagher was talking about cupcakes-- specifically, the ones being produced and sold at Georgetown Cupcake at the rate of about 800 per day, $2.75 each.

That's 700 more than Canadian-born sisters Sophie LaMontagne, 30, and Katherine Kallinis, 28, thought they would sell when they created a business plan six months ago. But since Valentine's Day, when they opened their small bakery just off M Street NW in Georgetown, lines have formed for the more than 20 rotating flavors (12 per day) that beckon with names such as lemon blossom, honey yogurt, lava fudge and vanilla soy.

Washington has caught up to a trend that has been building in other major U.S. cities for more than a decade. First propelled into the urban consciousness by New York's Magnolia Bakery in 1996 and subliminally promoted by the pleasure-seeking women of the HBO series "Sex and the City," businesses such as Sprinkles Cupcakes in Los Angeles and Cupcakes in Chicago continue to draw repeat customers who appreciate the dessert's size and portability.

Georgetown Cupcake is this area's first true example of the phenomenon, though others have made cupcakes a big part of their business. In 2002, former attorney Warren Brown opened CakeLove on U Street NW, specializing in full-size cakes and cupcakes. Brown, a dynamic and affable baker, went on to star in Food Network's "Sugar Rush" and has since opened bakeries in Shirlington, Silver Spring and Baltimore.

So the sisters have expanded the city's cupcake arena. They used their savings and a small-business loan to transform a small wood-frame townhouse, doing as much of the work as possible themselves.

"It was a dump. But we saw potential," LaMontagne says.

The sisters' initial strategy was to concentrate on cupcake catering for weddings, showers and birthdays; walk-in trade would be an added bonus. With the exception of a sign in the front window announcing the opening, the sisters did no advertising. Customers have told them they read about the shop on blogs and other Web sites.

Neither sister has formal culinary training. Until recently, LaMontagne worked at a private equity firm in Boston, commuting from Washington three days a week. Kallinis was a special-events planner for Gucci in Toronto, where the sisters grew up. They have adapted recipes from their grandmother, and their experience comes from home: "We've been baking since we were old enough to hold a spatula," LaMontagne says.

Now they're alternating shifts in the shop's cramped 11-by-14-foot basement kitchen and selling their cupcakes in an equally small but stylish salesroom, accented by a sliding panel of frosted glass and fresh tropical flowers. On the surface, the place has a degree of glamour, with the attractive sisters, dressed in black, smiling as they carefully fill pink and white boxes with tastefully decorated treats.

Behind the scenes, the sisters never stop moving. They start mixing batters at 4 a.m., dragging 50-pound bags of sugar and flour down a steep flight of stairs not much wider than the bags. Their one small convection oven can bake 60 cupcakes every 15 minutes. At particularly busy times of day, such as midafternoon, they run back and forth into an adjoining room where they make espresso drinks and store the fresh cupcakes. There's no time to refill the cake stands on display.

As with any new business, there have been mishaps. LaMontagne washed and spun-dry the cellphone she left in an apron pocket. Thus far, though, the sisters have suffered no serious calamities -- just a deeply entangled hairbrush that needed extra effort to extract, 15 minutes before their grand opening. "I was almost in tears," Kallinis recalls.

So the sisters must be doing something just right.

On the shop's second day of business, Gallagher and two other Georgetown University seniors formed a line outside the small bakery more than an hour before its 11 a.m. start; the line grew to 10 by the time the bakery opened. They were hoping to avoid the chaos and disappointment that had befallen dozens of would-be customers a day earlier, when LaMontagne and Kallinis could not keep up with demand and had to close -- twice -- for several hours to bake and decorate more cupcakes.

Gallagher, 22, had missed out the day before, but her friend Caitlin Kelly, 22, of New York had been luckier. "Amazing," said Kelly, who was wearing pajamas under her coat. "Worth the wait. I had a red velvet yesterday, and it was delectable."

She's right. While CakeLove's are often too dry, and other bakery versions seem more like muffins in their density and size, these are great cupcakes, with a moist crumb. The slightly domed cake is on the diminutive side, putting it in perfect ratio to the not-too-sweet frosting, which is sometimes piped in a beehive shape.

LaMontagne and Kallinis tell of a man who stepped out of the crowd that first day and announced he was interested in buying the business. He has since returned and watched as cupcakes fly out the door. The sisters prefer not to disclose his name or the company he represents or to say whether they would, in fact, sell the place. Things are moving fast.

"It was always my dream to open a cupcake shop. Baking is my passion," Kallinis says. For now, "we just want to be tucked away in a corner -- a little neighborhood bakery."

This despite the fact that the siblings have registered the Web domain names for Dupont Cupcake, Kalorama Cupcake, Capitol Hill Cupcake, Chevy Chase Cupcake and Clarendon Cupcake. Stay tuned.

Georgetown Cupcake, 1209 Potomac St. NW, 202-333-8448,http://www.georgetowncupcake.com.

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