By Kris Kitto - 05/14/08 05:49 PM EDT
No one likes to stand in a long line on a rainy day, but it can be worth it for a cupcake called Sunshine.
Owners of the recently opened Georgetown Cupcake have convinced people that what’s waiting for them at the end of the queue is such a sweet reward that they’ll gleefully pass the time on the sidewalk, inching toward a display case of seashell-twirl frostings decorated with chocolate sprinkles, flecks of lime zest or crushed hazelnuts.
The most obvious thing to talk about while waiting in a line for cupcakes? Cupcakes.
“Just to see what all the hoopla is about,” one woman comments to her male companion in a tone whose subtext says, “What are we thinking?” as they join the back of the line.
She’ll surely be more contrite once she gets closer to the entrance — the door leading to the black-and-white townhouse bakery is no bigger than those of the neighborhood’s colonial residences, but it marks the spot at which waiting customers realize what lies ahead. A sweet smell travels out the storefront and spreads through the open air. Onlookers make space for the exiting cupcakes while craning their necks to see the blackboard displaying the 12 flavors of the day.
On this day: six varieties of chocolate, coconut, key lime, red velvet, mocha, a double vanilla called Vanilla Squared, and the chocolate-and-vanilla combination known as Sunshine.
But at the back of the line, the wait continues. Two girls gab about Cupcake Capital, U.S.A.
“The New York one? Yeah, yeah, yeah. I went there,” one says.
“They’re good,” her friend answers.
“They are good,” the first one confirms before her friend finishes her thought.
Presumably they mean Magnolia Bakery, the New York establishment largely responsible for setting off the explosion in cupcakes’ popularity. Thanks to strategic product placement — the cupcakes appeared in a 2000 episode of “Sex and the City” — the bakery has been mobbed by fans with a sweet tooth. Several copycat bakeries opened around the city, calling themselves by names like Sugar Sweet Sunshine, Buttercup, Babycakes, Billy’s Bakery and Cupcake Café.
The trail of crumbs is finally leading to Washington, D.C., both with Georgetown Cupcake and Hello Cupcake, a Dupont Circle-area bakery slated to open this summer.
The Georgetown business already has loyal fans.
“They’re really good,” says Annie Nussbaum, 25, a nonprofit fundraiser who’s enduring the line to buy a box of cupcakes for Mother’s Day. She’s also been to Magnolia and says Georgetown Cupcake is comparable.
“These frostings are a little creamier, and [Magnolia’s] are a little more sugary,” she explains.
The Rothermel family has come down from suburban Chevy Chase five times because they like the cupcakes so much.
“It’s very special,” says Kathy Rothermel, 47, while her husband, Ray, 44, bounds out of the bakery with a box of cupcakes. The stay-at-home mom bakes her own cupcakes “and my friends tell me they’re really good,” but she says Georgetown’s are the best store-bought treats she has had. Her 15-year-old daughter, Emily, says her favorite flavor is Chocolate Cubed, a chocolate cupcake with chocolate frosting and chocolate sprinkles.
So why, as one college-aged guy says, is it “like this every day — you have to wait in line”?
The simplest answer: They’re delicious. These cupcakes aren’t your cellophane-wrapped, white doily-topped Hostess after-school treats. The Georgetown cupcakes are made not just with chocolate, but with Valrhona French chocolate. Their vanilla is classic Madagascar bourbon vanilla.
And at the new Hello Cupcake bakery, owner Penny Karas promises to use “all-natural, highest level of ingredients.” Karas is experimenting with natural ways to make a red velvet cupcake, shunning the conventional method of using artificial dyes to give the cake its color.
Lynn Schurman, president of the Retail Bakers of America and the owner of Cold Spring Bakery in Cold Spring, Minn., has other explanations for the cupcake’s rise. She says people like cupcakes for their size and versatility.
Because households are smaller these days, she says, people are not “going to buy a whole cake when they just want to have something for themselves.” Also, since the individual servings come in a rainbow of flavors cupcakes can please everyone, she says.
Schurman’s most timely explanation, though, links the cupcake’s popularity to the health of the economy.
“I just see that when the economy is not strong, sometimes people can’t buy some of the bigger luxuries, but if they can treat themselves to a cupcake, that’s one way of saying, ‘I can’t buy a new big-screen TV, but at least I can have something,’ ” she says.
Meanwhile, Georgetown Cupcake is working furiously to satisfy all those people looking for a small indulgence.
“We thought it would be successful; we had no idea it would be like this,” says Sophie LaMontagne, who co-owns the bakery with her sister, Katherine Kallinis. On average, the store is selling “a couple of thousand” cupcakes per day, with red velvet cupcake the best-seller.
“We’ve really tried hard to meet the demand, because at first we were crushed by it,” LaMontagne says. She recalls their first day three months ago, when it was just her and her sister. Since then, they’ve bought a second oven, a second mixer and hired 11 people.
Despite the 16-hour days the two are working — and the roughly half-dozen cupcakes they’re tasting per day — LaMontagne and Kallinis are already talking about expanding their business to other locations to accommodate large orders and deliveries.
Hello Cupcake’s Karas has already had a similar response to her store, which she projects won’t open until July 9. She plans to add a touch to her baked goods to appeal to the city’s politicos: Customers will be able to special-order cupcakes decorated with little blue donkeys or red elephants.
The optimistic new business owner sees cupcakes not as a trend but as a simple treat that’s here to stay.
“Everybody has been eating them since they were kids, and they will continue to eat them,” she says. Cupcakes are “a great little baked good that everybody loves.”