A previous version of this article incorrectly said that Hello Cupcakes is considering adding savory cupcakes to its menu. It is Couture Cupcakes that has been testing savory flavors.
Cupcake Wars: Sweet Victory
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
There's almost always a line at Georgetown Cupcake, especially on weekends. But on Oct. 11, the queue had snaked out the door of the cult bakery on Potomac Street and was threatening to block traffic. Perhaps it was spillover from the Taste of Georgetown food festival, which drew more than 10,000 people. Perhaps it was that the bakery had scored several perfect 10s that week in our Cupcake Wars taste-offs. Whatever the reason, police arrived to help manage the flow. By the end of the day, the eight-month-old bakery had sold 5,000 cupcakes.
That's busier than most Saturdays. But only by about 25 percent. Co-owners and sisters Sophie LaMontagne and Katherine Kallinis, winners of our Cupcake Wars, bake from 5:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. most days. And though they allow employees to scoop batter into tins and check the ovens, they pipe the frosting on every single cupcake themselves. On average, the store sells between 2,000 and 3,000 cupcakes Tuesdays through Fridays (up from 800 when it opened in February), 4,000 on Saturdays and 2,000 on Sundays. Do the math: At $2.75 each, that conservatively adds up to sales of more than $38,000 a week and $2 million annually.
No wonder then that "cupcakeries" continue to open in Washington and around the country. This past summer, Lavender Moon Cupcakery opened in Alexandria and Hello Cupcake debuted in Dupont Circle. And just when it seems the market is saturated, more are on the way. Before the end of the year, Nostalgia Cupcake will open in Annapolis, and Red Velvet Cupcakery, sister to Dupont Circle's TangySweet, will open in Penn Quarter. Online-only Bakeshop DC, which sells at Murky Coffee, plans a storefront in Clarendon. Upstart Cup of Yumm is searching for space in and around Gaithersburg. Sprinkles, the famed Los Angeles cupcake shop, is hunting for space in Northwest Washington, with plans to open late next year.
To be honest, we thought that cupcakes' 15 minutes might well be over when we launched Cupcake Wars, a round-robin showdown of Washington area bakeries. But after receiving hundreds of e-mails and phone calls from bakers and rabid fans, we could see that the trend has life in it yet. We established clear rules to keep things manageable -- all bakers must have a retail storefront presence inside the Beltway -- and extended the battle from six to eight weeks to accommodate a mountain of reader suggestions.
It wasn't long before we had a bad case of cupcake fever, too. In and out of the tasting room, we debated at length the proper ratio of frosting to cake and how much more quickly a vanilla cake can dry out than a chocolate one. We had a spreadsheet to crunch the numbers on the cupcakes' weights, prices and flavors. In total, in the preliminary rounds alone, we sampled 141 varieties or 31 pounds of cupcakes; that's 7.75 pounds for each regular taster. The amount of weight gained by each taster is considered private.
The appeal is nostalgic, of course; we all fondly remember the cupcakes of our childhoods. But cupcakes actually date to the 19th century. According to the Oxford Companion to Food, there are two theories about the origin of the word "cupcake." The first refers to any small cake baked in a cup-shaped mold, as small cakes were before the invention of the muffin tin. In the United States, the term also may refer to the American use of cups as a measuring system. An 1845 recipe for a "cup cake" includes four cups of flour, three of sugar, one of melted butter and one of sour cream with a teaspoon of baking powder dissolved in it for a loaf-size cake.
The modern cupcake craze began in 1996 when Magnolia Bakery, a quaint Southern-style bake shop, opened in New York's Greenwich Village. According to legend, co-founder Allysa Torey began making vanilla cupcakes as a way to use up leftover batter. Cheap, and by definition portion controlled, the cupcakes were a hit in the neighborhood, and it wasn't uncommon to see a line out the door on weekends. The cupcakes' national debut occurred in 2000, when an episode of HBO's "Sex and the City" featured Carrie Bradshaw and gang digging into the retro sweets. The lines got longer. Soon, Magnolia was a stop on the "Sex and the City" bus tour, and bloggers were breathlessly posting four times a day about cupcake news and trends. Savvy entrepreneurs began to wonder if they could create cupcake mania elsewhere in New York and beyond.
Magnolia may have created the trend, but today most cupcakeries take their inspiration from Sprinkles. The sleek Beverly Hills shop set aside birthday party nostalgia and offered instead elegant, dainty cakes in more than 20 rotating flavors such as ginger lemon, chai latte and chocolate marshmallow. Sprinkles President Charles Nelson says he had a hard time persuading any landlord to rent him space for the first shop. Today, the bakery has five outlets in three states, each selling about 1,500 cupcakes a day. Sprinkles plans to open in 18 cities, including Washington.
If others don't beat them to it. Local cupcake shops have developed fast followings. Hello Cupcake, which offers 18 flavors at a time, has a line outside most mornings before the shop opens at 10 a.m., says owner Penny Karas. There's a second rush between noon and 3 p.m. and a final flurry after work hours. At Baked & Wired, a 7 1/2 -year-old bakery in Georgetown, cupcakes have forcibly moved center stage. Eighteen months ago, owner Teresa Velazquez says, she was making 50 or 60 cupcakes a day. Now she tries to keep five flavors in stock and sells 300 to 400 on weekdays and up to 1,000 on weekends. "I never wanted to be a cupcake place," she says. "But if you don't have cupcakes on weekends or you've run out, people get really upset."
None of the cupcake entrepreneurs is worried the market is too crowded. But there is a push to differentiate. At Hello, the flavors have cutesy names such as You Tart! (lemon cake with lemon cream cheese frosting) and Prima Donna (chocolate cake with strawberry buttercream). The Penn Quarter's Red Velvet will offer classic Southern flavor combinations from David Guas, a former executive pastry chef for the Passion Food Hospitality group, which includes DC Coast and Acadiana. For a steep $4.50 each, Nostalgia Cupcakes in Annapolis will offer alcoholic flavors, such as the Black Tie (chocolate liqueur cake with raspberry Chambord filling and white chocolate meringue frosting), when it opens within the next few weeks.
In Chicago, More Cupcakes has gone one step further. In addition to sophisticated sweet flavors (passionfruit poppy seed, for example) there are bold, savory flavors, including the BLT, a bacon cupcake with ranch frosting topped with an heirloom tomato and micro-arugula; the peach Camembert, with a Sauternes reduction frosting; and the bacon maple, a brown-sugar cake topped with maple frosting and candied bacon. "A few years ago, thyme ice cream seemed so outrageous. Now it's just normal," says founder Patty Rothman. "The question is, how far can we push it? Can we make a cupcake into an appetizer or a side dish?"
More Cupcakes already is successfully serving mini-savory cupcakes as hors d'oeuvres, and the savory cupcakes, especially anything bacon-flavored, have been moving well. The shop sells up to 150 BLT cupcakes a day. Men in particular like them; women favor the bacon-maple. The trick, Rothman says, is tapping familiar flavor pairings. Apple and gorgonzola makes sense to people. Madras curry, a curry cake swirled with berry jam and topped with goat cheese frosting? Not so much.
More's menu has garnered much attention; Couture Cupcakes is considering adding savory flavors to its menu, too. After less than two months in business, Rothman already is planning a second location.
Cupcake entrepreneurs acknowledge that the exploding number of bakeries could lead to a shakeout. But none anticipates a full-scale cupcake backlash. "It's a small pleasure. At $3.25, we're equivalent to a cup of coffee at Starbucks and cheaper than a treat at Cold Stone Creamery," says Sprinkles' Nelson. "And who's not having a birthday, even in an economic downturn?"
The exception to the expansion rush seems to be Georgetown Cupcake. When they opened, LaMontagne and Kallinis registered Internet domain names for Dupont Cupcake, Kalorama Cupcake, Capitol Hill Cupcake and others. But after eight months in the spotlight -- the sisters appeared Monday on Martha Stewart's television show -- they're rethinking their strategy.
"We don't want to be a chain," LaMontagne says. "We still want cupcakes to be special."