Cupcake Nation

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

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. 

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