Culture on the Run,  Miss N

The Cupcake ATM

Not even an infestation of mice could keep the lines out of Dominique Ansel’s Bakery in Soho, New York, away for long. Sure, people stopped queuing for the weekend that the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene shut the place down – giving the French pastry chef and his small team the chance to sort their kitchen out. But, as soon as the bakery re-opened, hundreds of people were back outside, forming those lines that have become a fixture in Soho ever since Ansel introduced the item known as the ‘cronut’ last year.

Enthusiasm for quirky food items, it seems, is not waning. And I’ll admit, my curiosity – and my sweet tooth – has made me an eager participant. 

Not since Carrie Bradshaw shared cupcakes with her bestie Miranda outside Magnolia Bakery in Sex and the City has a trend like the cronut quite captured the public’s imagination, and collective sweet craving. The genius idea of crossing a croissant and a doughnut, the cronut has made people queue from 4 in the morning, and even hire professional line-waiters to try one of the few dozen that are prepared fresh every day. 

But it’s about more than just the novelty of a food mash-up. In a time where belts are still being tightened economically, many foodie enthusiasts still seem willing to loosen their physical ones to try something new.   

The cronut, trademarked by pastry chef Ansel, continues to inspire knock-offs around the world, where it can be bought as a “doughssant” or “croughnut.” In an attempt to boost business, Crumbs Cupcakes will soon be sending out their new product into supermarkets in the US. Called the ‘crumbnut’, the staff there hope it will help intrigue those who’re looking for more than the usual cupcake, which is now not as exciting as it once was. 

Crumbs opened up so many stores in the US that it found it was competing with itself. Sprinkles, which has a smaller footprint, decided to compete in its own way – with the introduction of the cupcake ATM. Stocked with the brand’s signature cupcakes, which are meant to be available 24 hours a day, cupcake ATMs can be found in 6 cities in the US, including now also New York City. Sugar addicts willing to pay $4.25 a pop can satisfy their urges any time of the day – something Sprinkles co-founder Candace Nelson found she couldn’t do when she was pregnant and craving a cupcake at 3am.  

Queues outside the cupcake ATM resemble the ones that formed in Smorgasburg, the summer weekend food fair in Brooklyn, when the ramen burger (for SAcans: think burger in a bun made of 2-minute noodles) was introduced last year. It’s become as much about the experience – and being able to Tweet and Instagram that – too. “Shopping and dining is as entertainment-focused as ever,” says Nelson’s partner, Charles. And he should know, Fortune Magazine estimates the cupcake ATMs bring in an extra $9 million a year in revenue for Sprinkles. 

Other restaurants are trying to offer a point of difference too. Red Robin, a Spur-like family restaurant in the US, is about to start selling wine milkshakes, after its initial offering of beer milkshakes in 2012 went down so well. “It is absolutely a share battle,” Senior Vice President Denny Marie Post told Fortune Magazine. “Casual dining [restaurants] back in the ’90s, you couldn’t put them up fast enough, but then the category got overbuilt and hit the skids in the recession … We can all carry craft beers and make great food, but it’s those little things that could make the difference in someone coming back or not.” 

This is something even Ansel has kept at the back of his mind. At SXSW last month, he unveiled his latest creation: a milk-and-cookie shooter. But the novelty of throwing back a shot of milk and then eating the cookie it came in hasn’t taken off quite as emphatically as he had hoped just yet.

Luckily for him, he still has those cronut lines. 

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