Ann Warren Interview
(Cupcake Café)

The Cupcake Café opened back in 1988 and is regarded as the pioneer in the cupcake phenomena that is sweeping New York City.
Ann Warren (“The Cupcake Lady”) is the owner of the Cupcake Café and spoke with us about her business.

Q – Ann, would you mind if I refer to you as “The Cupcake Lady”?
A – The Cupcake Lady? Oh. I don’t know. I don’t feel like like a Cupcake Lady, but that’s alright. (Laughs). You know, we are called the Cupcake Café, of course and I started as a Cupcake Café. We were in business long before there were a lot of other cupcake places, but we never started to be a cupcake place. We started because we wanted to make doughnuts from scratch, as opposed to the same mixes that everybody else was using. We needed a name and I just liked the name. I think it had more to do with the cup part and cake. We were thinking more along the lines of coffee. While we did do cupcakes from the beginning, we also did muffins and doughnuts. Really the thing that put us on the map were the cakes and the doughnuts way back when.

Q – Is it true that the Cupcake Café was the pioneer in this cupcake mania that is sweeping Manhattan?
A – It is absolutely true. We weren’t even trying.

Q – How do you explain this cupcake craze? What’s behind it, do you know?
A – (Sighs). You know, I wish I understood. I’ve asked other friends of mine who are perhaps more into sweets than I am. Some people say it’s the cake frosting. With us you get more actual butter cream. But, you wouldn’t necessarily get that with everybody. You might get something else, more frosting than you do cake. And, that’s what it’s about. Other people say it’s because it’s all yours. It’s your little cake and you own it. That’s what it’s all about. It’s part of the Me Generation. (Laughs).  Nostalgia for childhood is another excuse for that.  I’m not really sure. I just know that they certainly are popular, and in a way I’m grateful because even though we never intended to be so particularly dependant on cupcakes being a big part of the business, it’s become a big part of the business. So, it’s just as well I guess.

Q – I suppose a cupcake is more affordable than a cake.
A – Yes, it is. It’s more affordable per person than a cake. We have a funny little Catch 22 for us which is people kind of expect us to do these elaborate floral decorations. While we do flowers on the cupcakes, it’s a small thing. In order to make a cupcake more grand is sometimes a bit difficult. We do cupcakes with multiple flowers on them which costs more but it’s a lot of labor. (Laughs). And----- it’s still gonna be the size of a cupcake. It’s kind of a funny thing about ours. Most places in New York don’t do the flowers on the cupcakes, they just frost them and there you are.

Q – Do you get a lot of celebrities into the Cupcake Café?
A – We do get a lot of celebrities into our place which surprises me also. I don’t always recognize everybody to be honest. (Laughs). I’m much more likely to know an older actor or actress.

Q – Are you able to name “names”? Or would that violate their privacy?
A – I don’t know that they care. (Laughs). I think people like being recognized. Susan Sarandon has come in. Jon Stewart must obviously live near by, the person with the television show on ‘Comedy Central’. We’ve always had a lot of celebrities come in.

Q – You do wedding cakes as well as cupcakes?
A – We do wedding cakes and I enjoy those. That’s sort of the opposite of the cupcake. You’ve got a lot of space. It’s like a big canvas. That’s a lot of fun. I prefer the wedding cakes obviously to the cupcakes. Nowadays people use a lot of cupcakes for weddings too. That’s a very popular trend. It has not gone away. It’s been that way for about the last 5 years I would say.

Q – Have you always been in the same location?
A – We moved the shop once. We moved from one shop on 9th Avenue; we still have a shop on 9th Avenue in Manhattan, but we actually bake and decorate down on 18th Street in Manhattan now.

Q – So, how many shops do you have?
A – Two at the moment.

Q – Do you want to expand?
A – No. (Laughs). I’m trying to hang on to those two. I have thought of the idea of what I would consider to be a very loosely based franchise, like the idea that you give people certain things and they can use the name and kind of do somewhat of their own thing with the recipes. I’m not really a cookie-cutter franchise type of person.

Q – That means you wouldn’t do what “Famous Amos” did and sell your co.  to someone who places the product in supermarkets?
A – No. Absolutely not. I like a lot of variety everywhere especially food. It makes me very unhappy when I go places and you feel like the same menu is being presented around the world. It makes me very unhappy. (Laughs).

Q – Do you still make doughnuts?
A – We do. We still make our own doughnuts from scratch, which we probably shouldn’t do because the cost of your insurance when you fry anything is considerable and it’s the only thing we actually fry.

Q – How many products do you offer at your shops?
A – Mostly baked goods. We do fresh fruit pies, cakes, cupcakes, doughnuts and muffins and I’m trying to think what I’ve left out and yes we do some light lunch food also and waffles. We’ve been known for years for our waffles.

Q – And, how many people do you have working for you?
A – Something around 20, roughly.

Q – You’re probably more of an administrator would you say?
A – No. I’m a terrible administrator. I had one meeting today with someone that had to do with administration of payroll, but basically what I do is decorating cakes and cupcakes and making butter cream. That’s just the kind of co. we are which sometimes makes things a little tricky I’ll admit.

Q – You were a painter and a visual artist?
A – Yes. I still like to think that I am, but some years I get a lot of painting done or some when I’m out of town and some years I seem to get very little. At least I get to paint on my cakes.

Q – What did you do with your painting skill? I know what you do it today, with it in the beginning?
A – Actually, I was always a Fine Artist. I’ve never done any commercial art. I had played around slightly with the idea of illustration and I think I’m going to be putting the cookbook out again. This time I’m going to be using my own drawings for schematic sketches to describe how to decorate certain things. I think it would be a lot clearer. It would be a big improvement. I don’t really consider myself to be an illustrator. I consider more of a painter and print maker. I love lithography

Q – Now, how did you get the word out about your business in the beginning? Did you advertise?
A – Actually, we didn’t. It was almost all word of mouth. I was very fortunate that Molly O’Neill who wrote them for the (New York) Times as a food critic, and then I think she became food editor for awhile, she lived in the neighbourhood, and she just happened on us. That was our first big change in the amount of business. And, it was about the doughnuts, the first article she wrote. It wasn’t about the cakes. And then later on gradually we got more and more recognition for the decorating for the cakes, and the way those looked. Eventually it came to the cupcakes, but once upon a time cupcakes were just something people ate. We didn’t do nearly as many as we do now.

Q – What makes your cupcakes such a stand-out?
A – I hope it’s the cake recipes. Which are by and large mine, and the actual butter cream which is unusual in that it’s a cooked sugar syrup and eggs mixed together and then nuts mixed into the batter. So, obviously it’s very, very rich and a little different. It’s not made with powdered sugar or vegetable shortening or all these other things that you get in ‘butter cream’. So, that’s a unique thing. Our cake, I think, is exceptional too. It’s a very rich and nicely flavoured cake, all the varieties. I think we’ve been pretty successful with that.

Q – If you were in a smaller city, do you think your shop would have been as successful?
A – When you’re in a larger population center, it gives you the luxury of being a bit different because at the same time there are certainly a number of other shops I think we came at a time when there weren’t quite as many serious bakeries. I think a lot of bakeries were having a hard time hanging in there. We became part of the new wave of bakeries with sort of a different style. I think people really wanted to get away from that sort of synthetic baked good type taste. We really wanted to do the mixes for the doughnuts from scratch, with real butter and real eggs and real buttermilk. I think people had really gotten tired of the way the mixes taste when they all come out from somewhere in the mid-west and everything starts tasting the same. You get that sort of slightly chemical taste with everything. Now there are quite a few of us, but I think it was part of something that was happening where people wanted to go back where if they were going to eat cake they actually wanted it to taste good. They didn’t want to bother with something that o.k. it looks great but it doesn’t really taste like anything. It tastes more like a cake mix. I think in a larger population center we would be fine. We would have been fine in San Francisco or something like that, but again you need a little bit of an amount of people to do that kind of volume.

Q – Was it expensive to launch this business?
A – It was expensive for us. I don’t know if you would consider it expensive as a business goes. I certainly know that moving costs us more I think than starting the business in the first place interestingly enough. We had to move the bakery in 2006. That was a bigger investment than the original investment. It was do-able. What can I say? We were able to manage with a little family money. I don’t know what people do to start businesses now without funding, their own money ‘cause I know it’s very, very tight for that kind of thing right now.

Q – They probably don’t start a business.
A – They probably don’t.

Q – So, what do you see your future as?
A – Hmmmm. I’ve no idea now. (Laughs). This has been a very hard year for people in business of course. Certain times of year you depend on a lot of corporate entertaining. And of course that didn’t happen this year. People are laying off masses amounts of people. You hardly want to be seen spending a lot of money on things like a large sheet cake for something like a Christmas Party. So, it’s been a rough year. I’m not really sure. I’m hoping that we’ll hang in there, partly because I believe in individually owned businesses. I hate to see everything be chains, and the sameness of that. But, it’s a hard business to be in, so it’s hard for me to say. I always somehow hoped that I would be able to hand the business over to somebody else and get more time to do my painting, but I can’t quite see that day yet. (Laughs).

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