613 W. Briar
Noah Antieau and Sarah King opened the doors at Cupcakes, Chicago's first all-cupcake bakery, at noon on Saturday, August 13. By three they'd sold out their inventory: 350 cupcakes in all, or just under two cupcakes a minute. On their second day in business, they opened with three times the stock. By five that was all gone.
A year ago Antieau was living in Baltimore, rapidly burning out on his work as an art dealer; King was in Detroit, wrapping up a degree in physics. On a long road trip to Alaska last summer, casting about for a change that would put them both in the same city, they came up with cupcakes. Neither had a background in baking. But Antieau had lived in New York for a while in the 90s, and had seen firsthand the lines of New Yorkers waiting outside Magnolia Bakery in the West Village.
Cupcakes have been hot for a while now--I can personally think of five friends who served or plan to serve them at their weddings. But Magnolia was widely credited with putting the humble treats back on the map when it turned up in an episode of Sex and the City. The 100-year-old bakery now sells around 3,000 a day, raking in an estimated $40,000 a week in cupcake sales alone. Antieau doesn't think Magnolia's cupcakes are as good as those numbers might imply: "They're dry and they taste like they're from a Betty Crocker box." He and King wanted to go gourmet, using natural flavors and organic ingredients.
Antieau moved to town five months ago and started scoping out the scene. King joined him in June, and they hooked up with a French Pastry School-trained baker and Chicago Diner vet named Emily Smith, who helped them translate flavor ideas like Creamsicle and chai latte into actual recipes. "We had really informal drinking and cupcake-tasting evenings," says Antieau. "We'd just sit around and invite friends over to eat cupcakes and talk about them." He credits Smith and King with fine-tuning the menu--currently at 45 flavors and counting, though only 8 are available on any given day--while he concentrated on getting the shop up and running.
Antieu and King signed the lease on their tiny Lakeview storefront on July 15, and called in some favors to get it rehabbed and painted. When they opened a month later they still hadn't finished the back of the store or set up the credit card machine. Despite the proven popularity of Magnolia and other cupcake purveyors like the local Sweet Mandy B's, the runaway success of their first weekend took them by surprise. Says Antieau, "We decided we needed to rethink our strategy." They closed for three days and ramped up production. They also realized they needed a bigger bakery: their initial facility in Niles couldn't handle the demand. Last weekend they signed with a 2,000-square-foot bake house in Wicker Park and were in the process of hiring an executive baker (Smith's no longer involved) and a crew. Antieau's already managed to poach a couple part-timers from the staff of the neighboring Pleasure Chest.
And the cupcakes? They're pretty good--at $3 apiece, they'd better be. The carrot cake cupcake is dense and moist, while the peaches and cream is, in the words of a friend, "surprisingly light and breezy for a cupcake." The peanut butter-and-chocolate cupcake tastes like a supercharged Reese's cup; the apple pie a la mode is, to quote another volunteer taste tester, "more like spice cake or pumpkin than apple." The plain yellow cake is crumby and rich, with just a hint of lemon. (The store also offers "pupcakes"--organic doggie treats--and coffee.)
The frosting-to-cake ratio is high--perhaps too high for some tastes. But the frosting itself, an Italian buttercream that's applied and garnished in the back of the store, is unusually light, at least in its nonchocolate manifestations. Don't leave your cupcakes too long in the car, though--a bit of sun will make the frosting slide right off the top.
Though Antieau was pretty sure people would buy cupcakes, he's hard-pressed to say why that is. "I really don't know," he says. "It's a weird fad, which is kind of cool and kind of scary." Adds King, "There's a lot of nostalgia attached to the cupcake. We thought that the flavors would be the most popular, but it's turned out that the yellow cake, with white frosting and rainbow sprinkles, is the one everyone wants."
Cupcakes is open Wednesday through Friday from 8 AM to 10 PM, Saturday noon to 10, and Sunday noon to 8; see cupcakesacrossamerica.com for flavors, delivery info, and more.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.