STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And now, here's another economics question: What would cause a professional to drop everything to bake cupcakes?

As Rob Schmitz of member station KQED reports from Los Angeles, many people are swapping their power suits for aprons.

ROB SCHMITZ: A few years ago, Candace and Charles Nelson thought they had a great idea. They're going to leave their jobs as high-paid investment bankers to set up a shop that would only sell cupcakes. They call it Sprinkles. Candace's friends wondered if the couple had lost their marbles.

Ms. CANDACE NELSON (Owner, Sprinkles): We were kind of a laughing joke amongst all of our friends. And with also at the height of sort of South Beach diet, Atkins, no one in L.A., or in the country for that matter, was eating carbs.

SCHMITZ: But they are now.

(Soundbite of people talking)

SCHMITZ: On this day, dozens of customers patiently wait in the line that snakes out onto the sidewalk. After waiting half an hour, they paid three and a half bucks for a cupcake.

Sprinkles' rich frosting laden gourmet delights had sent the city into a sugar-induced tizzy. Celebrities love them. And now, tour buses make regular stops here.

Nelson knew things were going well when she saw people standing in the middle of the street taking pictures of the bakery.

Ms. NELSON: Which still blows my mind to this day.

SCHMITZ: Why all the fuss? Theories range from a growing demand for foods made with nothing but the best ingredients, to folks self-medicating with sweets during a strained economy.

Rebecca Marrs of the California School of Culinary Arts says her school added its first evening in weekend patisserie program in order to meet the growing demand of mid-career professionals.

Ms. REBECCA MARRS (Director of Career Services, California School of Culinary Arts): And are now wanting to pursue maybe a passion they've always had, they've always, you know, done baking on the side. But now, they've seen some success with other businesses like the Sprinkles. And they've seen, you know, if they're successful on doing it, you know, I could probably be as well.

SCHMITZ: Kirk Rossberg has seen this trend, too. He's the head of the California Retail Bakers Association. In his 23 years of running his bakery, he's never seen so many intern applications from folks with mature resumes.

Mr. KIRK ROSSBERG (President, California Retail Bakers Association): Well, free labor is free labor. We have a luxury now of interviewing for the spot because it is becoming somewhat of a coveted position to them to get a job.

SCHMITZ: One of these young entrepreneurs is former real estate developer Alison Winston. She seems to have taken a page out of the Sprinkles book. She's spruced up the breakfast of choice for beat cops.

Ms. ALISON WINSTON (Owner and Founder, Frittelli's): This is a mocha cake with our homemade espresso glaze. This is a Vermont maple on a vanilla cake made with real Vermont maple.

SCHMITZ: No, these aren't delicate French pastries. They're doughnuts and they have never look better.

Ms. WINSTON: This is raspberry filled. We have actually a lingonberry.

SCHMITZ: Lingonberry? In case you're wondering, it's kind of like a Scandinavian cranberry.

MSN just listed Fritelli's as one of the 10 best doughnut shops in the country.

But not everyone is going gourmet. Some are seeking out a niche market.

Office assistant Rebecca Foster(ph) specializes in baked goods for Goths - as in Gothic, as in people who embrace the darker side of life.

Ms. REBECCA FOSTER (Office Assistant; Baker): I do want to represent the needs of the gothic community, those that can't go into regular bakeries and order black roses and feel comfortable doing that.

SCHMITZ: Foster's baked goods are aimed at life events many would rather forget. She makes a decadent divorce cake with black roses. She packages her Valentine's Day truffles in a tempered chocolate coffin.

Ms. FOSTER: Not everybody wants pink and sweet and lovely. And for a lot of people, this is lovely and this is beautiful.

SCHMITZ: Foster plans to leave her office job by the end of next year to focus solely on her baking. She says life is too short to put her sweet dreams on hold. And like any true Goth, she's very much aware of her own mortality.

For NPR News, I'm Rob Schmitz in Los Angeles.

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