Riding a cupcake wave: Businesses making big money off small treats

Crystal Palace cupcake stand featured in MN SunOnce a favorite treat for tots, cupcakes have been re-discovered by grownups.

From coast to coast, millions of consumers are peeling away paper lines and chowing down on dozens of flavors of the rich and tasty treat. Wedding cakes have been replaced by cupcake trees. The debate over whether they're a fad or here to stay rages.

Several area businesses have jumped on the bandwagon and plan to ride the cupcake wave as far as it will take them.

"When we first heard about it, we thought it might be a fad and maybe had already passed us up," said Tom Van Beusekom, president of Crown Plastics in Plymouth.

His company is manufacturing and marketing a line of cupcake trees being sold online. The idea for the product was hatched when a bride asked Van Beusekom to create a suitable display device for wedding cupcakes. Crown Plastics had been building and selling high-end coffee bean dispensers. That aspect of the business has cooled a bit.

"I think there are as many coffee shops as there are going to be," said Van Beusekom, who is a native of Loretto and a former mayor. "It was nice to have something come along to replace some of that business."

The trees are available online through crystalpalacecupcaketree.com. Orders have been shipped to dozens of countries, including Australia and Norway.

One of Crown's loyal customers in the west metro is Robin Johnson, who opened Sweet Retreat Cupcake Retreat in the trendy 50th and France area of Edina a year ago. Cupcakes, and more recently cupcake pops, are created and sold to customers at the bakery as well as through a growing catering market.

"It's creating a small bit of luxury everyone can afford and it makes everyone happy," said Johnson, who hatched the idea during what she calls a midlife crisis.

Her first exposure to the cupcake craze came while visiting San Francisco. She made subsequent trips to Nashville and Chicago to gather input. She traveled to Sprinkles, the California-based chain of cupcake stores in Los Angeles.

"The lines were out the door," she said.

Taking her degree in food science from University of Wisconsin-Madison, Johnson began developing recipes, including her signature butter crème frosting. Combinations and flavors vary with the season, but her red velvet and salted caramel varieties are consistent best sellers. She uses Van Beusekom's trees in her store and on the catering side of the business.

The trees come in a variety of sizes, ranging from three-tier to six-tier with an optional Lazy Susan base. Trees come in acrylic and a less expensive Celtec plastic.

Acrylic varieties are clear plastic and the Celtec versions are a white plastic, Van Beusekom explained.

"You can display cupcakes with the acrylic trees and not take away from the cupcakes," Van Beusekom said.

He is turning his design skills next to cake pops.

Johnson makes them by blending smashed cupcakes and crème cheese frosting, shaping the mixture into a ball and freezing them, then dipping them in white chocolate. Think cupcake on a stick. The stick is where Crown Plastics comes in, but that's about all Van Beusekom is saying for now.

The cupcake trend is believed to have originated more than a decade ago when the characters in "Sex and the City" began eating them at New York's Magnolia Bakery. Cupcakes eventually made it onto the Oprah Winfrey Show, and foodies of all types fueled the fire.

Cupcakes were on the menu when Reino Wuollet opened his first bakery in 1944, but sales and popularity over the past year have skyrocketed, according to Aaron Wuollet, manager of the company.

"They're easy to serve and a lot of fun," said Wuollet, whose company operates stores in Edina, Robbinsdale and Wayzata, in addition to Minneapolis and St. Paul.

To emphasize the fun, Wuollets plays with cake flavors and icings. About 45 combinations are available. Wuollets has also noticed the growing link between cupcake and nuptials.

"They're so much easier to serve at a wedding," Wuollet said.

Everyone with a finger in the cupcake business is trusting they will continue to be popular with consumers.

"I'd hate to think they're the next Krispie Kremes," Johnson said.

Van Beusekom admitted he wasn't personally a big fan of cupcakes.

"Most of them have too dang much frosting," he said.


(Article MN-sun.com Published: Friday, May 27, 2011)


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