Cakes were bigger in 2005—most of them, anyway. While a couple of bakeries had become known for their cupcakes, none of them built their entire business around the petite, portable, no-sharing-necessary dessert. Enter former investment banker Candace Nelson, fresh out of renown (now closed) Tante Marie’s pastry school. Nelson seized the moment, spawning an empire of cupcakes in tantalizing, inventive flavors like cuban coffee and triple cinnamon.
The first Sprinkles Cupcakes location measured only 600 square feet. The kitchen was even smaller, but Nelson still stocked the shelves with ingredients such as sweet cream butter, bittersweet Belgian chocolate, pure Madagascar bourbon vanilla, and fresh fruit. Eventually, her high standards got national airtime with a role as a judge on the Food Network cooking-contest show Cupcake Wars.
The cupcakes are still the main draw at Sprinkles. Indeed, the demand is such that that many locations now boast a Cupcake ATM, a frosting-pink machine that cuts down lines by vending treats straight to customers on the sidewalk. But it’s no longer strictly a cupcake shop. There are cookies, too, and in some cities, you can even get dense, slow-churned ice cream sandwiched between two cupcake tops or scooped into a red-velvet waffle cone.
Try This: Red Velvet Cupcake
Red velvet is, essentially, chocolate cake with a colorful twist. It’s only natural that it should be the signature flavor at Sprinkles Cupcakes, which specializes in making classic desserts feel fresh with a subtle extra seasoning or two. In 2013, founder and head flavor honcho Candace Nelson told Vanity Fair how she arrived at her version of the quirky but very American flavor, beloved by the Oklahoma family of her husband and co-owner Charles: “I amped up the cocoa, toned down the food coloring, and created a well-balanced cream-cheese frosting.” (Nelson also reported that many L.A. customers weren’t familiar with the Southern delicacy: they’d call it the “red carpet” or “black velvet.”) Today, her version of red velvet is so popular that it’s spawned gluten-free, sugar-free, and vegan versions, each using carefully chosen substitutes that retain the original’s richness and silky texture so they don’t have to be renamed “red burlap.”