BOSTON_What’s sweet, fits in the palm of your hand, and is one of the hottest culinary business trends around? If you answered cupcakes, you’re right.
A long way from Grandma’s kitchen, the cupcake trend has hit Boston’s pastry community, an aftershock of the nationwide cupcake-mania inspired in part by good old fashioned nostalgia. That Carrie Bradshaw and her three sidekicks –– of the popular HBO show and movie franchise Sex and the City –– obsess over the bite-size treats doesn’t hurt either.
Fifteen cupcake-centric storefronts have popped up in and around Boston within the last three years, with a sweet sixteenth, Cherry Bomb Bakery, set to open its doors in Brighton Center next week. The cupcake trend, it seems, is here to stay.
For Colin Cunningham, the 25-year-old owner of Cherry Bomb, opening a cupcake café was not only a fun move, but the next logical step in his culinary career. Cunningham began working as a line chef when he was 16, then worked his way up the culinary ladder from there.
“College just didn’t jive with me, so I went to culinary school instead,” he said.
He moved from restaurant to restaurant in the Boston area, working in various parts of the kitchen –– line cook, pastry apprentice, and finally, sous chef. Cunningham commanded the kitchen at Kendall Square’s EVOO for about a year, then decided it was time to move on.
Lying in bed one night toward the end of February, he said, the idea of a cupcake café “just popped into my head. I decided, this is what I’m going to do.”
Within a week, he said, he had gathered investors and was searching for a home for his café, having swapped his chef’s toque for a shirt and tie for the time being.
In the short weeks between late February and early May, Cunningham, acting as manager, owner and executive chef of Cherry Bomb Bakery, has found a storefront, purchased and installed kitchen equipment, decorated the space with retro spinning stools and whimsical covered cake platters, arranged health and safety inspections, hired a staff of seven and spread buzz about the café’s opening.
One thing he has yet to do, days away from his May 10 opening date: finalize the menu.
“This is the first time I’ve had to work on it,” Cunningham said. “It’s kind of the realization when you’re banging your head against the wall about the electric bill and hiring staff and arranging inspections and then someone turns around and asks what kind of cupcakes you’ll be serving and you’re like, oh –– I don’t know.”
“In a startup business, I’ve learned that the product is almost the last thing you think about. It’s making everything legal that’s the hard thing,” he said.
Now, the only thing separating Cherry Bomb Bakery from the cupcake-hungry denizens of Brighton and beyond is the final health inspection. For his part, Cunningham can’t wait to get back in the kitchen.
“I had my staff at the store the other night for a deep clean, and I got to test my new oven and my industrial mixers and everything,” he said. “I made pizza for everybody. I was like, God, yes, I can cook again!”
“I have my mind on the café from when I wake up to when I go to sleep. That’s the different thing from being an owner and a worker,” he said. “[As a chef] I was so used to the schedule and being able to walk away. Now I feel as if whenever I’m away from the shop, I’m kind of sweating. Yesterday I got there at 9 a.m. and I left at around midnight.”
As for the 15 other cupcake shops around the city, Cunningham said he isn’t worried about competition, or people getting their fill of cupcakes.
“I don’t want to compete, I just want to be something new and fun,” he said. “And as for cupcakes, people are saying it’s a trend, but they’ve always been around. They’re a very American pastry, and very indigenous to American culture, I think. I don’t think it’ll fizzle out.”
Nick Peruzzi, who manages Sweet Cupcakes on Massachusetts Avenue, one of Cherry Bomb Bakery’s more established cohorts in the Boston pastry world, agreed that cupcakes are here to stay.
“Cupcakes are appealing for a few reasons,” Peruzzi said. “They’re affordable. They’re a nice little luxury for a bad day, gift or event –– they’re so versatile but still affordable as a treat. And cupcake shops offer variety that people like to have, so there’s something for everyone.”
And, evidently, everyone buys them –– Peruzzi said that on a given day, one of Sweet’s locations (there’s another across the river in Harvard Square) sells up to 1,800 cupcakes.
An April 14 event called CupcakeCamp Boston proved the tiny pastries’ local popularity: nearly 500 people lined up for free cupcakes at P.A.’s Lounge in Somerville. Seventy amateur bakers and 15 professional bakeries –– Cherry Bomb Bakery and Sweet among them –– doled out 3,000 free cupcakes in 3 hours.
Elizabeth Ginsburg, 23, said she organized the event to bring the community together over their shared obsession, which she attributes to a yearning for childhood.
“There’s the nostalgia element—people associate it with childhood birthday parties,” Ginsburg said. “It’s more fun and festive than something like a cookie if you’re looking for a sweet fix, but it’s more accessible than a slice of cake. It’s more fun to eat a cupcake on your own. There’s a cupcake to satisfy anyone’s tastes.”
Ginsburg said she “absolutely” plans to make CupcakeCamp an annual event, and that the passion for cupcakes isn’t going away anytime soon.
“The intensity might lessen over the years, but I think people are still gonna like them and get excited about them for many years to come.”
Barbara Bickart, who teaches consumer behavior at Boston University, said that at a certain point, cupcakes will cease to be a trend and instead be considered a mainstay.
“It’s like coffee shops,” Bickart said. “They started in this way, as a couple small shops in Seattle. And then as the trend or fad caught on, it didn’t really die out, and the concept diffused and became more commonplace. People really started to change their thinking about where you get coffee. It’s possible that that could happen with cupcake shops. They have to stop being a special indulgence, and become more of something we do on a week to week basis, more of a ritual.”
Of course, Bickart said, the novelty of a tiny cake sighing under the weight of a frosting peak can’t be discounted when analyzing their popularity.
“Life is about affordable luxuries,” she said. “It makes perfect sense. If you can spend five dollars, and that’s something most people can afford, you can go get one of these. It looks pretty special, and it makes people feel good.”
Hannah Gathman, a 23-year-old Boston event planner, said that the sugar rush she gets from a cupcake feels the same as –– and lasts as long as –– the rush from buying a new pair of shoes, and at a fraction of the cost.
“A few weeks ago, I was having a crappy day at work, so I walked to Sweet and bought six cupcakes for my department,” she said. “It totally turned my day around. They’re so fancy looking, and much better than anything I could make at home.”