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Sweet and Vicious

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Jennifer Appel, at her midtown store. She and her former business partner at Magnolia Bakery, Allysa Torey, no longer speak to each other.  

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.


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