June 29, 2011 - Cupcakes are everywhere. Regardless of where you live, I’ll bet that you can name the closest cupcake-only store. The other day, I even spotted a truck that sold cupcakes.
This craze came out of thin air. Ten years ago, no one went out to purchase single, artfully decorated cupcakes. Back then, cupcakes were for kids—fun treats for the under 9-year-old sect.
All of this changed when an investment banker named Candace Nelson hatched an idea.
An American citizen, Nelson spent the majority of her childhood in Southeast Asia. There, her and her mother baked cupcakes and cookies on a regular basis.
“It was an entertainment activity and something that always helped me feel connected with my homeland,” Nelson says.
She moved back to the States for high school, attended Wesleyan University, and was soon recruited for a position in investment banking in San Francisco. It was the late 90s and early 2000s, and when things went cold in the dot-com bust, Nelson began questioning her direction in life.
Still a fan of baking, she enrolled in a six-month pastry program at Tante Marie’s Cooking School in San Francisco and started selling special occasion cakes out of her kitchen. But pretty soon her focus shifted.
“I wanted to create something people could eat every day, and realized the cupcake needed to be reinvented,” she says.
She and her husband, Charles, moved down to Los Angeles, started putting together a business plan, and kept selling cupcakes out of her kitchen—gourmet cupcakes with high-end ingredients and artistic, minimalist topping decoration.
“Word got out among my friends that I was selling cupcakes out of my home, and the demand grew,” she says.
Celebrities soon caught on. A producer from The Tyra Banks Show fell in love with Nelson’s recipe and gave Banks a batch for her birthday. From there, word spread like wildfire around Hollywood circles: Candace Nelson’s cupcakes were a hit.
Meanwhile, Nelson and Charles were scouting out locations all over Los Angeles for a cupcake-only store. Finally deciding on a space in Beverly Hills, they opened Sprinkles Cupcakes in April 2005 to huge crowds.
“We sold out within the first few hours and realized that all of our projections were not in line with the demand,” she says.
They plowed through, working themselves to the bone for the first few years—sometimes even sleeping on the floor of the bakery. The hard work paid off and pretty soon the likes of Martha Stewart and Katie Holmes were requesting her treats.
Copycats began popping up everywhere.
“Cupcake shops have proliferated across every town in America—they are even spreading to Europe and South America—I think they are so popular because everyone can relate to eating a cupcake, and in the crazy times we are living in, it is nice to have a simple pleasure,” she says.
Transitioning to television
Years after launching Sprinkles Cupcakes, Nelson was contacted by Super Delicious, a Los Angeles-based production company, to help judge a cupcake show.
“The people at Super Delicious were driving around L.A. and noticed an abundance of cupcake shops which spurred them into coming up with the idea for Cupcake Wars; they thought I would be a good judge,” Nelson says.
The pilot aired last year, showcasing a competition for the best cupcake, and was picked up by Food Network. The weekly show is now in its third season.
“Its an entertaining show and relevant because everyone loves a cupcake,” Nelson says.
What lessons has Nelson learned along the way?
First, she’s learned the importance of starting small.
“Starting out in my kitchen was a fantastic way to test the market and get name recognition before opening the store—and when starting small, you can make mistakes much easier,” she says.
Second, she’s learned to listen to her gut. In the beginning, no one thought a cupcake store would fly. According to Nelson, everyone in Los Angeles was on the Atkins diet and the word carbohydrate was in the four-letter category.
“Everyone said we wouldn’t make it, but I knew if I didn’t try it, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself,” she says.
Nelson and Charles are working on a new concept, which is still hush-hush.
“All I can say is that it’s dessert-based and will open next to our original Beverly Hills location in the fall,” she says.
When asked how she feels about launching the international cupcake craze, Nelson laughs modestly and says, “It is surreal and very exciting.”
Katie Morell is a writer and editor based in Chicago. Over the past 10 years, Morell has covered topics ranging from business and politics to travel and social justice. She is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (www.asja.org), and a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism.