Among the must-see spots in the nation's capital: the cupcake queue

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 16, 2010; B01

Behold the power of Georgetown Cupcake: One sweltering day this month, a young woman was baking in the sun on 33rd Street NW, waiting in the long queue to buy some of the bakery's signature sweets, when she fainted on the sidewalk. An ambulance rushed to the scene, but she declined to go to the hospital.

Of course she did.

"She didn't want to get out of line," explains the voguish bakery's co-owner, Katherine Kallinis.

And so grew the legend of the Georgetown Cupcake line, which forms daily at the northwest corner of 33rd and M streets and often stretches all the way to Prospect Street, clear at the other end of the block.

"It's crazy, especially on weekends," says Eileen Lohmann, a Georgetown University student who lives a few doors up from Georgetown Cupcake. "Sometimes we can't even get down our steps. I'm not bothered by it, but I am just a little shocked that so many people would line up in the rain or 100-degree weather for cupcakes. I wouldn't want to walk outside in that heat, let alone eat a cupcake."

Yet the Georgetown Cupcake fetishists are there, day after sweltering day -- especially since the mid-summer launch of "D.C. Cupcakes," a reality show on the TLC cable channel about Kallinis and her business partner-sister, Sophie LaMontagne, and their little cupcakery that could. The show, whose debut was watched by more than 1 million people, turned Georgetown Cupcake from a local phenomenon into a tourist attraction of national proportions -- creating headaches for neighbors who now have to cut through the cupcake queue to enter their homes.

Georgetown Cupcake has had lines out the door since opening on Valentine's Day in 2008, in a much smaller space on nearby Potomac Street. But sales have doubled since the TV show's premiere (10,000 cupcakes a day on weekends, at $2.75 a pop, $15 for six or $29 for a dozen). Crowds at the new flagship store, which opened in December, have swelled to such an extent that the sisters felt compelled to add a bouncer to their staff.

A bouncer. At a bakery.

"Everyone calls it a bouncer, but it's really more of a greeter," says LaMontagne, taking a break from squeezing frosting from a piping bag.

"I always think of a bouncer as, like, a 300-pound big guy," Kallinis says. "That's not what it is at all."

One day this week, it was Patrick Foust, a slight, smiling Georgetown student dressed in flip-flops, white shorts and black T-shirt. It was noon, and he was handing out pink Georgetown Cupcake menus, directing foot traffic and answering questions from line-standers, who had come from South Carolina and California and points between. "This is a pretty big stop on people's tours of D.C. now," Foust said.

Angela Jefferson was living, breathing, sweating confirmation. Visiting from Vancouver, B.C., she had already hit some of the usual tourist spots with her family: Arlington National Cemetery, the Lincoln Memorial, some of the Smithsonian museums. Now it was time for cupcakes.

Her mother had seen the line on 33rd and suggested they go elsewhere for their fix. Jefferson was incredulous: Georgetown Cupcake or bust! "I like the TV show and I like the sisters," she said. "All my girlfriends back home are like, 'Did you go to 'D.C. Cupcakes' yet?' "

She promised to update her Facebook status just as soon as she left the bakery with her carrot cupcakes. "It's way more than just cupcakes," said her mother, Rosella, as she stood across the street, in the shade.

The Jeffersons were relatively lucky; they had only 29 people and a 20-minute wait ahead of them. On the bakery's busiest days -- weekends, usually -- it's not uncommon to see more than 100 people waiting for up to two hours each just to buy their red velvets and chocolate ganaches and key limes and lava fudges and salted caramels.

Anthropology 101

But whereas locals once lined up simply because they were crazy for the cupcakes, people now come for, say, a half-dozen lemon blossoms, plus something else.

"We have a social need to be part of the experience," says Donna Sturgess, president of Buyology Inc., a New York company that advises businesses on the neuroscience of branding. "People want to stand in the line and talk to people about which ones they're buying. The story is unfolding on the sidewalk, and people want to be participants."

She likens the Georgetown Cupcake phenomenon to the gatherings at Apple stores for product launches, only with peanut butter fudge replacing the iPad. "They're all there because they're all there and you're part of this community," she says. "This is the same thing. It's just not tech and geek guys. . . . It's a cupcake that doesn't cost that much money and is a piece of delight in the middle of what might be an otherwise crappy day."

Not everybody is delighted, of course. Some longtime Georgetown Cupcake fans grouse about the increasingly long lines, though they can be avoided by pre-ordering online. (You can waltz right into the store for pickup, the sisters say.)

Tom Meyer, who runs the Clyde's Restaurant Group and lives across the street, says the bakery's arrival "destroyed street parking completely" on 33rd. And recently, Meyer says, he was moving a table into his house, and there was a kid eating a cupcake on his front steps, and the kid didn't want to move, telling Meyer: "I was here first."

"But I don't want to be a curmudgeon," Meyer says. "Overall, I consider it a plus. It's much better than the bars that are letting out at 2 in the morning and it's drunk, rowdy kids. It's cupcakes. It's fine."

Opting out of the queue

Two-thirds of the way up the block, at 1216 33rd St., a bedsheet banner hangs from a window, mocking those who wait for a Georgetown cupcake. "Proud Fans of Baked & Wired Cupcakes," the banner says, a nod to a nearby bakery that's plenty popular but where customers won't find people lined up 100 deep.

Andrew Swanson, a 21-year-old Australian who is studying for the summer at Georgetown, explains that he and his housemates aren't necessarily anti-Georgetown Cupcake. They're just anti-Georgetown Cupcake queue -- especially because he's been accused of cutting when he was simply trying to get into his house.

"People are free to choose what they want to do," he says, looking at the long line stretching past his front door. "I wouldn't choose that."

No need to wait, anyway: After the banner went up, Swanson and his housemates received a free box of cupcakes -- from Baked & Wired. "We never had a problem with the dessert!" he says.

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