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Sweet and Vicious

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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.”


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