Almost as soon as Carrie Bradshaw discussed crushes over cupcakes at the Magnolia Bakery at the turn of the millennium, trend-watchers have heralded the death of the frosted confections. The latest obit came after shares of Crumbs Bakery, a New York-based cupcake chain with more than 60 locations, fell to $1.74 (U.S.) on Nasdaq last week from over $13 a share mid-2011. This prompted The Wall Street Journal to proclaim the decline of the American cupcake, and various other new outlets hopped on the doomsday bandwagon.
This is nothing new: For years we've been hearing about how macarons or doughnuts or whoopie pies are "the new cupcakes." So far no sweet has managed a successful coup. They are still the one to beat.
Here in Canada, cupcake-focused bake shops have been on the rise for more than a decade. When Cupcakes first opened in Vancouver in 2002, it was the only game in town. Same goes for The Cupcake Shoppe, which opened in Toronto one year later. Today, both locations have expanded and inspired dozens of similar start-ups, so that most gentrified, urban neighbourhoods now have at least one cupcake shop, if not multiple. Nobody is arguing that the cupcake still occupies "it" or avant-garde status in the foodie universe, but according to the Canadian confection pros I spoke with, it remains the gold standard of baked goods.
"I am constantly trying to push other products on my customers – I'm bored of making cupcakes," says Morag Cleeveley, founder of Yummy Stuff Bakery in Toronto's west end. Cleeveley concedes that while the OMG factor of her premium-ingredient, $2.75-a-pop mini cakes has waned, their popularity has not. "At one point people thought it was really unique to do a cupcake wedding cake, now it's just a regular order. I'm certainly not making any less of them," she says. Between 50 to 60 per cent of Yummy Stuff's pre-ordered business comes from cupcakes and at least three-quarters of street traffic.
Heather White is the co-founder of Cupcakes and co-star of the Oprah Network series Cupcake Girls – one of three currently airing reality shows about cupcakes. White agrees that the whole "such-and-such is the new cupcake" headline is more a media hook than a legitimate threat. "Every two years or so there will be an article…. I get it – people like to get excited about new things, but our business has never been better."
White reports that year-to-date sales are up by 24 per cent from this time last year. As for the dangers of a Crumbs-style implosion, she says that slow and steady has been the key to their expansion model. "We waited five years to open our second store. We waited eleven years to make a move into Toronto, to make sure we had nailed it in B.C." This summer Cupcakes will open two more Toronto locations.
Verge Manuel opened Dlish Cupcakes three years ago along Toronto's trendy Queen West West strip and recently opened a second location in Yorkville after developing a loyal clientele. Prairie Girl Bakery, another cupcake-centric Toronto bakery, will open a third location later this week.
It would seem, then, that cupcakes are the new cupcake, constantly evolving to fit the culinary zeitgeist. The white-based, pink-frosted iterations from Sex and the City look positively prehistoric by today's standards. Since then we've seen stuffed cupcakes, mini cupcakes, man cupcakes, cupcake towers, fondant icing, boozy cupcakes and cupcakes on a stick. Cupcakes have also been a vessel for various other culinary crazes (think bacon or bourbon) and have even managed to adapt to the increasingly prevalent dietary restrictions. "I'm getting a lot of requests for vegan cupcakes, gluten-free," says Cleeveley, noting that with cupcakes, individual preferences and/or requirements are easily accommodated – yet another reason for their undeniable endurance.
"You're always going to have these trends where the honeymoon is over but then the product becomes ingrained in day-to-day life," says Geoff Wilson, a food-services analyst with FS Strategy Inc. in Toronto. Bagels are a prime example of a food that was once trendy and is today fundamental. "To do that, a food has to fill a void in the market. Bagels have lasted because they are grab-and-go – you can eat a bagel in your car," says Wilson.
While few of us are following the cupcake-a-day diet (or eating them in our car), the frosted-topped treats have become part of routine celebration. Whereas once a bride-to-be might just consider her wedding cake, these days there are multiple showers, engagement parties, stagettes, Jack and Jills, rehearsal dinners, day-after brunches and so on (and on). There are also office going-away celebrations, baby-b-day bashes, welcome-home fetes and just-because dinner parties, and for these special occasions, cupcakes – portable, customizable, a cinch to clean up, gorgeous to look at, delicious to consume and undeniably festive – remain the ultimate option. "Let's face it," says White, "you're not going to stick a candle into a doughnut."
Major moments in cupcakes: The pop-cultural trajectory of a not-so-small wonder
2000: HBO airs Season 3 episode of Sex and the City in which the girls talk crushes over cupcakes. New York's Magnolia Bakery becomes a pilgrimage for wannabe Carries, Samanthas, Mirandas and Charlottes and eventually earns a spot on the SATC bus tour.
2003: Important taste arbiter The New York Times says of cupcakes: "They are art, they are fashion, they are a tourist attraction."
2008: Even more important taste arbiter Suri Cruise spotted eating cupcakes (often).
2008: Designers Jenny Heid and Aaron Nieradka debut the "Keep Calm and Have a Cupcake" spin-off print, which soon adorns notebooks, gift bags, throw pillows and iPhone cases.
2010: Cupcake Wars reality show premieres on the Food Network.
2010: Katy Perry makes a racy and tasty fashion statement by donning a cupcake bra in her California Gurls video.
2013: Mitt Romney marks his 66th birthday with Fluffernutter cupcakes.