Under wrappers - secrets behind a cult cupcake
May 17th, 2011
10:30 AM ET
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Devna Shukla works on CNN's AC360° and co-edits Eatocracy's Fame Bites series. She really, REALLY loves peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Candace Nelson is the founder and pastry chef of Beverly Hills-based Sprinkles Cupcakes, and a judge on Food Network's "Cupcake Wars."

We visited with Nelson at the opening of her first New York City outpost to discuss the Oprah effect, what's next and how to beat the "just another cupcake shop" rap.

You are a chef by trade – how much of your focus is spent on a good quality product, in addition to the forks, the logo, the signature dot and branding?
"It all started with the product, and started with the idea that a cupcake is quintessentially American but hadn’t really been elevated. It was still kiddy fare; it was something you found at a grocery store and kids would celebrate it. Adults would go for the cake or the fancy dessert, but a cupcake was shortening and cupcake picks were the decorative element at the time - it was a little gross to be honest.

My thought was to take this beloved American treat and elevate it with ingredients used for special occasion cakes. Working with beautiful chocolates, vanillas, making cupcakes in other flavors than chocolate and vanilla. Something for everyone’s tastes. The idea was that if we did that, cupcakes could really stand on their own.

Prior to opening our Beverly Hills location, there had never been a retail bakery that sold just cupcakes. There were certainly bakeries known for cupcakes as we know Magnolia and Crumbs, but they are traditional bakeries. We developed a new genre of bakery. Now, you can go into towns across the country and there is a name for it, the cupcakery. That term didn’t even exist before.

The idea was to make a more sophisticated cupcake while keeping the same elements of playfulness and fun so a kid can still enjoy it. From there came the look of the bakery which was modern, sophisticated yet playful with the colors. We were lucky to work with someone who really got it. It definitely starts with the product. People appreciate a beautiful space and the artfulness of the cupcake, but it starts with the product."

There is also an element of consistency from location to location.
"You know we aren’t a franchise, Charles and I are the only owners of Sprinkles. This is our tenth location, so that is our challenge every day. The other day we had this Facebook event and people were telling us which locations they’ve been to and named off all these cities - our customers are literally our secret shoppers and our quality control. If something doesn’t taste the same in a market, they’ll tell us.

We train everyone in Beverly Hills; everyone who goes to a location outside of Beverly Hills has been working with us for years. We have a great general manager, and we are constantly on the road checking up on things."

You are credited widely for igniting this cupcake craze around the country by opening the first “cupcakery.” How do you feel about other imitations and did you know that it would be a success?
"No, I mean the media started writing articles about when the cupcake trend was going to die but that was five years ago. Charles and I were mapping out what cities we wanted to expand to - and Charles is from Oklahoma City - and we thought certainly we wouldn’t be able to support a cupcake shop there. Now, there are three in Oklahoma City!

When we first opened day one, we didn’t know if anyone would knock on our door. Once we realized it was a legitimate business concept, it had legs that were stronger than we could ever imagine."

Was it a conscious decision to pace your expansion? Beverly Hills opened in 2005 and you are just opening in New York.
"For us, we consider ourselves a destination cupcake shop so there is one per market. We don’t believe this is a trend, we believe we make a quality product, we work our hardest every day to do that and have great customer service. Our plan is to be around for a long time. The challenge for us is to find the best spot, the most premium location. Even if the trend dies down, you still have great business."

Was it tough to find a location in New York?
"Impossible. One of the problems with New York is that there are so many great places in New York! Foot traffic is everywhere. We wanted to hit the locals, the businesses and the tourists. What’s funny is that I went to boarding school in New England and on our long weekends we’d always come to New York and always to this part of town. I have real childhood memories of being in this area and I think everyone is here for one reason or another."

Tell us about your signature Sprinkle.
"Our signature what we call 'modern dot.' It’s just a sugar decoration so you can eat it. It’s not super delicious, I treat it as a decoration. It’s kind of like the flowers on a wedding cake. These originated as decorative elements. People would get their dozen box and say they wouldn’t know which cupcake was which. We came to realize they needed to be a code. So each cupcake that doesn’t have traditional cupcake owns a certain modern dot and you have a flavor card as your key."

How do you train your bakers? Is it hard to maintain that same quality control when you aren’t there 24 hours a day?
"That is the one thing that keeps me up at night: 'Oh my God are they being made the right way?' We’ve had good success with it and part of it is that we only entrust those who have worked with us for several years to go to other stores and train their staff.

The other part of it is there are so many steps along the way that everyone becomes an expert in the kitchen. There are checks and balances, 'Oh this doesn’t look right,' or 'oh, it’s not rising properly in the oven' - everyone is looking out for that. So it’s been OK so far. We make about 1500 cupcakes a day per location."

How long does it take to perfect each recipe?
"That was me developing the recipes prior to Sprinkles even opening. Trying to start a business devoted to cupcakes, these recipes better be awesome! It was a lot of me in my own kitchen, blind taste testing with my husband and myself. It was actually a lot of fun - but once we were open and we have this stable of very good solid recipes, it becomes a little easier because you can play with things and do something completely different."

What is your favorite flavor?
"I sound so boring when I say dark chocolate. But then I like the strawberry, but the banana, but I can go down the slippery slope. My long term go to is dark chocolate without the sprinkles."

How often do you eat a cupcake?
"All the time. When I’m doing store openings, it's all day long because we are doing quality control and testing. Otherwise I try to limit it to one a day. I just had a baby so sometimes I try to limit it to half."

How would you describe the signature taste to someone who hasn’t had it before?
"... Everyone has a favorite flavor or color of frosting. Don’t come and just have the red velvet, come and sample them all. And we have something for everyone. In addition to our regular cupcakes we have gluten-free, vegan and doggy cupcakes."

How did you create the idea of a “whisper word?” [A word on Twitter and Facebook that is the “secret key” to daily free cupcakes.]
"Part of the idea is that we run a cupcake shop, so it needs to be fun and playful. We are fortunate that we have a good enough business that we can do stuff like that and charitable initiatives. It’s part of us following our passion versus what we were doing before, which was finance."

We spoke to Gayle King about her love of Sprinkles. How influential were your celebrity endorsements?
"Really helped get us off the ground. Now, it's not that big of a deal. We have stars come in every day. Once Oprah has blessed you, it doesn’t get much bigger than that.

When and how did Oprah essentially endorse you?
"Eight months into our first year. We just got through our first holiday season and we didn’t know that we could work another hour. HARPO called and said can we have 350 cupcakes the next morning. Barbara Streisand sent her cupcakes. The double whammy of those power players, we couldn’t believe it. It was good fortune!"

Have you ever thought about expanding beyond cupcakes?
"Yes we have. We might be doing it."

Any secrets you can share with us?
"Look for a new concept in LA in fall 2011. but the cupcake shops will definitely remain."

How can we perfect our own cupcakes at home? [You can buy Sprinkles mix at Williams-Sonoma)
"Get a scooper, an ice cream scooper, to do your batter will ensure you are scooping the same amount of batter in each cup - and then each cupcake will bake in the same amount of time to prevent over- or under-baking."

What advice do you have to other entrepreneurs?
"Food businesses - even in a down economy - everyone has to eat. We are a luxury player but an affordable luxury. That’s an encouraging part of the food business. You can't listen to other people too much because if we listened to other people we wouldn’t have opened Sprinkles. The litmus test for me was: is this an idea that I’m going to lose sleep over if I don’t do? And the answer was yes, even if it failed.

What is the best way to store a cupcake?
"Definitely eat it the day of. Don’t put it in the fridge, it’s the worst place you can put it because the cake will dry out. If you want to store them for the long-term, put them in the freezer in a Ziploc container and let them thaw out when you’re ready. They’ll be perfect!"

Previously - Cupcakes & me: a love story

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Filed under: Bite • Business and Farming News • Cupcakes • News • Obsessions • Products • Small Business • Think • Trends

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    February 2, 2013 at 12:26 am |
  2. Sam

    You people can poo-poo this all you want...the owner is laughing all the way to the bank. You're just mad because you didn't think of it first. I am surprised, as well, at the success of this. It just goes to show you that there is a market for everything, if done right. But people are so quirky these days you have to be able to get into the market and make your money fast before they decide that "that is so last week".

    May 18, 2011 at 6:51 am |
  3. Howard W

    Hello, I figured this was the best area to ask this question considering baking is involved. I have a fairly inexpensive Maytag oven/range with 4.2 cu. ft. of space. It can heat things up to 475 degrees. Now, my problem is that I live in an apartment building near central Florida and we have very rude and highly political Jewish couple living next to us. We are very concerned that giving the recent movement in Israel and the likelihood of a Palestinian state being declared and internationally recognized, that our neighbors will become hostile this fall. We fully expect them to go crazy and support Israel in whatever religious war they have on Iran and we expect them to take this out on us.

    They are both about 170lbs, both built the same. My question is, how long would it take to bake them in the end that they were to become violent and had to be put down? I am reading this book from 1942 called "Kill zem, Kill all of ze Jewz" and apparently they are genetically predisposed to being burned in ovens. Should I preheat mine first? Should I remove the racks? Do you think they will both fit in such a small space? Any help is appreciated. Thank You.

    May 17, 2011 at 9:45 pm |
    • Albqrabbit

      Howard W, would someone please erase all vestiges of Howard W from existence?
      Not even ashes should be left of this one.

      May 18, 2011 at 12:06 am |
  4. surfs-up-charlie

    Who would have imagined the idiotic 'branding' of these cupcakes as 'playful' or 'fun' ? Evidently, there are suckers everywhere. Think krispy kreme krap.

    May 17, 2011 at 8:20 pm |
  5. Amanda

    by far the best cupcake i've ever eaten!

    May 17, 2011 at 7:21 pm |
  6. absurdist

    If you feel genuine anger at the enjoyment of something as simple and innocuous as a cupcake, you may be a joyless, empty human.

    May 17, 2011 at 6:05 pm |
  7. kjb

    Cupcakes are so feminine. The squealing noises emanating from the mouths of females when these things are foisted upon people is beyond ridiculous. Women love them so much because there's less guilt associated with chowing down on these waste of space desserts.

    May 17, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
    • Bet

      Way too much anger over butter, sugar, flour and eggs. Cupcakes are "feminine"? So what? Being feminine is great. I love being feminine and my husband sure enjoys it. What are women supposed to be? Something tells me you'd have an angry comment about a woman who was successful working at a traditionally masculine job too.

      Why do you hate seeing people enjoy a simple dessert? You should eat a cupcake every day until you feel better. Maybe two. Have a little fun...it makes life so much nicer.

      BTW, eating a cupcake will not turn you into a girl, if that's what you're worried about, lol.

      May 18, 2011 at 11:36 am |
  8. jj

    How about low or no sugar?

    May 17, 2011 at 4:55 pm |
  9. Tyrone Biggums

    Cupcakes are a passing dessert fad, as is upscale froyo.

    May 17, 2011 at 4:22 pm |
  10. Mildred

    I think I'll have to try the new shop in NYC.

    May 17, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
  11. Tazer

    I LOVE her red velvet cupcakes. I don't care if they're trendy, over-hyped, what-freaking-ever, those cupcakes are little mouth orgasms. :)

    May 17, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
  12. Amrita

    Sprinkles was the first place I fell in love with red velvet cake... I thought the taste was worth the hype, although I've never understood the signature dots on top, they basically inedible and unnecessary.
    Even if cupcakes aren't a trend any more they're definitely here to stay...

    May 17, 2011 at 11:21 am |
  13. Spanky

    What a stupid looking cupcake. She put a lot of thought into those I can see!

    May 17, 2011 at 11:08 am |
    • Jerv

      Yes she did. "So each cupcake that doesn’t have traditional cupcake owns a certain modern dot and you have a flavor card as your key."

      May 17, 2011 at 11:19 am |
  14. Evil Grin

    I actually thought they looked like mushrooms from Super Mario Bros.

    May 17, 2011 at 11:04 am |
  15. Bill Gates

    Looks like she's holding a tray full of painted ta-tas from a Key West festival.

    May 17, 2011 at 10:45 am |
    • Tom Hanks

      Maybe their "Bosom Buddies"?

      May 17, 2011 at 11:01 am |
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