The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Saturday, July 12, 2014
Food / Drink ... Photo ... Society ...

Here in the affluent suburbs of the United States, we live in a world of social trends — and not all of them wise or useful. Some of these trends are just trends for the sake of . . . well, for the sake of being trends. I.e., for giving people something to read about and then join in on and talk about with others.

One trend from the past 5 years or so has been the renewed popularity of the cupcake. Cupcakes are nice treats for kids, given their cravings for sweet stuff; you get a lot of icing and other sugary stuff (like multi-colored sprinkles) relative to the somewhat less sweet (but still VERY sugary) cake within the peel-off paper lining. Thus a cupcake usually packs more of a sugar-blast than a regular slice of chocolate cake on a plate (unless you get a side piece with plenty of icing). And you don’t need the plate, so you can run around with it and eat it where ever you wish. A very good feature for restless kids. So yeah, cupcakes were the perfect kid’s snack (at least from the perspective of kids themselves and their dentists).

Adults generally don’t crave cupcakes as much, being more reasonable and sedentary. But we reasonable adults are also subject to occasional bouts of nostalgia for the days of our youth, back when we did love our cupcakes. And we are also suckers for a good social trend to get involved with. In the early 2000’s, some money-hungry business people finally made the cupcake connection, and the adult gourmet cupcake craze took off. I read that it had something to do with the show Sex and the City, whose story narrative included a bakery where sexy urban women would occasionally indulge in . . . you guessed it . . . cupcakes. That is, when not indulging in other sensual activities (cupcakes were sensual and also ultimately frustrating, given the body fat that cupcakes deposit).

One of the front-line cupcake purveyors was Crumbs Bakery based in New York City. They expanded from a local neighborhood bakery to almost 80 retail locations and had extensive on-line sales. But, sooner or later a one-trick establishment based on a fad has to reach the limits of growth, and then deal with contraction. Business people used to fast growth aren’t so good at riding out contractions, and Crumbs turned out to be a prime example. A few weeks ago, Crumbs decided to shut all its stores and lay off all its workers.

Bloomberg had a good article on the fall of the cupcake. They found an analyst (Peter Saleh from Telsey Advisory Group) who summed it up quite nicely: “People are not going to eat a cupcake for breakfast . . . It’s not a very sustainable business model where people are going to come in and eat the same thing every day. You eat a cupcake every day, and you’ll be dead.”

Back in the 1980’s, there was another one-item food craze, based on potatoes. For whatever reason, Americans became willing to stop at a food counter and order up a hot baked potato loaded with rich toppings such as melted cheese or sour cream plus other good stuff like chili or bacon. Some of the fast food restaurants like Wendys put spuds on the menu, but there were also quite a few “baked potato bars” to be found in shopping mall food courts. (This is back in the days before Amazon and Ebay, when you wound up spending a lot of time at malls). By 1990 the baked potato trend went to seed, although there may still be a few potato places surviving in odd locations, such as this one in Portland, OR. Ooops, wait – this place bit the dust in 2010.

Oh well, we’re now living in a time when carbohydrates are the enemy, diet-wise. And potatoes have a lot of carbs in them (although various food authors agree that the potato itself, without all the fattening accoutrements, is not all that bad nutrition-wise) But with regard to empty carbs, sugary treats like cupcakes are like nuclear warheads by comparison. So, another trend may soon bite the dust – it wouldn’t be a real trend if it didn’t, eventually.

And yet, cupcakes might not go out without a fight. Looks like some investors are showing interest in keeping Crumbs alive on a smaller level (and with a more diverse product offering). And for now, the lights still seem to be on at the local cupcake shop (Sweet Lane in Clifton, NJ). Here’s a pic of their neon cupcake window sign shining in the night, a tribute to another social fad that may (or may not yet) be on the way out.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:52 pm      

  1. Jim, Cupcakes I never had as a kid. I don’t think they were in “fashion” in those days.

    I noticed cupcakes came into fashion relatively recently or maybe it was simply a consequence of the place and culture (that is, the ethnicity) from which I came that cupcakes were not something we ate as kids (family of 6 or not). Perhaps you are right that the “fashion” came from “Sex and the City”, which proved that women could have sex just for sex without any responsibility, relationship, feelings, or anything but the “me, me, me” satisfied. I remember seeing the episode where Carrie comes home early one morning, so very happy that she finally had learned how to have sex “just like a man”. I wondered what the men actually tho’t about that particular statement; I could not have disagreed more. (But I seriously digress.)

    I always tho’t that cupcakes *really* came into fashion when the whole craze about “what food to eat” had run its course for a while and needed something new.

    But preceding the cupcake, the serious attention to food came about when people started thinking that if one would only eat right, people could actually live to be 150 years old; I noticed nobody ever mentioned quality of life along with living to such an age. (I actually saw that number posed as a possibility one time.) I figured the idea was that cupcakes allowed people to “indulge” in cake yet allow the person eating the cupcake not to really suffer the consequences of eating an entire piece of cake! And you have shown a piece of cake and a cupcake are about six of one and half a dozen of the other. But then again, that’s simply my idea; I may be a group of one when it comes to that.

    Then too, I find myself thinking of the starving people in Africa (or even India). Only in America would people be “fussy” about what it is they eat, refuse to eat anything but “special” foods lest they hurt their health. People in a lot of other places would be glad for a crust of bread; the tho’t of what might be “healthy” would be for them just any food at all. I find myself saying, “only in America”.

    I agree with you that “one food” businesses have a “short shelf life” (so to say); it’s inevitable that people lose the thrill of the novelty and soon lose interest (same with potatoes); thus the business either expands or folds.

    If I remember correctly, most of this whole thing about “food” started just about the time the early baby boomers closed in on forty. First, they couldn’t trust anybody over thirty; then *they* turned thirty. Then they turned forty! Death shortly awaited; they were sure. But to ward that off, forty became the new thirty, then fifty became the new forty, etc. (Here I think Jane Fonda for some reason.)

    I found myself thinking one day recently that I’ll be turning eighty. Will eighty become the new seventy? Which made me laugh to myself as no matter how you look at it, nobody wants to even hit sixty. Well, they want to hit sixty as it’s better than the alternative, but nobody wants to think about it anymore. Or people tend to think of living to be 150 (a number I actually saw once) and still actually act, feel, have the same health as when one was say thirty-five or forty. (I doubt that will happen.)

    Soon I’ll be eighty. Will I make it? It’s close; so unless something comes quick and does me in, I should make eighty. Strangely enough, I still think like I’m forty or fifty (or maybe it’s that I *think* I think like that; I forget a lot.) Then I remind myself that I’ve forgotten more than others have learned.

    And this comment has become just what I’ve criticized so: A definite “me, me, me”! I guess I couldn’t help myself. So, I’ll say I wish everybody in small business well, that they continue for years, and are very successful, cupcakes, potatoes, or whatever. I also wish well to those who are very careful of their food intake – and even those who are not. I hope everyone is very healthy and lives long. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — July 13, 2014 @ 3:07 pm

  2. I chuckled at this one. Analysing cupcakes? I am almost 50, and I remember cupcakes in my youth. I also loved the French petit fours, which I still prefer. For me, it was, and still is, a visual attraction more than anything else. I am a foodie with a strong visual sense. Talking about cupcakes, Jim, I just baked a batch! At the prices that they carry, here in Sydney anyway, baking at home is the best way to indulge my visual senses, as well as control the amount of sugar that goes into those little things!

    Comment by DJ — July 17, 2014 @ 3:38 am

  3. Hey DJ, thanks much for the cupcake update!! Great that you remember them too from your youth, definitely makes the world seem smaller!!! This is definitely ;^} territory.

    Comment by Jim G — July 17, 2014 @ 8:00 pm

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