Since my last post I have jetted across the pond and back – something food retailers have been doing since the late 1980s when Dean & Deluca opened a flagship store on Broadway, NYC and became an instant mecca for foodies. The white tiled walls, marble counters, chrome wired island shelving, the ambient and chilled market stalls and their altar-style food displays became the norm for new food shops from around the world.
Twenty-five years later it still looks good. Their bread section is very strong and worth a visit, the patisserie wasn’t ground-breaking, but it serves a good benchmark for what New York has on offer.
On a previous visit, I was very impressed by the daily queues forming for Magnolia bakery’s cupcakes. It’s where the cupcake tsunami started and, at local level, the waves haven’t ebbed: cupcakes are still big all over Manhattan!
Sprinkles is one of the better-known brands, originally from LA, now with a small store on Lexington Avenue. It was so busy, when I entered, people were leaving empty-handed muttering that it was not worth waiting 20 minutes for a cupcake. So it’s just as well they are installing a cupcake ATM machine this spring. Successfully trialled in LA, this should take the pain out of having to wait for that sugar fix.
The lines were better dealt with at Baked by Melissa, a mere stone’s throw away. Melissa specialises in truly bite-sized cupcakes, not actually baked in cups, but silicone mats, then finished with a dollop of frosting and decorated with chocolate or sugar sprinkles. The cupcakes are held in clear, holed, perspex trays. Simply pick your flavours and your multiples from an easy-to-follow menu and price guide, starting with three for $3, up to 100 for $80. They can even ship them nationwide, since the frosting isn’t piped all the way to the edge, allowing them to be held in a hybrid of a hinged container and blister pack. A new line of fully chocolate dipped ones has made shipping them even easier.
In SoHo, an upmarket area on a par with London’s Covent Garden, Georgetown Cupcakes had a steady stream of customers popping in for cupcakes and coffee. Its business model certainly impressed, since it is a highly streamlined operation with all cupcakes in one size only and a menu of 16 flavours. A simple tea and coffee menu was served in disposables alongside. It was impressive to see such a large store in such an expensive neighbourhood. Rents start at $300 (£180) per square foot in Mercer Street – so they need to be busy.
On flavour, none of the above got my taste buds tinkling. This led us to check out some alternatives. Lower East Side’s Babycakes is a vegan bakery, using alternatives to traditional refined sugars such as agave syrup. It has been going for a while, and appears rather higgledy piggledy compared to the refined concepts in other neighbourhoods; a lack of space with too much going on, old school fittings, and stuff that looked like copies of Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz – time, it felt, had stood still not only for their faded pink and Peter Pan collared dresses. The saving grace was the taste of their baking. It seemed a cupcake-free zone, unless I couldn’t see them in amongst the clutter. Instead, they offered a range of whole frosted cakes, slices and biscuits. The cornmeal cookie and the cinnamon roll we tried made my gluten-free companion very happy.
With regards to allergy/gluten-free baking, New York does seem to have the upper-hand at present. Tu-Lu’s in the West Village is another bakery specialising in gluten-free. I’m sure if you are on coeliac diet it is cake heaven, but be prepared to turn a blind eye to the scruffiness of the store. Luckily, the brownie slice with peanut butter topping came in to rescue the overall experience.
On depth of flavour, retail environment and customer service, I feel London’s cupcake bakers are winning. However, any cupcake wars are unlikely to be fought on home turf. Instead, the battleground has moved to the shopping malls of the Middle East. Eager investors snap up successful American and British concepts and, have them jostling side by side.