What is it about peeling away the pastry wrapper on a warm chocolate cupcake, and then deftly biting into it without getting your nose covered in icing that evokes childhood memories? Nearly as poignant as holding a vanilla ice cream cone, we feel like a kid again balancing a cupcake in our hand. The appeal is nostalgic; we fondly remember the cupcakes from our youth.
A modern cupcake craze appears to have started in New York in 1996 when a quaint Southern-style bakeshop opened in Greenwich Village. According to legend, Magnolia Bakery began making vanilla cupcakes as a way to use up leftover batter. A few years later, “Sex and the City” featured Carrie and Miranda sitting outside on a small bench eating the cakes. Soon, Magnolia was a stop on the “Sex and the City” bus tour, and the queue streamed around the block. The shop installed full-time security guards with hour-long waits becoming the standard.
Magnolia’s success spawned countless imitators as entrepreneurs jumped into the business of baking. The question was: could cupcake mania spread beyond New York City? The answer is a resounding yes. From New York City to Los Angeles, and Chicago to Houston, “Cupcakeries” are springing up all over the United States.
Sprinkles Cupcakes, a sleek shop offering elegant, dainty cakes in over 20 rotating flavors, started in Los Angeles. The company’s president, Charles Nelson, claims it was hard to find someone to lease him space for the first shop. Now, the bakery boasts six outlets in three states, each selling about 1,500 cupcakes a day. Sprinkles’ expansion plans involve 18 cities, including a location in Houston’s Highland Village in April of this year.
There are already places to cop a cake in Houston. Crave Cupcakes in Uptown Park cleverly designed their building so cupcake fanatics can watch their miniature confections bake in an open kitchen. Sugar Babies Cupcake Boutique, which opened a mere eighteen months ago with claims of being Houston’s “original” cupcake shop, offers several flavors including the most popular, red velvet. They are located on South Shepherd between Richmond and Alabama. Red velvet cupcakes, you ask? Look how far this little confection has come: chocolate marshmallow, lemon coconut, peppermint crumble, and even chai latte or mocha for those in need of a coffee-kick. Cupcakes used to be limited to the same humdrum flavors: vanilla, chocolate and strawberry, but no more.
In Chicago, More Cupcakes has gone a step further and introduced bold flavors, including the BLT- a bacon cupcake with ranch frosting topped with an heirloom tomato and micro-arugula. According to founder Patty Rothman: “The question is, how far can we push it? Can we make a cupcake into an appetizer or a side dish?” The shop sells up to 150 BLT cupcakes a day. Men in particular like them; women prefer other flavors. Apple and Gorgonzola cakes are on the menu, as well as curry cakes swirled with berry jam and topped with goat cheese frosting. Strange as it seems, the humble cupcake is humble no more. Even Houston is catching cupcake fever. Cupcake-emblazoned t-shirts and baseball caps are frequently worn by lovers of the treat.
“Cupcakeries” are experiencing explosive growth, but will the future be even sweeter? “Who’s not having a birthday, even in an economic downturn?” asks Sprinkles President, Charles Nelson. “Cupcakeries” in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, sell an average of 8,000 cupcakes per week. Do the math. At $2.75 to $3.50 a pop, that’s some serious sugar.