Piece of (Cup)cake

Has the state of the economy got you down? Is your house worth less than your furniture? Are you so tired of politicians that you don’t care who approves the message? Try smearing a bit of buttercream on your troubles, Bunky, and you’ll be skipping down the sunny side of the street.

Judging from the number of cupcake shops popping up across the valley, a lot of us seem to be doing just that: seeking solace in strawberry — and chocolate and vanilla and nearly any other flavor you can imagine. In fact, Pamela Jenkins, owner of The Cupcakery at 9680 S. Eastern Ave. and 7155 W. Lake Mead Blvd., figures it’s one business that may be pretty close to recession-proof.

"I think people are going to eat sweets if they’re happy or if they’re depressed," said Jenkins, who opened her Eastern Avenue flagship in January 2006 and since has expanded outside Las Vegas to Texas. "They can drown their sorrows a little bit. They come in and have a cupcake and feel better about themselves."

Laura Qualls, owner/manager of Cupcake Lane Bakery, 9809 W. Flamingo Road, said the genius of cupcakes hit her one night while dining out. All of the dessert selections, she recalled, "had to do with these huge pieces of cake." And then it struck her: "Cupcakes would be perfect here." With the legal details just about completed, she plans to begin selling franchises.

Brian and Kari Haskell decided to open Retro Bakery, at 7785 N. Durango Drive, because, as a stay-at-home mother, she was looking for a business the whole family could do together. Like the others, she had heard about the popularity of cupcakes in other parts of the country — those from the Magnolia Bakery in New York even figured prominently in episodes of "Sex and the City" — and decided that the business would be perfect.

But while they all sell cupcakes, each shop has a different niche, something besides geography — most are in different parts of the valley — that sets them apart. Mad Hatter Cupcakes, which is close to Cupcake Lane at 4195 S. Grand Canyon Parkway, offers design-your-own options, in which the customers can choose the cupcake flavor, the filling, frosting and an edible or nonedible decoration.

There also is a list of signature flavors, such as mocha latte, which is a coffee cupcake with chocolate ganache filling and java bean frosting. The cupcakes sell for $3.25 each, or $36 a dozen.

Kari Haskell said Retro Bakery is "flavor-based"; its goal is to have "totally different flavors." One unusual feature is a Dairy-Queen-style dip, in which the swirl of icing atop the cupcake is dipped into butterscotch dip or chocolate ganache. Her most popular flavor, she said, is Hopscotch, which is a vanilla cupcake with vanilla icing dipped into butterscotch.

Haskell also does flavors of the month. The September feature — apple cider — proved to be so popular that she plans to keep it on the schedule through the winter.

October’s flavor of the month is red rum, which is red chocolate cake with a mini-Snickers baked inside, topped with rum-flavored buttercream and French burnt peanuts. Retro’s cupcakes sell for $2.50 each, or $27 for a dozen.

Qualls said Cupcake Lane’s niche is that it will accommodate last-minute orders — "Things happen," she said — and also that the shop tries to inject a little educational element. Cupcake Lane’s cupcakes are named after streets or other locations. When adding new flavors, staffers do research and share it in a newsletter. When customers clamored for German chocolate they named it South Fork, representing Texas, which Qualls said has the highest German population in the United States. The shop also does pull-apart cakes — cupcakes that are grouped together with a unifying design across the tops of all. (They’ve done a Stratocaster guitar, for example.) She also sells special dog-friendly cupcakes.

Cupcake Lane’s most popular flavor, she said, is Savannah Street, which is red velvet, followed by Lombard Street, chocolate cake with whipped-cream filling and a chocolate fudge top with a curlicue. The cupcakes sell for $2.50 each, $27.50 for a dozen.

Jenkins said her most popular flavor has always been Southern Belle, which is a red-velvet cupcake. The Cupcakery also does flavors of the month and lavishly decorated collections for holidays. Regular cupcakes are $2.75 each, $30 for a dozen.

They all said their customers are a broad mix. Haskell said she gets a lot of weddings from out-of-town brides who find Retro’s Web site; Jenkins said she sells a lot to businesses who want to market their own businesses because "everybody loves a cupcake, so it really works for everybody." Her favorite customers are a busload of seniors from a local nursing home who come in on weekends for cupcakes and coffee.

And lest you wonder if they’re feeling the effects of the recession, they said that so far, they really aren’t.

"There is a joy level with cupcakes that always makes people smile," Qualls said.

Haskell said she’s not worried.

"It does make you feel better," she said, "to eat a cupcake."

Contact reporter Heidi Knapp Rinella at hrinella@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0474.

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