The new cupcake in town

By Danielle Douglas
Monday, February 14, 2011

Opening a cupcake shop three blocks down from the famed Georgetown Cupcake on M Street is a pretty bold move. But when Sprinkles makes its debut in the District next month, the Beverly Hills bakery will arrive as a celebrity.

It is widely considered the forebear of the modern cupcakery, with its dainty, couture cakes in 26 flavors, such as raspberry chocolate chip, hitting the market in 2005. Once Oprah Winfrey declared her devotion to the West Coast pastries, they wound up in segments on the "Today" show, "The Martha Stewart Show," "The Tyra Banks Show," "Good Morning America" and "Live! With Regis and Kelly." Sprinkles cupcake mixes are now sold in the designer housewares store Williams-Sonoma.

Co-owner Candace Nelson is even a judge on the Food Network's "Cupcake Wars," now in its second season. The cable show airs on Tuesdays, while TLC's "D.C. Cupcakes" -- chronicling the antics of sisters and co-owners of Georgetown Cupcake Sophie LaMontagne and Katherine Kallinis -- will air its second season on Fridays starting Feb. 25.

Two superstar bakeries, one neighborhood. Is Georgetown, with its narrow sidewalks, big enough for the both of them?

"The more cupcakes the better," said Sprinkles President Charles Nelson. "It's fun to see how the cupcakes-only bakery trend has taken on a life of its own. It's exciting to us."

He and his wife are entering a market brimming with cupcake specialists: Red Velvet Cupcakery in Penn Quarter, Hello Cupcake in Dupont Circle, Baked & Wired in Georgetown, Crumbs in the East End, Cake Love in the U Street corridor and the roaming ride of the Curbside Cupcakes truck. With such a full plate, the public may not have much of an appetite for another confectioner.

"We have a lot of fans in the D.C. area who have been asking us to open a Sprinkles," Charles Nelson said. "We listened to what our customers said. And we're hoping we can be a good part of the community."

The new Sprinkles on 3015 M St. NW is hiring 40 full-time workers. It will be the chain's first on the East Coast -- the next one is slated to open in New York this April. All told, the cupcakery will have 10 locations nationwide by springtime, five of which will have opened within less than a year.

The Nelsons have taken advantage of declines in commercial real estate rents across the country. Prior to the bust, the husband and wife team averaged one store opening a year since launching their first location in 2005. At this point, Sprinkles has slowed its expansion, with no more new sites in the pipeline, for now. The Nelsons, with more than 300 employees, are content with digesting what's currently on their plate.

Former investment bankers, the couple bid adieu to their high-paying gigs to start a catering business out of their kitchen in 2003. Mrs. Nelson had attended pastry school and was ready to try her hand at a new career. Mr. Nelson made rounds and rounds of deliveries for several months, leading the couple to conclude its was time to get a store. They sold 2,000 cupcakes in the first week of the shop's debut. At $3.50 a piece, that's enough of a reason to keep rolling out the fondant.

"We've grown by double digits every year we've been open," Charles Nelson said. "A cupcake is a small indulgent. I wouldn't say it's recession proof, but it's an option for people who've had to trade down."

He also credits the bakery's success to his wife's penchant for high-quality ingredients, like imported Belgian dark chocolate and Nielsen-Massey vanilla extract. Sprinkles has something for everyone, including vegan and gluten-free red velvet cupcakes. Nelson said they are working on a sugar-free batter for diabetics.

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