California Catches the New York Cupcake Craze

The Magnolia Bakery in Manhattan has long set the standard for world-class cupcakes. But as Brian Unger reports, a Beverly Hills boutique called Sprinkles has become the West Coast destination for the treats. It begs the question: Are we ready for another East Coast-West Coast feud?

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Cupcakes are the stylish dessert of the day. Born in New York, the cupcake craze has migrated to the West Coast. Brian Unger asks: Will a cupcake rapper war ensue? Today's Unger Report goes inside the California cupcake scene.

BRIAN UNGER reporting:

The only thing mean about the streets of Beverly Hills: expensive parking meters. This is just where you'd expect to find Sprinkles, a cupcake boutique.

Mr. CHARLES NELSON (Sprinkles): We wanted to have the retro dessert, but we wanted to have a clean, modern design.

UNGER: Sprinkles is more Frank Gehry than mom and pop, more Martha Stewart than Magnolia, the bakery in New York where the neocupcake movement began.

Mr. NELSON: We're trying to elevate, you know, what was once the lowly cupcake from the grocery store. It's already been picked up by Magnolia Bakery, but we're hoping to even take it to another level.

UNGER: At 3.25 a pop, or 36 bucks for a dozen, Sprinkles is dessert as high art meets commerce.

Mr. NELSON: The key to cupcakes--what we learned from the experience in New York--is foot trapping.

UNGER: Charles Nelson is 35. He and his wife, Candace, sunk their life savings into Sprinkles on a hunch. If a cupcake can make it in New York, it can be rich and famous in LA.

Mr. NELSON: The line about three weeks ago on Saturday was--took an hour to get through and it stretched down into the next block.

UNGER: After being open a few months, Sprinkles sells up to 3,000 cupcakes every day out of 600 square feet of prime Beverly Hills real estate. The gamble paid off. Next year, Nelson hopes to open Sprinkles stores in Las Vegas, then Dallas, then Chicago.

Mr. NELSON: Hi. How are you?

Unidentified Woman: Hi.

Mr. NELSON: Hi.

So this is really the sort of inner cupcake sanctum that we're in.

UNGER: This is where it all goes on, basically.

In the back, it's cramped and hot, no bigger than a household kitchen.

Mr. NELSON: Four hundred pounds of sugar and about 300 pounds of flour and a hundred pound of Callebaut cocoa, straight from Belgium.

UNGER: There are bakers, icers and cupcakes cluttering everything.

Mr. NELSON: It gets pretty crazy, and the weekends are nuts. You have to have a high tolerance for insanity to work here.

UNGER: Do you ever catch an employee with their finger in their mouth?

Mr. NELSON: No. That is something we strongly discourage because of the health-department aspects. But...

UNGER: Of course.

Mr. NELSON: ...everyone certainly would love to.

UNGER: This is what Willy Wonka would have wanted, if he could afford the Rodeo Drive rents.

Mr. NELSON: One of our most popular and kind of unique flavors is the chai tea latte. It's gotta chai tea cake with a chai tea latte frosting. It's kind of sweet with a little spicy too.

UNGER: OK, that's a cupcake you'll never see in New York City.

Sprinkles makes 20 flavors, but just one cupcake has emerged as a star.

Mr. NELSON: The Red Velvet is, by far and away, the most popular cupcake there is.

UNGER: What the heck is in Red Velvet?

Mr. NELSON: Light chocolate cake and has cream cheese frosting, and it has a little bit of red food coloring; that's its Southern heritage.

UNGER: It's chocolate cake.

Mr. NELSON: It's chocolate cake. It's a very mild chocolate cake, but it is chocolate cake.

UNGER: Chocolate, vanilla--the Magnolia Bakery staples have definitely gone California.

Do you foresee kind of an East Coast-West Coast cupcake feud brewing?

Mr. NELSON: More to the East Coast-West Coast rap thing?

UNGER: Hey, I didn't want to bring it up 'cause that turned violent, but do you foresee some violence here potentially?

Mr. NELSON: I would say that probably for the people in New York, they don't even know who we are.

UNGER: Eventually they will. Nelson is targeting 30 other cities for Sprinkles cupcakes.

Unidentified Man: Let me have a vanilla and a pumpkin to go. Thank you.

UNGER: And if a cupcake can make it in low-carb conscious Beverly Hills...

Mr. NELSON: Well, I think people--they talk thin and eat fat.

UNGER: ...then a cupcake can make it anywhere.

And for the record, there's nothing illegal in the cupcakes.

Mr. NELSON: (Pauses) No comment.

UNGER: And that is today's Unger Report. I'm Brian Unger.

CHADWICK: DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News with contributions from Slate magazine online. I'm Alex Chadwick.

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