Let Them Tweet Cake

Allison Robicelli makes some of the best cupcakes in New York. Can she and her husband also redefine the mom-and-pop for the Twitter age? “My storefront is your phone,” she says.

Allison Robicelli is, together with her husband, the founder of Robicelli’s, a much-lauded Brooklyn-based cupcake business. (Fanciful flavors have included “The Bellini,” “Creamsicle,” and “Lemon Blueberry Ricotta.”) Robicelli also recently signed a book deal with Penguin imprint Viking Studio for a baking book that will include a comic book portion, among other things.

The Robicelli's real innovation, however, is the almost paradoxical feat of having created a mom-and-pop business without actually owning a traditional physical store of their own. Instead, as wholesalers, they distribute to bakeries throughout New York, and make deliveries for private orders of over two dozen cupcakes. Nor do they own their own kitchen, instead renting one from a baker whose own business faltered in the economic downturn.

We caught up with Robicelli to talk about democratizing dessert, the virtual storefront, and whether or not the cupcake craze in which we find ourselves is a bubble.

FAST COMPANY: The other week I did a series on beef jerky innovation. This is dessert. What’s innovative about Robicelli’s?

ALLISON ROBICELLI: Well, we have over 200 flavors and going. We do not make a red velvet cupcake. We do not do food coloring. My husband Matt and I used to be pastry chefs at fancy restaurants, making luxurious desserts to round out $150 meals. Then at the end of the day of cooking for rich people, we’d go back to Brooklyn, and the food was terrible. Around the time Matt and I met, in 2005, a cupcake store opened and I thought, “What a great idea.” We had an old system of cake, where there were a limited number of cake-related days in life. I went to the shop and tried the cupcake, but it tasted like Styrofoam covered in asbestos. It’s a piece of cake! How do you screw up cake? You shouldn’t.

And yet you didn’t come to cupcakes right away.

We opened a gourmet shop in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. We spent our life savings. Then the stock market crashed. Between Monday and Wednesday, we lost all our money. We were trying to find ways to get people in the door, and we decided, “Let’s make cakes again. People love cakes.” We made 24 cupcakes, then 100, then the next weekend we made 200. By week four, a food blogger came in and said they were the best cupcakes in New York City. In a matter of months, the rest of the store wasn’t doing any business, but we had people coming in from Pennsylvania and Connecticut for our cupcakes. We closed the store in October of 2009 with no money and $200,000 of debt, and said, “Let’s make a go of this as a wholesaler.”

My editor said there are so many cupcake stores out there, we could probably have a Cupcake Month and not run out of businesses to profile.

I know that we’re in something of a cupcake craze--some say a bubble. But it started in 1996, so we’re going on year 20 of the bubble. That’s not a bubble. Who doesn’t like cake? You find me a person who says, “I don’t like cake. I want nothing to do with cake.” Everyone likes cake. Except people who have no souls.

What happened in 1996? Walk me through the history of the cupcake industry.

What I gather is that Sex and the City happened. There was some episode where she went to Magnolia Bakery in the West Village. Anyway, it blows up. Collectively, people had an aha!-lightbulb moment. Why sell a giant cake that’s not gonna move, when you can sell 1,000 different cupcakes to 1,000 different people? They’re exponentially easier to serve; you can have multiple flavors; and the profit margins are excellent, usually anywhere from a 600-800% return on investment. Crumbs Bake Shop eventually got $66 million in investment. Cupcakes are big business now. We’ve liberated the cake!

Are you going after those big numbers?

I’m kind of a horrible business to talk to, when it comes to basic cupcake economics. Matt and I consciously set out to redefine not just the cupcake business, but the mom-and-pop business. Growing up in Brooklyn, I knew my butcher, I knew the guy who made my bread. We don’t have that anymore. We wanted to bring back the mom-and-pop store. The problem was, when we brought it back, no one wanted it. How do we figure out how to continue having a mom-and-pop business, and not go under? The answer is, we’re making it up as we go along.

And yet you don’t really have your own brick-and-mortar store; you’re a wholesaler, mainly.

A blog called us “New York’s best, most famous, and homeless cupcake bakery.” We have a small satellite brick-and-mortar location at DeKalb Market, a 120-square-foot shipping container, but we don’t own our own kitchen, we don’t own our own warehouse...

How can you be a homeless mom-and-pop?

People want that human connection, but they don’t want to pay with it. Everyone wants to connect with somebody, but they can’t, because they’re looking at their phones. I thought, okay, let’s develop a strong Twitter presence. I made a semi-biographical Twitter. I have fans in Australia we talk to on Twitter.

Your storefront is the Internet?

My storefront is your phone, the web. That’s my connection to you. People ask, “When will you open a store?” I say I will when I’m ready. You can’t be a mom-and-pop if you’re divorced and see your kids on the weekend. It’s a quality-of-life issue. I met a guy who said, “I can’t think about spending time with my family until I reach a million in sales.” I said, “You can do that right now--you don't have to save for years for the luxury of spending time with people who are important to you.” Robicelli's has managed to be in the Huffington Post three or four times, the New York Times about five times, we’ve been on the "Today Show," and I have a deal with a major publisher--and you can manage to do all this stuff without a store. It’s a brand-new economy, and you can’t do business as usual.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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