Last week, we published the first part of an interview with Candace Nelson ’96, founder of Sprinkles Cupcakes and judge of the Food Network’s “Cupcake Wars.” In this part, she sat down to discuss Sprinkles’ individualistic approach to business, how she came to judge a reality baking competition, and why cupcakes aren’t a trend.
A: How has the “cupcake craze,” which Sprinkles started but which has, for the most part, tapered off, affected your decisions in planning and marketing of the brand?
CN: There was definitely a period of time where cupcake shops were proliferating. [When we first started], we pretty much were met by a lot of nay-saying. It had never been done before, so the first thing you have to ask yourself is if there’s a reason why. It might just be a terrible idea; maybe it will never work. But when we opened twelve years ago now, it was literally an instant success. We sold out on the first day, we were the talk of all of Hollywood, and then eight months in we were on the Oprah Winfrey show. We became an international brand with solely one small store within months. So, you know, I’m all about competition, but with competition also comes this idea that if something is successful, it will proliferate. And people won’t necessarily put in two years of time developing their own thing, so they might just kind of do what you’re doing. Overnight, we were seeing very similar concepts popping up all over the country, and all over the world, actually. Which was surprising to me because cupcake is so innately American, so cupcakes all of the sudden became an international sensation. So it was a big export for a while. So, in terms of the trend, yes, for sure, there were cupcake shops opening everywhere.
And that subsided. But for us, a cupcake is not a trend, because it’s a classically American dessert that we’ve all grown up with. So in my mind, it’s a classic. Now, are there going to be as many cupcake shops opening? No, because there wasn’t that much of market to begin with. But also what was really important to us from the beginning was to know what we were about, understand the philosophy of Sprinkles, and what that meant was focusing completely on what we were doing, which was making the best product we could, servicing our customers the best way we could, and not getting involved in all of the noise. And so we grew. We have 23 locations; I’m not gonna say that that’s not big growth, but that happened over twelve years. We could’ve had 23 locations within the first year. We grew slowly because we wanted to be able to manage it and we wanted to be able to stay true to what we were, and ultimately whether cupcakes are a trend or not doesn’t really matter to me. What matters is that people still think of us as a place to go to get desserts to celebrate their birthdays and all their special occasions.
A: Why did you decide to expand to ice cream and pastries?
CN: After developing Sprinkles and operating it for a while, I saw a need in the market. I know it had been all about gelato, it’d been all about frozen yogurt for so long, and I grew up during a time when American ice cream was king. Steve’s Ice Cream, Ben and Jerry’s, all these things. And I still prefer American-style ice cream, which is high butter-fat, chewy, and dense…and no one was making it. And as an entrepreneur and a creative person, I was just itching. And so it became our next project. Initially, we leased the space next door to us in Beverly Hills and it’s its own thing there, but as we’ve grown we’ve started to incorporate ice cream into the cupcake shops as well, so you can have both.
A: Would you ever consider bringing in more recent trendy desserts like Thai ice cream?
CN: I think Sprinkles is very classic, it’s very purist, it’s very American, and so I wouldn’t necessarily. Having said that, I would say something like the sweet-and-salty flavor combination kind of started as a trend, but it’s really endured. So something like that…but we’re not the first adopter of a trend, let’s put it that way. We’re kind of a classic.
A: How have you managed to stay appealing in the face of health food mania that’s led to the creation of trendy salad bars, juice stores, and the like?
CN: It’s funny because when we opened our first location, it was the height of the low-carb craze, and the South Beach Diet was the number one best seller. And people were a hundred percent obsessed with low-carb. So it was a very unlikely time to be opening, and it still worked. And I realized there are a lot of people out there like me, which means they want to eat healthy, but they also want to have a treat at the end of the day, and you make that trade-off. And the only thing I demand is that when I do make that indulgence, I want it to be worth it, I want it to be fresh, I want it to be delicious, and I want it to be satisfying but not gorge myself, and so cupcakes in and of themselves are this idea of moderation. It’s not a cake where you’re deciding what size piece to cut off and fooling yourself by cutting off a bunch of little slices. The cupcake liners do not lie. You know exactly what you’ve eaten, you know how many. So I certainly would never offer it as a health food, but we have certainly come up with flavors to appeal to people who have certain diets – we have a gluten-free red velvet cupcake and we have a vegan red-velvet cupcake. But yes, if you’re on Weight Watchers or if you’re really trying to lose a lot of weight, I wouldn’t say that eating a cupcake is necessarily the way to do that. But I think there’s a place for a cupcake to fit in to even the healthiest diet. It really is a place where you can come and have an indulgence and have it be a special treat.
A: What about the Cupcake ATM? How did that come about?
CN: My husband and I like to say we embrace the crazy, because everybody said having a cupcake shop was crazy to begin with, so when we have an idea that most people would say is ridiculous, we tend to pause for a minute and really think about it, because maybe it’s not so ridiculous. So when I was pregnant with my second son, I literally was on a daily habit of a cupcake and a half, and I was having a little bit of a tantrum, because it was 11 o’clock at night and I really had a craving for a cupcake! And I just said, “I own a cupcake shop and I can’t get ahold of a cupcake at 11 o’clock at night, this is just crazy!” So we thought, what if there was a machine that made cupcakes available day and night? And then we sort of riffed on it for a while, we brainstormed it, and decided at a minimum it would be really fun to do just for marketing purposes, that it would just be a fun little piece for media to write about. And what we weren’t totally prepared for was the fact that it would really drive business. Because people use it when we’re not open.
A: And you also appear as a judge on “Cupcake Wars” on the Food Network. What is that like, and how did you come to join the show?
CN: I think “Cupcake Wars” was a really smart idea. It was produced by a production company called Super Delicious here in L.A., because one of the executive producers was driving down Little Santa Monica, and that’s where our original store is. And she passed us and she passed another cupcake shop, and she passed another bakery just down the way, and she said, “Oh my gosh, it’s a goddamn cupcake war out there.” So she pitched the idea to Food Network, and they really liked it, and originally it was supposed to be a docu-series, but then they came back and said they wanted it to be a competition. I had a reputation for cupcakes and they needed a permanent judge, and they approached me to be one of the two permanent judges. It’s fun for me because it’s part of this wild ride that I never thought I would be taking. Little did I know when I left Wesleyan and went into investment banking that I would ever open a cupcake store, and little did I know when I was opening a cupcake store that I would ever end up on TV, so it’s just kind of funny to see where life takes you. But it’s been super fun. I love the people I do the show with, and it’s amazing for me to see how far the cupcake thing has come and just how creative all these bakers are.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Read the first part here.