Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Attack of the Giant Cupcakes Repelled!


     You should never celebrate when any business goes under. Money lost, people out of work, dreams dashed.
     Yet, score one for the little guy.
     It will be five years ago, this September, that mother daughter team of Holly Sjo and Samantha Wood opened up The Cupcake Counter, a tiny, 290-square foot store wedged between a parking garage and a Quinta Inn on Madison Street.
     And a year later, New York giant Crumbs opened up directly across Franklin Street.
     In 2011, I compared the two this way:
     “Cupcake Counter cupcakes weigh about 2 ounces and look exactly like the cupcakes your mother would bake and bring to your first-grade classroom in a tinfoil-lined box to celebrate your birthday. The icing can be spare—sometimes it doesn’t even cover the cupcake top, but leaves a gap of bare cake rimming the crinkly paper wrapping. Decoration might be a single tiny red candy heart, set directly in the center. I would describe Cupcake Counter cupcakes as simple, classic cupcakes with a certain quiet dignity; solemn cupcakes, maybe even a little sorrowful; cupcakes as Wayne Thiebaud would paint them. Sometimes only a handful are on display.”
              "Across the street at Crumbs is a different story...The display case is jammed with cupcakes, ranging from 1-ounce minis to the 'Colossal Crumb' intended to feed eight people. The ‘signature’ cupcakes are 7-ounce, 500-calorie behemoths the size and shape of grapefruits, domed high with icing, studded with candy, drenched in chocolate, crusted with sprinkles. Circus-like cupcakes. Mardi Gras cupcakes.”
     The assumption of course was that the big chain would drive the tiny storefront out of business. That’s how life works. Sometimes. But just as mice outlasted mammoths and the Book Bin in Northbrook saw Borders come and go, so Crumbs shut down while the The Cupcake Counter bakes on.
     This week Crumbs announced it is closing its 65 stores in 12 states, including two in Chicago, on Madison Street and in Water Tower Place. Its stock has been delisted from the stock exchange.
     What happened? Though one pastry chef I talked to called Crumbs, off the record, "shockingly bad," in the taste test I conducted with my family three years ago, we decided Crumbs was as good as The Cupcake Counter, while offering 250 percent more cupcake at a 25 percent greater price.
     They were huge.
     "Crumbs was big," said Sarah Levy, a dessert maven who had boutique bakeries around Chicago and now is entering the airport food concession business through her S. Levy Foods. "Not a nice little indulgence. There's guilt associated with eating such a large cupcake."
     She speculated that the out-of-town aspect might be a factor. "Chicago likes to support local business, so maybe the fact that they were this big chain ..." but then she observed that Sprinkles, based in California, still has "lines out the door."
     Does this mean the cupcake craze is over?
     "I hope the cupcake craze is over," Levy said. "In a way, I never fully understood it. I think there's still a ton of people who absolutely love cupcakes. The cupcake craze is not dead, but maybe it's slowing down. Maybe doughnuts have taken over. The doughnut eaters are taking away from the cupcake eaters."
     And then she went on to rhapsodize the Doughnut Vault. She certainly has a point.
     The only downside, except for those who worked for, invested in or genuinely liked Crumbs, is for the mother-daughter duo who owned The Cupcake Counter. Facing family obligations, they sold three years ago to Marlene Kritlow, who is not at all puzzled as to why Crumbs went belly up.
     "It makes a difference when you bake fresh," said the lifelong Chicagoan, who grew up in Uptown and "had the itch" to bake. "I think people can tell the difference."
     She said she has been watching Crumbs close locations around Chicago for a year.
     "Their quality was different," she said, noting Crumbs cupcakes were baked off-site and not always that day. "My customers would go, then they would come back."
     She watches expenses closely, and her store is always busy. "There's no downtime," she said. "We're happy, a great location."
     Does she see the cupcake craze fading?
     "No, cupcakes are never going out of style," Kritlow said. "Some of these franchises might open and close, there will always be trends. But people have always wanted and loved cupcakes. It's a portion, like an individual little present to the person. That never goes out of style."


  1. "You shouldn’t celebrate when any business goes under. Money lost, people out of work, dreams dashed. Yet..." Oh no, cue the music: "kick 'em when they're up, kick 'em when they're down." At least you're too honest to start this piece with "Now don't get me wrong," I like Cupcake Counter so I hope they don't court bad karma by hanging this up in the store - they still have the donut revival to contend with (and the Loop is blessed to have three great donut shops).

    These "David vs. Goliath" stories always seem to omit the customers. At least Crumbs was open Saturdays and, at least in one downtown location, Sundays - a world of difference for those of us who work on the weekend. And as nice as the Book Bin is, how many book lovers shouted "hooray!" when Borders went away (maybe not so many in Northbrook since there's still a Barnes and Noble around there, but I doubt they're happy about it or would celebrate a world where there choice was Amazon or the Book Bin). Now if Crumbs really was the predatory company the headline "Attack of the Giant Cupcake Thwarted" implied this column's sting would be well deserved, but I don't think they were - I really doubt that Crumbs scouted Loop locations based on their proximiity to existing cupcake bakeries. (Borders, in contrast, seemed to relish opening near established bookstores - it happened too often to be a coincidence).

    Anyway, good luck to the Crumbs' unemployed, especially the workers at the one on Madison who were always ultra nice to me.

  2. I don't understand people who don't understand cupcake love and rhapsodize doughnuts instead. Cake is clearly superior! It makes sense that smaller sizes would be more popular. Easier to rationalize a small treat. I enjoyed Crumbs, but found the flavors inconsistent in quality. A bummer to spend the money and then find you chose wrong.

  3. A cupcake's visual appeal would draw me to it initially, but doughnuts can be heavenly. Anyway, comparing the merits of cupcakes to doughnuts, or cake to pie, pancakes to waffles, et al, is fun but futile, since it comes down to individual preference.

  4. To Anoymous @-bove:

    Don't you read: Neil Steinberg could have lived and worked in New York City He leveraged that offer against his own newspaper. Like a true Chicagoan,he's a lifer. U R done, birthday-week boy. Go find yourself a date, and leave Neil to his life and civic family.

    See blow you:
    Justin Theroux says he’s the one who invented the concept of selling crappy beer to hipsters for exorbitant prices when he was still a downtown bartender.

    “I still take credit for the idea of selling cheap beer for lots of money,” Jennifer Aniston’s fiancĂ© says in Details’ new issue.
    --NY Post.


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