The rise and fall and power of the cupcake

The Wall Street Journal looks at the downfall of the cupcake industry today, marked by the crash of Crumbs’ stock — from more than $13 a share in 2011 to under $2 today.

I remember when my sister first introduced the cupcake fad to me. I was visiting her in San Francisco soon after she had moved there. It was 2006, so cupcakes were just starting to catch on. “Oh, there’s this place that just sells cupcakes!” she told me. I pondered the novelty and we went to check it out. It was Kara’s Cupcakes, a cute little shop (there were only a few seats at a bar along the wall) decked out in pink.

Cupcakes, however, never made it to North Carolina before I left it. Imagine my delight when I came to Beijing, where the cupcake fad had already hit and a new baker in town was just setting up shop. Lollipop Bakery has been quite successful, and since then a couple of others have brought ever more flavors and choices. There are now at least five vendors that I know of supplying Beijing’s masses with cupcakes, and I’m sure there are a few that I’ve forgotten or aren’t aware of — from literally zero five years ago. Of course, a few shops can’t compare to the rather obscene number of cupcake stores in New York (really? There are 25 Crumbs shops alone?) and now in the Triangle area. But that is mostly due to differences in tastes and higher cost barriers — a single cupcake goes for about RMB 25, which is the equivalent of a decent meal (a cupcake is not a decent meal).

Still, the cupcake fad has encouraged other would-be bakers to bring their specialties to Beijing. Since I arrived in 2009, there has been a steady proliferation of small, delivery-only operations serving up everything from cakes and bagels to pies, cookies and even granola. Craft beer has also become very popular. None of these constitutes a fad on their own (except for maybe the beer), but taken together, they could signal a pivotal change in Chinese tastes. I still see Chinese girls sharing a single cupcake and eating it with a fork, carefully avoiding the frosting, but I suppose they don’t have to eat the things we eat the way we eat them.

So while cupcakes may not be cool anymore, I hope they manage to stick around — if only because I find them cute and dainty and more fun to make than a regular cake. At the very least, I’ll keep making them with my tea cupcakes set and handy-dandy cupcake maker. Cuz I’m twee like that.

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