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VOL. 125 | NO. 186 | Friday, September 24, 2010

Cupcake Economics

Affordability, nostalgia drive demand for sweet treat

By Andy Meek

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Kip Gordon, manager at Muddy's Bake Shop, serves up cupcakes to customers Trey Yant and daughter Sarah Gray Yant on Yant's first birthday.  The popular East Memphis bakery at 5101 Sanderlin bakes everything from scratch.
Photos: Lance Murphey

The products have names like Prozac, Pucker Up and Pumpkin Dream Supreme.

Their presentation ranges from the simple, with a basic swirl of frosting on top, to the lavish, with multiple layers of cookies, chocolate and candy.

But even though they come in a vast number of shapes, sizes and flavors, there are but a few common themes driving local entrepreneurs to sprinkle a fresh batch of bake shops across Memphis all built around the same product: the cupcake.

If there was a name for the main factor driving the trend, an appropriate one might be cupcake economics.

Marilyn Weber, who’s opening a Gigi’s Cupcakes location in Germantown after opening one in East Memphis earlier this year, attributes the local demand for cupcakes to nostalgia and affordability.

For many of her customers, cupcakes serve as a reminder of a simpler time. They’re also a cheap treat at a time when many luxuries are not.

“It was the thing that mom would do,” Weber said. “It was the thing you brought to school to celebrate your birthday.

“Beyond that, cupcakes let you indulge for not a lot of money. I think people look at it as maybe a little bit of comfort. It’s just something that makes you smile when you think about it.”

The concept is certainly making Memphis business owners smile – or at least feel positive enough to open new stores as well as work hard catering to the deeply loyal clientele they’ve developed for existing stores.

Muddy’s Bake Shop, also in East Memphis, falls in that latter category.

Immediately upon walking through the doors, Muddy’s begins working customers over by pleasantly assaulting almost all of their senses.

A blast of sugary air replaces the Memphis humidity outside. Colorful walls that include a poster board near the front with community announcements and pictures of customers enjoying their treats all contribute to a warm atmosphere.

Kat Gordon, who opened the shop in 2008 amid the worst recession in generations, painted several of the tabletops. Much of the store’s furniture and fixtures came second-hand or were found items. One countertop was being thrown away by someone remodeling their house.

Muddy’s “tip jar” is actually a “refill our community with positive change” jar. Adding to the fun mood, Gordon can sometimes be found behind the counter wearing colorful wigs.

She also has a wall in the store called the “Thankful Wall,” where customers can write down what they are thankful for.

Among those things Muddy’s customers are thankful for are, of course, the cupcakes – not to mention Muddy’s equally decadent cakes that come with names like the Cindy Lou Who, the Sam I Am and the Here Comes Trouble – the name of which is presumably a warning to the waistline rather than the taste buds.

The shop stays in touch with customers via outlets such as a blog, Twitter feed and regular Facebook postings, which announce things like the selection behind the counter on a particular day.

“Whoever said, ‘It’s business, it’s not personal,’ was an idiot,” Gordon said. “Business is personal, both to the people working at it and the people patronizing it.

“We also ask our customers to help with a lot of the business decisions. What should be our sixth ‘steady’ flavor? Y’all have asked for bumper stickers – submit a design! What pies would you like to see offered? What extracts should we stock?”

She said when one of Muddy’s managers was on maternity leave, customers posted lots of well-wishes for her on the shop’s Facebook page. Some even brought in baby presents.

Neil Armstrong and Amanda King hope to develop a similar vibe and loyal following for Red Velvet, the gourmet cupcake shop they’re opening early next year Downtown at 314 S. Main St.

Among the ways it’s hoping to draw crowds, Red Velvet is pairing cupcakes with wine.

The Center City Development Corp. awarded a $35,000 retail forgivable loan for the business earlier this month.

“I absolutely believe that because of the recession, people see cupcakes as something where you’re not laying out a lot of money, but in return, you’re getting something that’s decadent and special,” Armstrong said.

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RECORD TOTALS DAY WEEK YEAR
PROPERTY SALES 74 312 10,190
MORTGAGES 103 400 13,275
FORECLOSURE NOTICES 16 76 2,614
BUILDING PERMITS 221 783 24,307
BANKRUPTCIES 72 299 9,832
BUSINESS LICENSES 39 110 3,713
UTILITY CONNECTIONS 129 519 14,482
MARRIAGE LICENSES 13 81 3,144

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