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.”
But long before Magnolia starred on Sex and the City, the bakery’s success had driven Torey and Appel apart. Within Magnolia’s first year, Appel and Torey were clashing, often about how quickly, and how much, to expand a business they’d originally intended as a quaint neighborhood drop-in spot. Peggy Williams, Appel’s college roommate, worked at Magnolia in the early days. I asked if the tension between the partners had been evident or if their split came as a surprise. “Oh, no. It was pretty evident,” she says with a laugh. “Yeah. That was a personality conflict.”
Perhaps the best illustration of the unrepaired rift between Torey and Appel is the ongoing case of the Sex and the City tour. One of the tour’s peculiarities is that although visitors touch down for a glimpse of the real-life Magnolia, they do so while standing across the street, wolfing down cupcakes from Buttercup. When the tour started, Torey says, the operators used to send in a few employees to buy a dozen cupcakes each—the maximum order. So she asked them either to place advance orders or stop buying the cupcakes altogether. Instead, they went to Buttercup. (The tour company’s head, Georgette Blau, says Magnolia could never accommodate their orders.) Torey now waves off their business with a shrug. Appel, however, happily points out that she has a special button on her computer just for processing orders for the tour. The tour’s operators, when explaining to patrons why they aren’t getting Magnolia cupcakes, have been known to insinuate that Torey and Appel were once lesbian lovers, since split. (“That’s not in the official script,” says Blau.) Torey, who calls the story “absurd,” found out about this when an employee’s wife took the tour and videotaped it.
Torey now runs Magnolia alone. She declines to reveal sales figures about her staple product (one Times report in 2003 had the store selling 3,000 cupcakes in one day and bringing in over $40,000 a week in cupcakes alone). Over at Buttercup, Appel says the bakery as a whole has taken in close to $2 million this year. As for the margin on a single $1.75 cupcake, “all I can say is it’s high. It’s a high-profit item. I mean, it’s butter, flour, sugar, eggs, milk, vanilla.” Basically, if baking in Manhattan were the drug trade, then cupcakes would be crack cocaine: cheap, profitable, available in bulk, and prone to creating repeat customers. And, in some cases, turf wars.
When Appel found out that Libertini, her former manager, intended to open a cupcake bakery, she moved quickly to get a preliminary injunction to prevent him from doing so. Her contention is not so much that he stole her recipes, most of which are publicly available in her best-selling Buttercup cookbook, but rather that he filched the concept—or, essentially, the feel—of her bakery. Legally speaking, though, feel can be a prickly thing to protect. Dissecting the nuances of Buttercup’s complaint is a complex and, at times, absurd undertaking, and can lead to the kind of scene that played out on a sticky August morning in a downtown Brooklyn State Supreme Court.
Evan Cowit, the lawyer for Buttercup, and Al Polizzotto, the lawyer for Little Cupcake, faced off for the very first time. Each laid out his argument before a judge’s clerk who would review the suit so that a judge could determine how, or if, it would proceed. Cowit pointed out that Libertini signed a confidentiality agreement when employed by Buttercup. He also noted that when Libertini was fired for what Appel terms “insubordination” (Libertini calls it “personality conflicts”), he and his new partners incorporated Little Cupcake Corp., Inc., the very next day. Polizzotto countered that there’s no proof that Little Cupcake is using Buttercup’s recipes.
“It’s like they’re saying, ‘They do a hummingbird cake, so we can’t do a hummingbird cake,’ ” he said.
“Buttercup’s the only bakery that does a hummingbird cake,” said Cowit calmly.
“But she says we can’t do a Rice Krispie treat!” said Polizzotto. “She didn’t invent the Rice Krispie treat! Kellogg’s invented the Rice Krispie treat!”
The clerk glanced over their papers, offered both lawyers a slight smile, then put the case on hold for about a month, pending the judge’s decision.
Appel’s “like the cupcake godmother. She spawned out the seven families. She’s the Don Corleone of cupcakes.”
These kind of pitched battles have long enlivened the New York culinary landscape: In the nineteenth century, Ludlow Street became the city’s unofficial “pickle district,” and rival shops jostled to stake out new territories. More recently, a feud erupted in the specialty world of lobster rolls when the co-owners of the Pearl Oyster Bar in Greenwich Village had a falling-out. One left to open Mary’s Fish Camp in 2001, a restaurant just a few blocks away that featured similar lobster rolls, a kind of seafood middle finger.
The combatants in the cupcake clash, however, see the stakes as much higher than neighborhood bragging rights. Having colonized Manhattan, the phenomenon’s next obvious stage of evolution is to replicate across the country, sending sweet frosted cupcakes out like spores. Though similar bakeries exist in other cities—Citizen Cupcake in San Francisco, Seattle’s Cupcake Royale—no one shop has yet stepped up to become to cupcakes what, say, Starbucks is to coffee or Dunkin’ Donuts is to doughnuts. But everyone believes the opportunity is there. “I don’t think the cupcake thing is at its height,” says Libertini. “I think it’s in its infancy. It just depends on how you bring it to the masses.”
That’s where Buttercup’s new franchise plans come in. Feierstein, 57, has been working with Buttercup since June 2003, and this fall, that work will come to fruition. Buttercup has sold three franchises, two in Manhattan and one in Staten Island, which are set to open around Thanksgiving. After that, Appel and Feierstein expect to open seven to ten new Buttercups a year. They envision franchises in every city in the country, and, someday, beyond.
“We’re getting inquiries from all over the world,” Feierstein says.
“Australia, Ireland, the Philippines, Dubai, New Zealand, Israel, Sweden, Canada,” says Appel. “We’ve probably had 25 or 30 countries. And, of course, nationally, there’s been a tremendous demand.”
“From all the states,” he says.
“Maybe not Hawaii,” says Appel.
“No, we got Hawaii.”
“We don’t want to be seen as the Starbucks of cupcakes,” Appel will tell me later. “We don’t want to put one of these on every corner. But we want to have one of these in everyone’s neighborhood.” How many, ultimately, are they looking to do across the country? “Somewhere in the low hundreds.”
It’s a bold plan, especially at a time when Manhattan has more look-alike cupcake bakeries than ever before. Could there be such a thing as too many cupcake shops?
“I can imagine that,” Appel says. “But the strong will survive.”
“The weak ones will fall off the cliff,” says Feierstein.
Appel’s business model requires an investment of roughly $300,000, along with a $30,000 franchise fee paid to Buttercup for use of the name and concept and training for the new shop’s chefs, who’ll do all the baking in-house using Buttercup’s supplies and recipes. She and Feierstein see the rapid expansion of Krispy Kreme doughnuts as both a model and a cautionary tale. Krispy Kreme was also a localized phenomenon that quickly went national. It too offered a high-volume premium dessert that came encloaked in its own mythos: the “Hot Light” out front, the lines around the block, the rapturous press, the tearfully grateful customers as a new franchise came to town. But Krispy Kreme imploded. After going public in 2000, the company expanded to more than 400 stand-alone stores, as well as selling boxed doughnuts everywhere from Safeways to movie theaters. The company’s mystique was punctured, its profits fell, and its stock spiraled from $50 to just over $5. (A string of accounting errors didn’t help.) “In the old days, they were fresh, they were hot, they glistened with the glaze,” says Feierstein. “You watched them being made. Now you can find them in your gas station. Your dry cleaner will sell them to you.”
Appel and Feierstein are intimately familiar with Krispy Kreme’s failings, not least because one of the new Buttercups, on West 72nd Street, will occupy a vacated Krispy Kreme store. So Buttercup won’t be selling any baked goods wholesale—no cupcakes at the dry cleaners—and Appel vows to maintain strict quality control over her franchisees. That last measure will be especially difficult, given that she’ll be training franchisees to bake all the offerings from scratch, a much tougher task than teaching them to throw the switch on a French-fry machine.
And, of course, to protect her carefully planned franchise deployment, she’s now especially watchful for copycat competition. Thus, the lawsuit against Little Cupcake. After two of Appel’s employees left in 2002 and then started Sugar Sweet Sunshine, she began requiring that all her managers sign a confidentiality agreement. Libertini was initially hesitant to sign, she claims, because he said he’d always planned to open a place of his own. “These were his words, and you better quote me,” she says. “He said to me, ‘I would never open anything like this.’ And he had this sort of cute, coy look on his face. He said it would be more like a French café.” Libertini recalls the conversation but explains, “I had a lot of ideas back then. I’d also drawn up plans for an Internet café.”
After a minor amendment to the contract, Libertini signed. The agreement forbids employees from using “recipes, methods, techniques, specifications, standards, policies, procedures, information, concepts, systems for, and knowledge of, and experience in, the development, operation and/or franchising of Buttercup Bake Shop … in any other business for any other purpose.” In this context, former Buttercup employees would seem hard-pressed to open any kind of bakery uncontested, unless it’s a bakery that specializes in fish. Still, Appel may not prevail. Lawyers unconnected to the case say that courts don’t tend to favor these kinds of suits, and that the outcome hinges on how the judge interprets the confidentiality agreement and the “likelihood of consumer confusion” between the two bakeries.
As Magnolia’s scattered progeny wrestle over territory here in New York, outside businesses have already noted their success. In April, two L.A. investment bankers opened Sprinkles Cupcakes, a sleek, modernist bakery in Beverly Hills that sells only cupcakes. Sprinkles’ owners plan to open up shops in Las Vegas, Dallas, and Chicago in 2006. Their plans haven’t escaped Appel’s watchful gaze. “I hear they have a sign in their bakery that says OUR CUPCAKES ARE BETTER THAN BUTTERCUP BAKE SHOP IN NEW YORK CITY,” she says. (Sprinkles says that’s not the case.) Appel then adds drily, “I’d be very curious.”
Next to a parcel-size park across from Magnolia, a large bus pulls to the curb, wheezes, then slumps as about 60 tourists, almost entirely women, disembark. This is the Sex and the City tour. The visitors snap photos and chow down on tour-provided cupcakes before being summoned to the next destination, Carrie Bradshaw’s TV brownstone a few blocks away. The crowd trundles off, sugar-buzzed, leaving wrappers and napkins behind. A flock of pigeons and swallows swoop in, eagerly feasting on the crumbs.
Inside Magnolia, Torey considers the tour bus and rolls her eyes. “They completely badmouth us, they get the cupcakes from somewhere else, and then they take all their cupcake boxes from Buttercup and stuff them in our garbage pails. So we have to go out and dump the garbage because they’re overflowing with Buttercup boxes.” She sighs. “Whatever.”
Torey, who’s 40, is wearing a green flowered sundress, her curly blonde hair pinned up messily atop her head. She’s surrounded in the cramped bakery by walls full of homey Americana—covers of vintage cookbooks and baking ads—along with dozens of press clippings from outlets such as Vogue, USA Today, the Times of London, and the German edition of InStyle. There are also signs explaining that, because of crowds, there’s no seating on weekends and asking patrons not to exceed the twelve-cupcake maximum. These days, Torey comes in to Magnolia only a few days a month; the rest of the time she spends at her country home in Sullivan County writing cookbooks.
A former jazz singer who grew up in a Catskills hotel, she seems, in many ways, like Appel’s mirror opposite: It’s hard to imagine the two women were ever friends, let alone business partners. When I asked Appel about the split, she delivered an increasingly terse tirade about Torey’s business failings. “I ran the entire business. I gave her a paycheck. That was it.” In a later conversation, she reconsidered. “My ex-partner and I just disagreed. But there’s a genuine sadness on my part that this led to the dissolution of a friendship.” Torey is no more eager to dredge up the details. When I mention Buttercup’s franchising plans, though, she says somewhat wearily, “People do things for different reasons. A lot of people are very business-oriented. They just want to open more places and make more money, and that’s how they think. That’s just not me.”
Peggy Williams, Appel’s college roommate, left Magnolia along with Appel to work at Buttercup. But she wistfully recalls the early days of Magnolia. “That’s where we each fell in love with the concept and the product and how happy it seemed to make people. The whole atmosphere was very homey and laid-back. But it’s become such a big thing that, to me anyway, when I walk by there, I just feel sad. It’s become a scene. It’s become a destination in a guidebook.”
Torey doesn’t entirely disagree. If Appel is the Don Corleone of the cupcake boom, Torey sounds like Michael Corleone in The Godfather: Part III. “It was more fun before when it wasn’t so busy,” she says. “You can’t complain about success like this, of course. But it was really fun the first few years. It just had this really great vibe to it. It was so many regulars and neighborhood people hanging out. We still had time to make special desserts.”
Both Magnolia and Buttercup have thrived, as have their various offshoots. But Torey and Appel haven’t spoken since their split. Williams, who’d worked as a manager at Buttercup, also had a falling-out with Appel. She then opened Sugar Sweet Sunshine on the Lower East Side with a friend of her own. “I thought, I can do this. As soon as I learned how to bake,” she says. So she dusted off a Betty Crocker cookbook, tried a few experiments—and consulted a lawyer to protect her from any legal action. “I was concerned, not really what Allysa’s reaction would be, but more so Jennifer,” she says. But she never heard anything from her longtime friend. “I certainly did not do this to get retribution or get back at anyone or steal anyone’s business. But the fact of the matter is that cupcakes are cupcakes,” she says. Then she adds, by way of further explanation, both for her own bakery and everything else, “I know the power of the cupcake.”