It took 355 cupcakes to make this American flag. None went to waste. (Deb Lindsey/FOR THE WASHINGTON…)
As the Modern Cupcake Moment swirls into its second decade, America just might have to admit that what we’re dealing with — 669.4 million sold from October 2010 to October 2011, according to the market research firm NPD — is not a fad. It’s an enduring love affair.
“Cupcake culture has been iconic in the U.S. for 100 years,” says Steve Abrams, co-owner of New York’s Magnolia Bakery. American recipes for cake baked in small cups and the term “cup cake” cropped up earlier, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. “There is no cupcake craze.”
He ought to know. Cupcakes represent half of his company’s $20 million in annual sales, which surged following the bakery’s 2000 cameo appearance in HBO’s “Sex and the City.”
Among portable, single-serving desserts, cupcakes stand out for their red-carpet glamour and infinite flavor combinations. Since the Food section’s Cupcake Wars in 2008, at least 30 cupcake shops and six cupcake trucks have sprung up around Washington.
The more the merrier, says Adnan Hamidi, owner of Alexandria Cupcake in Old Town: “It really helps out to know that there are more bakeries opening up. It shows the strength of the industry. As long as no one’s opening next door to me, I welcome the competition.”
One food trendspotter attributes cupcakes’ retail ascent to a convergence of factors.
“If you look back at the modern arrival of the cupcake, it happened to coincide with and was the motivator for the niche, specialty bakery that evidently was ripe to come,” says Kara Nielsen of the Center for Culinary Development in San Francisco.
At the same time cupcake-only bakeries started to multiply in the mid to late 2000s, food blogs, review sites and user-generated content took off on the Web. People who could suddenly self-publish their opinions needed something to talk about, and the cupcake proved noteworthy, she says.
As household budgets tightened during the down economy of the past four years, cupcakes became an affordable luxury, a means to relieve the angst of repressing big-ticket desires.
“People are tired of constantly worrying about what they’re spending,” says economic analyst Domenick Celentano, who writes about the food business on About.com. “With a cupcake, recession-weary consumers can treat themselves.”
Taking ownership of a gourmet cupcake is a qualitatively different transaction from buying a candy bar at a drug store, says Chris Carbone.
He studies consumer trends for the market research firm Innovaro and says cupcakes appeal to post-modernists who value creativity, authenticity, aesthetic design, personalization and locally sourced goods.
Because these consumers possess a “desire for experiences rather than just more stuff,” they’re in the market for more than a sugar rush. Patronizing a boutique cupcakery “has a high experiential component and connects [consumers] with a larger narrative,” he says.
Washington is among the more than 60 global cities to host a Cupcake Camp, an informal, predominantly female gathering and competition with professional and amateur bakers and dozens of consumers to taste and judge.
The city’s second annual event took place in September at Local 16 along the U Street corridor. Between bites of peanut butter, salted caramel, chocolate raspberry and red velvet cupcakes, participant Helena Rusak of Washington reflected on her visit to the juggernaut that is Georgetown Cupcake.
Lured to the tourist attraction, Rusak said her motives were vaguely voyeuristic.
“I went in and I really don’t know why,” she says. “I took pictures of people getting their cupcakes. I saw pink boxes. It’s really not my style. I guess I just wanted to be part of it and see what other people’s fascination was.”
“Cupcakes have become totally mainstream,” says trendologist Nielsen. “The novelty has worn off and they’ve become part of the landscape.”
But their appeal goes much, much deeper. Cupcakes R us.
Frosted hug or self-soother?
It’s the day before Thanksgiving 2011, and the faithful are congregating at the original Sprinkles in Beverly Hills, Calif., the cupcake boutique that has grown from this one shop in 2005 to nine stores nationwide.
Three teenage boys saunter by with cupcakes in hand, one of them bouncing a basketball at the same time.
Tourists take pictures to pass the time while standing in a line that’s 20 deep. Two women who aren’t in line peer in the window just to see what it looks like inside.
The younger of the two implores the other to try the cupcakes: They’re so good and the line moves fast, she says.
What’s going on here?
“Everyone has come here for a hug,” says Los Angeles psychiatrist Carole Lieberman. “People are lining up not just because the cupcakes taste good. A lot of things taste good. They’re looking for that same feeling inside. They’re all hungry for hugs.”