Monday, May 23, 2011

Crumbs Bakeshop: An Exposé

About six months ago, Crumbs Bakeshop, the nation's largest cupcake chain, opened its first Chicago location. While not immediately familiar, the name later rang a bell, as I vaguely remembered passing their court-jester logo on a storefront as my friends and I sought out the famous Magnolia Bakery in New York City. I scouted out their goods online, which looked fabulous - large cupcakes in a huge variety of flavors - and made a point to go, but for some reason did not make it there until about two weeks ago, when a coworker, infuriated by Flirty Cupcakes' free-cupcake giveaway that ran out before making it to our stop, led the charge to Crumbs Bakeshop to get her cupcake fix.

Upon entering, I was very impressed. The case contained at least thirty varieties of some of the largest, prettiest cupcakes I have ever seen. The store contained no menus; instead, if you wanted to know what was in the center of the Half Baked or what kind of frosting was on the Baba Booey, you just asked the workers - they eerily knew each cupcake inside and out, literally. After asking the composition of almost every cupcake in the case, I decided upon Black Bottom Cheesecake Brownie, which contained a brownie bottom layer, topped by cheesecake, vanilla cream cheese frosting, brownie chunks, and chocolate drizzle, and Milkshake, which was marble cake with cookies 'n cream filling, topped with a vanilla cream cheese frosting and chocolate cream cheese frosting swirl, and edged in chocolate crunchies. I very excitedly took these back to my desk at work for a tasting.

First I cut a sliver of the Milkshake, careful to get a bit of the cookies 'n cream center and a decent swirl of frosting. As soon as I pulled the sliver out, I was stunned: what looked like a heap of frosting on top was actual a slim, glaze-like layer covering a convex cupcake top. How deceiving! While the bite was delicious, I realized there weren't going to be many more like it, as I had accidentally taken about a quarter of the frosting and center filling with it. Next, I cut into the Black Bottom Cheesecake Brownie, this time wary of what the middle might contain. Rightfully so - the so-called "brownie" was actually dry chocolate cake, and the cheesecake layer was about 1/8" thick - quite the opposite of the fudgy brownie topped with thick, fluffy cheesecake I was expecting. Tasting it did not surprise: it tasted like dry, chocolate cake, with cheesecake flavor too insignificant to taste, topped by overly sugary frosting that I would expect to find at my local grocery store.

Others corroborated my sentiments: my coworker's Red Velvet was dry and topped with cream cheese frosting that was too much sugar and not enough cream cheese. After trying a few more bites of my two after dinner that night, my companion and I both agreed that these cupcakes were no better than four day-old grocery store cake, and threw the rest in the trash.

After swearing I would never eat Crumbs again, my lovely friend Stephanie surprised me on a particularly blue day with a Carrot Cake cupcake from the wretched bakeshop. As throwing it straight into the garbage seemed both wasteful and disrespectful, I had to give the little (actually, rather big) guy a chance, especially since carrot cake is my favorite. I cut into it similarly to the first two, removing a sliver to inspect the cake-to-frosting ratio (for a very scientific approach to how important the cake-to-frosting ratio is to the enjoyment of cake, please refer to this post on the blog Hyperbole and a Half and scroll down to "Flavor Anatomy of a Cake"). Again, just an epic failure: I wish I knew how they made their cakes so convex so as to fool you into thinking it's actually all frosting on top, so I can vow NEVER to bake my cakes like that.

For the first time in my life, I dreaded taking a bite of carrot cake. It was everything I figured it would be: dry, dense, chewy, spice-less cake that was ill-balanced by an ultra-thin layer of cream cheese frosting so wispy that it almost instantly dissolved, leaving a sugary grit on the tongue,  and with none of the usual tang of a good cream cheese frosting. Sigh....

I passed it on to my coworker: "Molly! Try this carrot cake. Just a warning, it's really bad. But try it anyway because I want to see if someone else thinks it's as bad as I do." What an enticing offer... Yet Molly dutifully did as she was asked, confirming that it couldn't hold a candle to my carrot cake. What a back-handed way to get compliments: making people eat BAD food so they can tell you your recipe is better.

I later read an article on titled "The Great Cupcake Wars" that shed light on why Crumbs was such an unenjoyable experience. Crumbs, which started as a single bakeshop on the Upper West Side of Manhattan ran by the Bauers, a lawyer/baking-enthusiast wife and her entrepreneuer husband, now has a goal of opening 200 locations (they are currently at 35), and will be traded on the Nasdaq in May. The actual cupcake baking is contracted out to commercial bakers, which means that no Crumbs "Bakeshop" has an oven. CEO Jason Bauer says, "It takes more than a cupcake recipe to run a successful business... After eight years of perfecting this model, our business comes down to real estate and people."

I personally find this corporate cupcake disgusting. While I applaud them on their expansion and success, it should not be done at the sacrifice of the end-product sold to customers. No wonder the cake is so dry - who knows when it flew in, packed in a myriad of ways in order to salvage any freshness left. I was going to say Crumbs is no better than the ubiquitous Mrs. Fields' mall cookie shop, but at least they bake their cookies in-house. How these cupcakes fly around the country and still arrive in the case so perfectly decorated is a mystery to me, but looks are deceiving: underneath that gorgeous hump of frosting is, well, very little frosting, covering cake as dry as my skin after a plane flight. The more I learn about Crumbs' corporate soul-selling, the more I champion the local bakery. I would rather be (and buy from) a smaller bakeshop that delivers quality, fresh goods (with perfect cake-to-frosting ratios!) than a successful, national chain with a crap product offering.


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