Cupcakes are making a bit of resurgence as a fashionable bakery treat, which is great news for cake-maker Fiona Cairns. Or at least it should be. "They’re not cupcakes, they’re fairy cakes!" huffs Cairns, only half-jokingly of her products. I stand corrected.

So is there any real difference between fairy cakes and cupcakes? The answer lies across one large continent-splitting pond. "I just think that what we make is a very English product. To me, a ’cupcake’ is an American term for a larger, more muffin-like cake. Ours are much more delicate and I prefer the name ’fairy cakes’. I think we’re unique in calling them fairy cakes, not cupcakes."

The cupcakes vs fairy cake debate is one that has raged - and blood was spilt over the matter - within the pages of Waitrose magazine. "In America, a cupcake is a bit like a cookie, something you might pick up on your way to work. It’s a more casual thing, whereas what we do is more precious, more gifty - it’s an alternative to giving a chocolate box," explains MD Kishore Patel. Cairns then unexpectedly adds: "But next week we’ll start to make American-style cupcakes, with buttercream on top!"

The firm’s first foray into cupcakes will initially be for Waitrose own-label. Whether fairy or cupcakes, the fashionable revival of traditional topped box cakes is commonly cited as having been kick-started in New York in the mid-’90s with the likes of the famed Magnolia Bakery (see pg 19). This traditional-style bakery, popped up in films and TV series, including Sex & the City, with queues stretching around the block. But Fiona Cairns was on the scene a whole decade earlier, having begun selling fairy cakes and fruit cakes to Harrods and The Conran Shop some 20 years ago.

traditional goes mainstream

The firm now specialises in manufacturing premium branded and own-label celebration cakes, fairy cakes and biscuits for the likes of Waitrose, which has stocked Fiona Cairns for 14 years, and Sainsbury’s, which came on board a year ago. Cupcakes are just another example of a traditional product returning to the mainstream, says Patel. "We like to take an old product and breathe life into it," he says. "A cupcake is as old as the hills. We think there are some great old ideas that you can interpret crisply in a modern way, and people love it."

The spritely pace of innovation - the firm gets through around 50-60 fairy cake designs in a year - means new product categories such as cupcakes can take on a momentum of their own. "Like everything we do, we make brother and sister products. Cupcakes are likely to be one of those products where we will do a Fiona Cairns label and an own-label," says Patel.

Waitrose will have a different design from John Lewis, Sainsbury’s or Harrods. Even seasonal variations are unique to each retailer. "We’ve almost got too many ideas, if that’s possible!" says Cairns.

Over the last 20 years, the products have refined and the level of detail improved, while the stable of designs is ever-changing. All decorations are handmade. "In the early days, I trained everybody. Now there’s an ethos within the business of paying attention to detail - because that’s the way I am, I’m very fussy.

"Our cakes are very highly finished; everybody understands that. With the clear way it’s packaged [in a simple transparent box], there’s nothing between the consumer’s eye and the product. If there’s a thumb-mark on there it’s obvious."

Cairns has clearly been flexing her PR muscle over the years, achieving a steady drip-feed of coverage for her products in magazines and national newspapers. Patel says: "Keeping the brand in the consumers’ attention through the press is quite an important part of our whole approach. It’s not just about getting the product right and making it taste good and look good, it’s also about getting the customer to pick it up and buy it."

boosting the brand

So does the business have a marketing budget? "Yes - it’s zero! That’s very much Fiona’s role. We have established our brand and we want to work on growing the business," he adds.

This means building on the good start the firm has made in Europe, as well developing new product lines. The brand was successfully introduced into French department store Le Bon Marché - said to be "the Selfridges of Paris" - in January this year. "Nobody knew quite how the fruit cake would go down, but they’re selling really well," says Cairns. They have already pricked the attention of six French publications, including Figaro and Elle magazines.

Elsewhere, the firm is looking to develop shortbread biscuits, to take on the likes of Duchy Originals in the medium term. However, the organics route is not something that is high on the agenda.

But cakes are the mainstay and about 600,000 fairy cakes are made every year, plus around 16-20,000 little fruit cakes, which come in five sizes. The smallest cake costs £8, while a 9kg fruit cake wedding cake retails for around £250. "We built the company up on the reputation of our fruit cake," says Cairns.

So what are the technical issues that a business like Fiona Cairns faces? "As a point of difference we generally develop a product and then cost it - sometimes products fall by the wayside, because they’re too expensive to make," says Patel. "When I started, there wasn’t much competition, but there is now," continues Cairns. "But there are technical barriers to entering into the market, and that puts some people off. I used to design whatever I wanted, with no limitations - all you needed was an oven. That’s completely changed over the last five years. I go to our technologist before I design anything, and not afterwards, as I used to do," she says.

One abandoned product - sugar mice with a string tail - was pulled at the 11th hour due to restrictions on using string coming to light. Thankfully, technical manager Anthony Green is now on hand to ensure the smooth planning of product development. "If everything is right at the NPD stage then the product will be fine when you scale up," he says.

going natural

One technical development is a move away from synthetic colours to natural, wherever possible. "There is a new colour on the market from GMT that’s completely natural. So we’re striving to improve every detail," says Green.

Plans are afoot to double the building space by August this year, having outgrown the factory in Fleckney, Leicestershire. By acquiring a neighbouring unit, the company is set to increase production, warehousing and office space to 11,000sq ft. Costing an estimated £250,000, the plan is to have the new building ready in time for the Christmas rush.

So where would the business like to be in five years’ time - a listing in every major supermarket, perhaps? Patel thinks not; the key, he says, is not to overstretch oneself. "With food manufacturing, managing growth is quite tricky," he explains. "Suddenly, you can go from being a niche provider to a very vulnerable supplier. That’s the process we’ve got to watch. If we sell a little to five supermarkets, the margins are not as good as if we sell in depth to one, because the cost of running that account is fixed. But we’re ready to grow." n


=== Fiona Cairns - the business ===

Location: Fleckney, Leicestershire

Customers: The Conran Shop; Waitrose; John Lewis; Sainsbury’s; Harrods; Fortnum & Mason; Le Bon Marché

Major ingredients supplier: Bako

Turnover: £1.5m with £2m projected by next year

Products: Celebration cakes make up 65%, with fairy cakes and biscuits accounting for the remainder

Key personnel: The company is run by the husband and wife team of Fiona Cairns, who heads up product development and marketing, and MD Kishore Patel

Staff: 35 (permanent)

Distribution: direct

Interesting fact: Fiona Cairns makes Christmas cakes every year for Paul McCartney


=== Fiona Cairns - the CV ===

First trained in graphic design and then worked as an illustrator; undertook cookery training and became a pastry chef at Hambleton Hall, Rutland; began her own business, baking from home

History: "In 1986, I was baking from my kitchen table," says Cairns. "We went on a skiing holiday with friends and decided to take each other a present that cost under £1 - not very easy. So I made little baby fruit cakes. My friends loved them and said I should market them.

"My first-ever order was for six dozen cakes for The Conran Shop. I remember freaking out, thinking, ’How am I going to make all that on my own?’ Then I rang the buyer at Harrods and they really liked the product too; they’re still selling the same product, although the detail and designs are more refined than they were in the early days. Now you see little cakes everywhere."


=== Cupcake craze ===

Magnolia Bakery, New York

Where: 401 Bleecker Street, Manhattan, New York City

Magnolia is credited in some quarters for sparking a cupcakes revival, when it opened in the mid-1990s selling old-fashioned boxed cakes. Long queues are a regular fixture and customers are limited to just 12 cupcakes. The bakery stays open until as late as 11:30pm on weekends. Owner Allysa Torey wrote The Magnolia Bakery Cookbook: Old-Fashioned Recipes from New York’s Sweetest Bakery with former co-owner Jennifer Appel in 1999.

Hummingbird Bakery The closest UK equivalent

Where: 133 Portobello Rd, London

This American-style bakery, opened in 2004 by Tarek Malouf, sells highly indulgent cupcakes - so much so that the chocolate cupcakes were described by one reviewer as "as good as sex".