401 Bleecker St (@ 11th Street)
New York, NY 10014
I have a word or two – or 500 – about cupcakes.
Cupcakes perplex me. (That’s three so far.)
Actually, it’s not cupcakes themselves. It’s the hype. If we’re getting all kinds of accurate here, then it’s not that the utter frenzy effected by a small cake smothered in buttercream perplexes me. No, it doesn’t confuse me; it fascinates me. Hype over any product fascinates me (which probably explains why I’m in marketing), and every time I am hit with another gnarly wave of cupcake hysteria, I wonder.
Is it over yet? Hasn’t it been "over" for almost a year now?!?!
It has. I might go so far as to say that it’s been over for more than a year, and yet, specialty cupcakeries like Sprinkles continues to spread their buttercream frosting all over the map. It’s not their fault. They are responding to demand from customers who are responding to…what? What is causing customers to demand cupcakes, as if cupcakes were in style like they were going out of style?
When a product first hits the marketplace, people buy it for what it is. People bought cupcakes because they were cupcakes. People bought cupcakes because they wanted to enjoy eating a small cake in a paper wrapper smothered in sticky sweet frosting. Because people are eating cupcakes, suddenly every stupid savvy business person wants to open a cupcakerie.
Eventually, the marketplace becomes saturated. How many cupcakes can a person really eat? At a certain point, the product becomes over done, over-produced, over out-there, that it becomes a commodity product. This has happened to cupcakes. Cupcakes are a commodity product. Kind of like crude oil. And pork bellies. Except they taste sweeter. It doesn’t matter anymore about specific brands on commodity products because there are just too many and they all look and taste exactly the same.
Once a product goes the way of pork bellies, you can’t make any real profit, because, well, you can’t. Now the only thing you can do is compete on price and eventually everyone is going to pay a dollar for a Ding Dong. However, savvy business people who now have a commodity product in their warehouses, or at the very least a sizeable investment in an oven, can differentiate in order to win in their category. In the case of food, differentiation comes with marketing.
Marketing is understanding what you are really selling. Marketing is about creating a perceived value for which you can charge more. Marketing is selling your cupcakes for $10 because you aren’t really selling cupcakes. You are selling a lifestyle, which is really a bargain at only $10.
It’s like bottled water. I hate to burst anyone’s precious bottled water bubble, but water is water. The only difference with bottled water is the marketing. It’s how the water is packaged. Water is water, but bottled water is a lifestyle. A person buys bottle water because it is a signal to everyone on the Big Blue Bus that she is oohlala enough to drink bottled water, never mind the fact that she’s riding the bus.
Cupcakes are now like bottled water because they have exotic flavors, precious decorations, and lovely little boxes.
So basically, Sprinkles used to be pork bellies, but now it's the Voss Water of cupcakes. It’s water for God’s sake. It’s a cupcake for God’s sake.
There's my 500+ words on cupcakes, which pretty much informs my 100 words on Magnolia Bakery's Cupcakes.
Magnolia Bakery's cupcakes are presented in a small, plain white box. There's no chubby, curly, or simply elegant font pre-printed on a precious pastel colored box. A sticker with the bakery's name that looks like it was printed on the general manager's color laserjet at home is slapped on top.
I had the perfect permutation of chocolate and vanilla: two chocolate cupcakes, one each with chocolate frosting and vanilla frosting, and two vanilla cupcakes, one each with chocolate frosting and vanilla frosting. The cupcakes are much less polished than the cupcakes from bakeries I've seen here in LA that, in fact, all followed after Magnolia. The simple, home-y dessert came to LA, got some "work" done, and hit Rodeo with very little substance underneath, but a thick layer of gloss and a few sparkling accessories to cover up. Magnolia's cupcakes are frosted and swirled as if done with a butter knife, but the back side of a butter knife so the surface is smooth. The sprinkles are real sprinkles.
The cupcakes were no better or worse than any other. The cake was slightly dry for my taste, but I appreciated that it didn't try to over-compensate with too much, too sweet frosting. In the end though, they were just cupcakes.
However, there was something about Magnolia's Cupcakes that made me feel warmer and fuzzier than others. The cupcakes weren't so dressed up. They had a homemade feel coming out of a plain white box. Cupcakes are supposed to be a reminder of the days of elementary school (even though I never had my Mom bring in cupcakes to homeroom for my birthday, but I'm not bitter or anything like that), and while the oohlala cupcakes of Sprinkles and Leda's Bakeshop kind of smothered that feeling with a little too much buttercream, Magnolia still has it.
I think I just paid $15 to be a 3rd grader.
** a year ago today, i channeled rachael ray at the milwaukee public market **