Cupcake Nation

The popular treat is spawning TV shows, books, retail chains—and the cake pop

“Would you like a free cupcake?”

Duh.

The no-brainer question stops sidewalk traffic as Sophie Kallinis LaMontagne, wearing her signature hot pink apron and matching lipstick, holds out a ribboned tray of mini-treats.

It’s a steaming 99 degrees outside. A TLC camera crew is filming the stunt for an October special of D.C. Cupcakes, focused on LaMontagne’s chain, Georgetown Cupcake, founded with sister Katherine Kallinis Berman. Neither the hubbub nor heat deter families, tattooed hipsters, tourists and girls—lots and lots of girls of all ages—from taking a cupcake. There’s red velvet, salted caramel, coconut and the New York Pinstripe Pretzel, just created for Yankees legend Bernie Williams, who visited the store earlier to frost them for a charity bake-off against Red Sox icon Jason Varitek. The episode marks the sisters opening their fourth store in Boston this fall.

“Cupcakes really do speak to you—there’s something intrinsically personal about them,” Sophie says. “People are fanatic about cupcakes.”

In fact, America loves the treat that exploded into the popular culture a decade ago, after Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw and her gal posse bit into them at the Magnolia Bakery in New York’s Greenwich Village. The crumby cameo on the megahit helped transform the dessert from a kids’ birthday party treat into a luxury item and, ultimately, a multibillion-dollar industry. Ever since, foodies, retailers, TV programmers, booksellers and media experts want to know: Can anything stop the cupcake?

The U.S. boasts more than 400 cupcake outlets, according to Cupcakes Take The Cake, a blog with nearly 28,000 Twitter followers and 400,000 monthly pageviews. Crumbs Bake Shop, founded in 2003 on Manhattan’s Upper West Side by the husband-and-wife team of Jason and Mia Bauer, now has 51 stores in markets including New York, Chicago, Boston and Washington, D.C. Plans call for 200 stores over the next two years. The chain, which went public last year, posted $11.3 million in sales in the first quarter of this year.

On the West Coast, Beverly Hills, Calif.-based Sprinkles Cupcakes, founded by Candace Nelson in 2005 and inspired by her great-grandmother’s recipes, now has 10 U.S. locations, with plans to open 15 more in markets including Tokyo and London.  

“Really, the appeal of cupcakes is that they can be humbly versatile, they can be upscale or mainstream, fancy cakes or everyday cakes as well,” says Chris Brockman, senior global analyst Mintel Food & Drink. The sector stays innovative due to constant variation—from the $1 elegant mini-versions at Baked by Melissa to savory flavors on blogs and travel shows, such as Bacon and Egg cupcakes. While retail outlets peaked in 2007 and 2008 at 60 and 58 new shops respectively, new store openings were still strong by 2011 at 37. And growth is expected to continue through 2015, according to Mintel.

The little cake that could has spawned more than 500 books listed on Amazon, according Basic American Foods’ Taste the Trend. But its real success as a cultural phenomenon can be measured by reality TV. In 2010, TLC premiered its show about the entrepreneurial sisters behind Georgetown Cupcake, who doubled their output from 5,000 to 10,000 cupcakes per day. Food Network’s Cupcake Wars launched the same year, copying its own Chopped formula featuring four contestants vying in three elimination rounds for cash and the chance to dessert cater a celebrity party.

That glut of new shows hasn't hurt the ratings for Cupcake Wars, which started off with 1.3 million total viewers and a .6 in the 25-54 demo in its first season, and pulled in 1.5 million viewers and a .7 in the demo for this summer's season 6. That's close to one of Food Network's biggest shows, Chopped, which reliably draws in excess of 1 million viewers.

Despite the ratings dip, Bob Tuschman, general manager and svp of Food Network and Cooking Channel, says Cupcake Wars is still going considering a crowded field of nine Food Network dessert shows. From a programming angle, he calls them “mini-culinary masterpieces,” combining art, science and technique. “It’s a great canvas to test the skills of pastry artists. It makes incredibly compelling viewing.” On a recent episode of Cupcake Wars, contestants competed to cater cupcakes at the launch party for actress Kate Walsh’s new perfume, Billionaire Boyfriend. The judges had to choose between the two final contestants’ displays of 1,000 cupcakes. One was shaped like a giant perfume bottle with cupcakes inside, another was a wooden cruise ship on a table whose decks displayed the cupcakes. (The perfume bottle won.)

Other pretenders are trying to elbow in. One recent contender is the macaron, the French butter cream-filled almond meringue sandwich spelled with one “o,” to differentiate it from Manischewitz coconut cookies often associated with Passover. “Move over, cupcakes! Try Parisian macarons!” a Today Food headline trumpeted last November. “French macarons may soon be the new cupcake,” reported CBS.

Even as cupcake shops invaded her hometown of Paris, Cecile Cannone wanted to introduce the French macaron to New York. Owner with her chef husband Arnaud Cannone of the city’s three Macaron Cafés, Cannone declares: “Chocolates are out. Cupcakes are out. Macrons are in. The luxury box [a clear plastic rectangular container with a ribbon] makes for a beautiful presentation.” With a projected $3 million in sales this year, their confections are also sold in gourmet supermarkets such as Dean & Deluca and Balducci’s.

Yet the delicate French sweet, about the size of an Oreo cookie, may be too upmarket to reach mass popularity. “Macarons are quite an expensive item,” Brockman points out. (They cost $2.50 each at Macaron Café, while gourmet cupcakes twice the size range from $2.50 and more.) The ingredients are also expensive and generally can’t be made at home. “They’re a fashion item, not an everyday treat,” Minton concludes.  

In the decade since the Magnolia Bakery sparked the cupcake craze, the store’s owner Steve Abrams has seen it all. “The elite food press is constantly trying to knock the cupcake off its perch and put something else there, macarons being the latest fad,” says Abrams, who has expanded his homey-feeling destination to eight outposts in the U.S. with plans for stores in Kuwait, Lebanon, Abu Dhabi and Japan.

Whoopie Pies were also called “the next cupcake” by the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., Portland's The Oregonian and Canada’s National Post. But the chocolate, crème-filled sandwich, alternatively known as “black and whites” or “black moons,” is just another wannabe, according to Mintel. They “suffer in comparison to the flexibility and customization available with cupcakes,” their research reports. It’s the same old story, says Harry Balzer, chief analyst for NPD Group. “It's like the coffee market. You see coffee shops everywhere and you think everyone must be drinking coffee, but coffee peaked in consumption in 1946,” he says, citing government per capita statistics.

Despite the uptick in cupcake stores nationwide, Balzer notes, cupcake consumption hasn’t really changed since 1997. People are just buying them in different places. Instead of a low-cost, chemical-laden Hostess cupcake, a consumer will buy a pricey, fresh-baked cupcake from her favorite shop. Meanwhile, Hostess filed for bankruptcy last year.

In American households, the 10 most-served desserts at dinnertime are fruit (21.8%), followed by ice cream (15.1%); cake, including cupcakes (13.4%); cookies (13.1%); pie (9.1%); and yogurt (2.9%), according to NPD’s National Eating Trends Service.

“We are always looking for new versions of things we eat a lot of,” says Balzer, pointing to the soft-cookie trend of the ’80s and today’s cupcake craze.

That’s why pies are set to make a comeback. Frozen and refrigerated pies have been performing well because they’re nostalgic, filling, traditional and have a good value appeal, according to Mintel. Sales are up almost 5 percent this year. “People see pies as the next cupcakes because it allows the seller to feature what’s local and what’s fresh,” says Peter Romeo, vp, content at Nation's Restaurant News, which has tapped the pie as the next up-and-comer.

But don’t expect a reality show called Pie Wars anytime soon. “We actually have been pitched shows about pies, but it comes down to visual intrigue and visual appeal for us,” says Food Network’s Tuschman. “You know, a blueberry pie doesn’t look all that different from a strawberry pie or a rhubarb pie.”

The only new trend that’s truly taken off is cake pops, which look much like golf ball-sized mini cupcakes on a stick. The difference is that the batter is mixed with frosting before being chilled, then dipped in chocolate or candy and topped with sprinkles, candy or fondant. The technique gives the cakes a moist, doughy feel, though they’re cooked. While the treat is too new for market researchers to have numbers on, Google searches for “cake pop recipe” have spiked 2,243 percent, according to Google Internal Data. 

It all started in the winter of 2008, soon after Georgian Angie Dudley founded baking blog Bakerella and wrote about impaling some pink-coated chocolate cake balls on a stick.  “I wanted to turn them into a lollipop,” she recalls. “I’d never seen it before.”

To get the dessert onto cupcake blogs, she crafted a cake pop in the shape of a cupcake, replete with frosting and sprinkles. A month later, Martha Stewart invited Dudley to appear on her TV show to demonstrate. Since then, Bakerella has made many diverse variations, including her famous yellow chicks, robots, Mr. Potato Head and The Muppets for Disney’s website.

Her book, Cake Pops: Tips, Tricks, and Recipes for More Than 40 Irresistible Mini Treats, has sold more than one million copies and has been translated into 11 languages, according to Chronicle Books. Bakerella’s Cake Pops Kit, also by Chronicle, includes recipes, sticks, clear cello bags, wrapping gift tags and a cake pop display stand and has sold more than 100,000 copies. Next up: Cake Pops Holidays. Chronicle has also licensed toy company SRM Entertainment to create a no-bake cake pop set for kids to be carried in Toys R Us stores.

Bakerella isn’t alone in capitalizing on cake pops. Robin Ankeny, who grew up eating her mother’s cake balls in South East Texas, opened The Cake Ball Company in Dallas in 2007 with partner Charlotte Lyon. They’ve gone from selling 7,000 cake balls in 2007 to more than 200,000 in 2011. A book is forthcoming.

And Telebrands, the original “As Seen on TV” company, jumped on the trend last winter when it began selling Bake Pop tins. So far, it has sold two million of the tins at $19.99 in retailers such as at Target, Bed Bath & Beyond and Walmart. Telebrands CEO AJ Khubani expects even more robust sales in fourth quarter, as the holiday season approaches.

Yet the place where many will encounter cake pops may be Starbucks, which last year introduced its variation, Starbucks Petites, priced at about $1.50 and touting 200 calories.

Still, don’t expect any of the cake pops or other upstarts to supplant cupcakes in the near future. “It’s not a faddish-type trend,” Brockman says. “All the pretenders are quite on the periphery of the market.”

Even Bakerella’s Dudley doesn’t predict a pop takeover. “It’s just another choice for people,” she says. “I still eat cupcakes.”

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