The Case for A Cupcake
Everybody’s always looking for the next craze. From matcha to doughnuts, bacon to boozy slushies, the never-ending search for the “hot new trend” runs rampant in the restaurant and bar industry. So there’s a lot to be said about a buzzy item that can transcend and endure. As one of the original food trends, cupcakes have really helped set the pace for the Instagram-happy dining world we live in today. They’ve also proven the test of time, and in spite of everyone clamoring to find “the new cupcake,” which then leads to “the new doughnut,” or even the new “Cronut,” a well-made cupcake is still at the top of its class.
“It’s something we all had when we were younger. It harkens back to what’s familiar,” says Patty Rothman, owner of More, a glamorous cupcake shop in the Gold Coast that helped beckon a new era for individually sized cakes by updating classic flavors and boldly experimenting with new ones. “We’ve elevated it,” she says. “And we’ve captured that in what we can do to make it truly more; make it really good.” And it’s that ethos that really speaks to this whole rise of the anti-trend; something that a quality cupcake really epitomizes. As long as what you’re making is exceptional and special, people will always crave it.
“When we started More, we wanted to make it something that was familiar, but like a couture clothing collection, we’ve changed,” explains Rothman. “When we first opened up and we started with all of our savory flavors, that was really fun. But over the years, we’ve narrowed it down to what do people really like, and what are people coming back for.” She compares a great cupcake to a really good grilled cheese, in that “It doesn’t have to be fancy, just really good.” In such a way, it essentially becomes classic comfort food elevated to an art form, with everything scratch-made on a daily basis, matched with American buttercreams, Italian buttercreams, ganaches, and garnishes like brittles that are habit-forming enough on their own.
When More first opened its doors, it was a time when everyone was pushing the envelope, trying to capture the attention of the trend-seeking set. It was a time when many businesses lived or died by the hot and now. Hence, the shop quickly developed a boundary-pushing reputation as a cupcake shop capable of thinking well outside the box with outre flavors like BLT, a white truffle cupcake that cost upwards of $75, and a whole line of booze-infused cocktail cupcakes, complete with happy hour tastings. Smartly, Rothman and co. dazzled diners and captured the attention of the country for its unique wares before slowly but steadily pivoting in a more concise direction. “At the end of the day, it’s also the ability to take really good ingredients and present something that just tastes really good,” she says. Nowadays, savory flavors can still be found at More, but there’s a little less of that shock factor in flavors like mango-cilantro and strawberry-black pepper-balsamic. Explains Rothman, “Those are cupcakes that are a little more new, they’re not just chocolate and vanilla, but still are in that comfortable realm of what a cupcake is.”
While one cupcake shop paved a progressive path to carve out its legacy, another longstanding establishment proves there’s more than one way to secure renown. As the first cupcake shop in Chicago, Swirz in Lincoln Park is still just as beloved and popular as the day it opened. Only about six months after Sprinkles made its debut in Los Angeles, Swirz came onto the scene in Chicago in 2006. “The identity of the brand is a rich buttermilk cake base and whipped Italian buttercream,” explains Pam Rose, who owns Swirlz with business partner Brandon Mayberry. “It’s unique in that you’re actually cooking the sugar and the water, adding fresh egg whites, and you add fresh European butter from Grasslands Farm in Wisconsin.”
Now open for a decade, long past the cupcake bubble allegedly burst, Swirlz is proof positive that a quality product goes a long way and speaks for itself. And they go to great lengths not only to uphold quality and source the utmost ingredients, but appeal to their vast audience through ethnically inspired cupcakes and both vegan and gluten-free desserts, which are sold at Whole Foods. “We use organic rice flour for the gluten-free; the sweet rice flour is the flour they make mochi out of,” explains Rose. “We wanted a really nice flour. We went to a dedicated gluten-free facility that steel-cuts their flour. It’s 10 times the cost of regular flour, and we ship it by pellet from California.” Such commitment to craft and quality is practically unheard of in more commercialized, production-crazed bakeries. This is especially true of a business with true dedication to its community. “A lot of people get into these businesses and think they’ll go home with a sack of money at the end of the day. That’s not what a business with integrity is about,” Rose says. “It’s about becoming a part of the community and the city that you live in.”
Over the years, Swirlz has done almost 1,500 flavors, many of which are interpretations of flavors from across the world. Everything is made from scratch, from eye-catching garnishes to fruit compote fillings made from berries plucked from a CSA, and it’s this kind of attention to detail, talent, and commitment that helps make Swirlz such an integral part of Chicago’s sweets scene, rather than a blip on the trendy radar.
At the end of the day, cupcakes are as classic as hot dogs, burgers, grilled cheese, and a perfect plate of pasta. None of these are going away. But what sets them apart from the fray and the ebb and flow of this trend-driven world we live in is the added effort that goes into making a standout product.
“I’ve come less from what’s gonna be exciting to what can I execute really well and make it very well,” says Rothman. “It’s not that I didn’t love that curry berry cupcake, but I think I’ve got a better read on why we’re still here and what we’re doing right that keeps us here after all these years.”
- Matt Kirouac