CINCINNATI - Grace Yek took on the challenge of finding out whether cupcakes are still selling in the Tri-State. Meanwhile, Julie Nieson Gosdin got an equally tough assignment: round up a list of local places where you can find great cupcakes, including vegan and gluten-free. Let's just say, mission accomplished!
Grace's cupcakery quest
I'm smiling. It's hard not to when you have cupcakes dancing in your head. The dreamy frosting begs grazing, and the "me" size cake pumps instant sunshine into the day. Is it any wonder cupcakes have become a national craze?
Recently, however, the folding of the national cupcake chain, Crumbs Bake Shop, cast an ominous shadow over our cupcake nation. Are gourmet cupcakes on their way out? After all, food trend oracles have been predicting the implosion of the gourmet cupcake bubble for years now.
They cite reasons like overpricing and oversupply. Besides, they say, people have moved on to other things. Ever tried a cronut? It's the result of crossing a donut with a croissant.
We're not just talking about any cupcakes. These cupcakes are dressed to the nines on prom night: impeccable taste, and perfectly accessorized with incredible frosting updos.
Cupcake case study: Gigi's Cupcakes
The prospect of cupcake extinction was worrisome enough that I decided to get some local perspective on the matter. First stop: Gigi's Cupcakes in Kenwood.
I couldn't help but wonder if the Crumbs fallout might have dampened this cupcake store. Boy, was I wrong.
As soon as I set foot in the store, the aroma of baked cakes, the bright confetti-like decor, and of course, the rows and rows of beautiful cupcakes gave me reason to be optimistic.
Owner Amy Jones met me with a contagiously sweet smile that can only be rivaled by her cupcakes. We talked about the recent closing of Crumbs. I asked her how her cupcake business is faring.
"For us, there's been an increase in business. We haven't seen a slowdown," she said.
Both veterans of the hospitality industry, Jones and her husband opened Gigi's Cupcakes in Kenwood in November 2012. They had always wanted a family business. Gigi's Cupcakes, a franchise started by Gina Butler in Nashville, Tenn., offered the perfect opportunity.
I asked if customers' preferences have changed over the years. Jones doesn't think so, with certain perennial favorites still selling.
"Our most popular cupcake is the Wedding Cake. It's basic white cake with vanilla butter cream. It mimics a wedding cake. Second to that is the all-chocolate Devil's Food Cake with chocolate butter cream," she said.
With a glimmer in her eye, Jones added, "My favorite is the Kentucky Bourbon. It's hands down awesome."
"You will see people's choices change seasonally, but the demand for the staple flavors stay the same," she said.
Cupcakes and community
Jones is well aware of local cupcake shops that have gone out of business. I asked her: "What makes your cupcake business succeed where others have failed?"
"Gigi's Cupcakes chooses families from the area to open their business,” Jones said. “We're so active in the community."
She and her husband are involved with Children's Hospital, the Marvin Lewis Community Fund, and the local schools who constantly come to them for support. Gigi's Cupcakes even has a special relationship with The Band Perry (a country music group).
They were offering The Very Perry Chocolate Cherry Cake to mark the band's concert at Buckleup Music Festival the day I visited with Jones. The relationship isn't far-fetched, considering Gigi's Cupcakes' Nashville roots.
Lately, Gigi's Cupcakes has diversified its offerings.
"We just started selling stuffed cookies, two house-made cookies sandwiched with frosting in the center. We've also added cupcake-size cheesecake, with butter cream on top," Jones said. "We also do mini cupcakes, which are about a bite and half for the average person."
Aside from retail cupcakes, part of Jones's business also comes from catering: Corporate events, birthday parties and weddings. I asked her if the folding of Crumbs is a sign of the beginning of the end of cupcakes.
"I just don't see it. I'm 48 years old now, and we ate cupcakes when I was a kid," she said. "People don't have as much time as they used to, so it's easier to come here."
Cupcake case study: Abby Girl Sweets Cupcakery
I wanted to get another viewpoint on this cupcake conundrum, so I approached Andrea Thompson. Thompson and her husband started Abby Girl Sweets Cupcakery about 5 years ago. The cupcake shop is named after their first-born, who will turn six this year. They had so much success with their downtown store, they opened a Blue Ash location in 2012.
Reached by telephone, Thompson said: "It's interesting you called.” Turns out she and her husband
had recently read about the Crumbs closure.
"Are you seeing a change in what people buy?" I asked. Thompson replied, "A lot of our customers find something they like, and stick with it." I asked if folks are buying as much nowadays. "It's about the same or growing," she said.
I soon learned that Thompson is uncompromising about product quality.
"We use real butter, grind our own strawberries, and use fresh bananas. We don't serve anything not made from scratch," she said. "I think that is what sets us apart. We flat out do good dessert."
Business experts generally frown on the one-product business model, and many have pointed to this fact as the leading cause of the Crumbs meltdown. Seeing as Abby Girl Sweets only offers cupcakes, I asked Thompson if she's concerned. "No," she said.
Thompson believes that if you make a consistently great product, they will come. She certainly doesn't believe in adding non-cupcakes to the lineup, unless....
"We would not diversify unless we can make a great product," she said. Thompson is serious about keeping the bar high. When Abby Girl Sweets considered adding salted caramel flavor to its cupcake menu, it took a whole year of product testing before the new addition saw the light of day.
A number of Thompson's customers have told her how her cupcakes are so much more moist, flavorful, and reasonably priced, compared to Crumbs.
"When you start growing, you still need to keep product consistency," Thompson said.
The future of cupcakes
I asked her if there are simply too many cupcake suppliers.
"We started around the same time as many other shops that have now closed," Thompson said. "There have been others that have opened since, and we're still in business. Our customers come back to us."
Abby Girl Sweets doesn’t do much advertising.
"It's always word-of-mouth. We'd do engagement parties, then the bridal shower, and then the baby shower. It's a continuing thing because customers like our cakes," Thompson said.
Sometimes, while catering weddings, Thompson is approached to cater other weddings. If that's not a sign of trust in a brand, I don't know what is.
Both Jones and Thompson gave me the sense that good, high-end cupcakes are not going out of style anytime soon.
wine me, dine me's top 9 local cupcake joints
Cupcakeries are a little harder to find than they were just a couple of years ago. Most places that serve cupcakes also do something else--like wedding cakes or other desserts. Also, cupcakeries are adapting by addressing larger food trends: gluten free, locally sourced, vegan, you name it. In no particular order, here ere are a few of my favorite cupcake joints in town. - Julie Niesen Gosdin
1. Maribelle Cakery. This shop specializes in wedding cakes, but has some of the best cupcakes in town, too. I was reminded of how good their cake is at a weddinge. I particularly love the Cookies and Cream cupcake, which has bits of cookie inside the cake and a delicious butter cream frosting with an Oreo on top! Website
2. Happy Chicks Bakery. Are you vegan or gluten-free? This is the place for you. I discovered Happy Chicks when I sampled the brownies; you'd never guess they were vegan! Their cupcakes are equally good, and they are experts in meeting any dietary needs you might have. I love the Chocolate Orange. Website
3. Abby Girl Sweets. Abby Girl is one of the leading cupcake stores in town. As Grace reports, there are locations downtown and in Blue Ash. They do a cupcake-of-the-week: 52 flavors available for one week only! Of their regular flavors, I love the peanut butter and chocolate cupcake with peanut butter icing and a Reese cup on top. Website
4. Cake Rack Bakery. Cake Rack has locations in Covington and in Findlay Market and does all sorts of cakes, pastries and sweets, including cupcakes. You can also special order gluten free items, though they do not regularly carry them; give them a few days notice. The cupcake offerings change daily. Website
5. Tres Belle Cupcakes. Tres Belle, like Maribelle, is predominately a cake baker but you can find cupcakes at their Reading Bridal District coffee shop. You can buy them individually there, or order them in quantity for your next party. Tres Belle also offers cupcake decorating parties at the coffee shop, for both kids and adults, featuring pizza and juice boxes (for the kids) or mimosas (for the adults). Website
6. Gigi's Cupcakes. I first saw Gigi's Cupcakes when I was wandering around a mall (I'm pretty sure it was in Columbus) but didn't realize this was a national chain. As Grace reports, Gigi's is Nashville-based and woman-owned, and is slowly expanding across the Midwest and the South. Their flavors change daily, and range from hot fudge cake, to pink lemonade, to banana cream pie. Website
7. SugarSnap! This is a sweets-focused food truck, serving everything from salted caramel brownies to cupcakes. Try their orange creamsicle cupcake or the S'more with toasted marshmallow frosting. Website
8. Sweet Petit Desserts. Sweet Petit
is on the tiny end of the spectrum. They do mini desserts: small cake pops, cupcakes, and other sweets, and recently opened up shop on Race Street in Over-the-Rhine. I first met Taren Kinebrew, the owner (and Bad Girl Ventures winner) at a Cincy Chic event, where she was showing off her delicious red velvet mini cupcakes, which are made with beets instead of red food coloring, the traditional Southern way. Since then, she's moved out of her home bakery and into her shop, and I see her desserts at all kinds of events.They're the perfect little sweet treat after a meal. Website
9. La La's Blissful BItes. Tucked away on Main Street between 6th and 7th, this place is worth finding. La La's has mini and large cupcakes, with cute names like Foxi Brown (buttercream and chocolate), Keri Strawberry, Playne Jayne (vanilla cake with butter cream), Aunt Bunny (carrot cake with cream cheese frosting) and others that vary by day. I love the Purple Rain (chocolate and yellow cake with some fun purple fairy dust on it), but I haven't had a cupcake from La La that I didn't like. They're a great spot to try after lunch downtown. Website
Who makes your favorite cupcake?
About Grace and Julie:
Julie Niesen Gosdin (below right), the voice behind the food blog wine me, dine me , serves up a "Pick of the Week," each Thursday--visiting a local eatery and samples a signature menu item.
Grace Yek (below left) is a faculty member at the Midwest Culinary Institute, Cincinnati State Technical and Community College. She writes our regular "Global Table" and "In the kitchen" columns. Connect with her on Twitter: @Grace_Yek.