They may have peaked as a food trend, but it's still a cake you can hold in your hand and eat without a fork.
The demise of the cupcake bakery chain Crumbs was hardly a surprise to anyone with even scant knowledge of the company. Since it’s ill-fated IPO in 2010, the Crumbs stock price was meteoric, in the sense that its brief glimpse of initial sparkle heralded a rapid, fiery descent to Earth, burning up in the atmosphere of mismanagement, speculation and over-leverage along the way. Over the past year, Crumbs stores resembled ghost towns, and the recent launch of a Cronut copycat, with the Scrooge-like name Crumbnut, only made their decline that much more apparent.
But Tuesday, as America woke to news of Crumbs’ death knell and the closure of its 50-odd stores, the end of the world’s largest cupcake chain arrived in my inbox with the burning question: is this the end of cupcakes? Some wrote me with genuine concern and curiosity, but the majority did so with barely hidden glee, praying that the insolvency of Crumbs would be the equivalent for the cupcake food trend’s fate that Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers’ own demise signaled for the financial bubble Crumbs grew fat on. “Please let this be the end of cupcakes,” one friend, a fellow food writer, wrote in an email.
I wouldn’t bet on it.
The cupcake Cassandras have been predicting buttercream-frosted doom for some time, almost a decade in several cases, and each time cupcakes have proven resilient. The small handheld cakes, decorated in everything from simple frosting smears to elaborate 3D fondant figures, stuffed with creamy fillings, and even paired with booze, have retained their position as the defining food trend of the 21st century for good reason.
Cupcakes are not a new food, unlike last summer’s trendy pastry, the Cronut. They have been around for well over a century, and most North Americans have fond memories of cupcakes at birthday parties, or coming out of an Easy Bake oven to be topped by chocolate frosting and sprinkles. The modern cupcake trend began in New York City in 1996, when the original owners of the small Magnolia Bakery made a batch of cupcakes out of leftover cake batter. Though other bakeries, such as the Cupcake Café, made cupcakes in New York, not to mention other cities, these seemed to hit a chord with the neighborhood and a demand for the cupcakes steadily grew. Though lines for Magnolia’s cupcakes soon formed, cupcake fever didn’t truly take off until the early 2000s, fed by three factors.
First, the cupcakes at Magnolia garnered a brief, but highly influential cameo in one scene of Sex and the City, which instantly changed the image of the cupcake from a child’s treat to an adult indulgence that was the butter and sugar equivalent of $500 Jimmy Choo pumps. Second, the terrorist attacks of September 11 and the subsequent recession sent Americans searching for comforting, familiar foods (think mac n’ cheese or gourmet burgers), and the cupcake proved to be the perfect edible safety blanket. Finally, the rise of cupcakes coincided with the Internet age, first with broadband and blogs, and later the social networks, which made sharing stories, recipes and photos of each and every cupcake a breeze.
Cupcakes were no longer confined as a food trend by geography. Someone in Paraguay could read about the early success of a company like Crumbs, browse hundreds of photos of their elaborate decorations, and replicate that in their own business in Asunción. The cupcake became the first viral food trend of the Internet age. Every bakery, every design, every new variation on this one simple cake (mini cupcakes, giant cupcakes, vegan cupcakes!) were written about and debated with the energy we once devoted to war correspondence.
But as the press, foodies and the public tired of hearing about cupcakes, they begged for the end of the cupcake story. They didn’t want to read about cupcakes anymore. The novelty had worn off.
This is the natural fate of all food trends. They’re symptoms of our collective appetite–cultural shifts in what food we value and desire–and the energy at their heart can expand to only so many places, for so long. All food trends have their peak, their moment when they’re at the center of the zeitgeist, and cupcakes passed theirs some time ago.
But that doesn’t mean the cupcake is dead. Far from it. After nearly two decades as the reigning dessert trend in America, and increasingly the world, the cupcake will not go away. It will be there at birthdays, graduations and office parties. It will still elicit palpitations of excitement on sight, even from those who cursed its constant attention, because fundamentally the cupcake’s enduring strength is its very essence: a cake you can hold in your hand and eat without a fork. A cake you can eat in the car. America’s perfect cake.
And tomorrow, while Crumbs’ shareholders will be counting their losses, and their baking equipment is auctioned off to other cupcake makers, someone in your community will still be making cupcakes, and others will buy them. Because as much as people say they hate the cupcake trend, what kind of a human being would truly want to live in a world without cupcakes?
David Sax is a freelance writer specializing in business and food. He is the author of The Tastemakers: Why We’re Crazy for Cupcakes but Fed Up with Fondue. He lives in Toronto, Canada.