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Sweet and Vicious

Nine years ago, Magnolia started a revolution. But now the bakery’s children are going to court to fight over the crumbs. The sticky tale of Buttercup vs. Little Cupcake and the sugar-frosting of America.

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Photographs by Michael Schmelling, food styling by Rachel Cox.  

At the far end of Third Avenue in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, nestled beside a pizza store and Mimi’s Nail Spa, the Little Cupcake Bakeshop, with its bright white façade and spearmint-green awnings, looks as inviting as a sugared confection. On a sunny recent Saturday, the day of the shop’s grand opening, well-wishers and curious neighbors popped in for a look. Gold and white balloons bobbed against the ceiling, and fresh cupcakes sat in cheerful rows in the display case. “This is just what this neighborhood needs!” exclaimed one woman. The scene recalled a birthday party—so much so that you might never suspect that the Little Cupcake Bakeshop has become a battleground. The fight is an impassioned grudge match between rival bakers, one involving a lawsuit, a firing, broken friendships, Sex and the City, false whispers of lesbianism, the core ideals of American democracy, and who, exactly, has the unassailable right to bake a hummingbird cake.

Long before the shop’s opening, the first salvos had been fired. The combatants are Mark Libertini, co-owner of Little Cupcake and a former manager at Buttercup Bake Shop in midtown, and Jennifer Appel, a former co-owner of the famed Magnolia Bakery on Bleecker Street, current owner of Buttercup, and the plaintiff in a suit that seeks to shut down Little Cupcake immediately.

“I have a right to open a bakery,” says Libertini, a 32-year-old pastry chef from Boston with glasses and gray-salted black hair. “She thinks she invented the cupcake,” adds Luigi Lobuglio, a Bay Ridge native who’s one of Libertini’s business partners.

“But she didn’t,” says Libertini. “She can’t say, ‘Don’t open a bakery.’ ”

“It’s like saying, ‘Don’t be an American,’ ” says Lobuglio. “It’s like saying, ‘You can’t be an American.’ ”

For the record, Jennifer Appel does not, in fact, think she invented the cupcake. “It would be like Pizza Hut saying they invented pizza!” she says during a conversation at her bakery on Second Avenue and 51st Street. Appel, who’s 40, has a genial but no-nonsense manner, and when she says something funny, she tends to laugh sharply, as though she’s just reminded herself to do so. “But Pizza Hut does have a certain concept, from their décor to their layout to the way they put the toppings on the pizza.”

“You can open a bakery,” adds Larry Feierstein, her director of franchising. The two have ambitious expansion plans. “Just don’t open our bakery.”

It’s worth noting, though, that when I ask her about the city’s cupcake craze—and the fact that she’s witnessed it right from the start—she quickly corrects me.

“I created it,” she says.

“She’s like the cupcake godmother,” says Feierstein. “If you did a family tree of cupcakes in New York, she spawned out the seven families. She’s the Don Corleone of cupcakes.”

Given the animosity between the competing bakeries, the Cosa Nostra analogy is not entirely inappropriate. New York’s cupcake genealogy, however, might better be traced using the model of Old Testament bloodlines. Together, Appel and a high-school friend, Allysa Torey, begat Magnolia Bakery in 1996. When their partnership, and friendship, dissolved in 1999, Magnolia begat Buttercup. In 2003, Magnolia begat Billy’s, a bakery in Chelsea, opened by a former Magnolia manager, and Buttercup begat Sugar Sweet Sunshine, started by two former Buttercup employees. Now there are at least a half-dozen similar bakeries throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn, with such jolly names as Baked, Happy Happy Happy, Polka Dot Cake Studio, and Cupcake Caboose (an all-cupcake catering company), each serving up cupcakes topped with dollops of sugary frosting swirled artfully like beehive hairdos.

And like any good biblical saga, the cupcake boom comes with its own creation myth. In the fledgling months of Magnolia, when Appel and Torey made cakes, they’d often find themselves with extra batter. One day, Torey decided to run to the deli for cupcake papers. “One minute we were making eight cupcakes,” says Torey. “The next minute we had windows full of them.”

The cupcakes, cheap and sweet, were a hit. Customers started queuing around the block. Then, in 2000, Carrie Bradshaw and her girlfriends indulged in the oversize treats on Sex and the City, and the lines got longer still. (The bakery’s now a featured stop on the Sex and the City bus tour.) Soon, the cupcake boom was being trumpeted in style articles and fashion-magazine trend alerts. The attention climaxed, perhaps, with a New York Times piece this year about a woman who lived a few blocks from Magnolia and whose dog had become dangerously overweight after eating discarded wrappers.

These articles reliably attribute the cupcake’s renaissance to some combination of (a) a post-diet-fad craving for sugary indulgence; (b) the girly-girl culture that spun up around Sex and the City; and (c) a regressive nostalgia that spurs adults to seek out the comfort foods of some idealized, vanilla-scented childhood (a notion Appel understands; she holds a Ph.D. in clinical psychology). But from a purely practical standpoint, the cupcake’s appeal is not hard to decode. It’s sweet. It’s portable. It requires no cutlery. It’s large enough to be satisfying but small enough to be guilt-free. As one woman on the Sex and the City tour remarked: “If you put enough butter and sugar on something, it’s going to taste pretty good.”


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