As the Modern Cupcake Moment swirls into its second decade, America just might have to admit that what we're dealing with -- 669.4 million sold from October 2010 to October 2011, according to the market research firm NPD -- is not a fad. It's an enduring love affair.
"Cupcake culture has been iconic in the U.S. for 100 years," says Steve Abrams, co-owner of New York's Magnolia Bakery. American recipes for cake baked in small cups and the term "cup cake" cropped up earlier, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. "There is no cupcake craze."
He ought to know. Cupcakes represent half of his company's $20 million in annual sales, which surged following the bakery's 2000 cameo appearance in HBO's "Sex and the City."
Among portable, single-serving desserts, cupcakes stand out for their red-carpet glamour and infinite flavor combinations.
One food trendspotter attributes cupcakes' retail ascent to a convergence of factors.
"If you look back at the modern arrival of the cupcake, it happened to coincide with and was the motivator for the niche, specialty bakery that evidently was ripe to come," says Kara Nielsen of the Center for Culinary Development in San Francisco.
At the same time, cupcake-only bakeries started to multiply in the mid- to late 2000s, food blogs, review sites and user-generated content took off on the Web. People who could suddenly self-publish their opinions needed something to talk about, and the cupcake proved noteworthy, she says.
As household budgets tightened during the down economy of the past four years, cupcakes became an affordable luxury, a means to relieve the angst of repressing big-ticket desires.
"People are tired of constantly worrying about what they're spending," says economic analyst Domenick Celentano, who writes about the food business on About.com. "With a cupcake, recession-weary consumers can treat themselves."
Taking ownership of a gourmet cupcake is a qualitatively different transaction from buying a candy bar at a drug store, says Chris Carbone.
He studies consumer trends for the market research firm Innovaro and says cupcakes appeal to post-modernists who value creativity, authenticity, aesthetic design, personalization and locally sourced goods.
Because these consumers possess a "desire for experiences rather than just more stuff," they're in the market for more than a sugar rush. Patronizing a boutique cupcakery "has a high experiential component and connects [consumers] with a larger narrative," he says.
"Cupcakes have become totally mainstream," says trendologist Nielsen. "The novelty has worn off and they've become part of the landscape."
In the event of an identity crisis, one can consult "Cupcakes for Every Personality," a guide created for an appearance on Oprah Winfrey's show by Sophie Kallinis LaMontagne and Katherine Kallinis, owners of Georgetown Cupcakes in Washington, D.C., and the stars of "DC Cupcakes," the Learning Channel reality show.
Serious souls are vanilla. The adventurous are peanut butter fudge. Spunky types are lemon berry.
Practical folks are carrot. You creatives are pumpkin spice.
Nonsense? More than one commentator has quipped, "Sometimes a cupcake is just a cupcake." It has a nice ring to it.
Then again, so does the cash register.
Consumers are seduced. As Georgetown Cupcake's Katherine Kallinis says, "This is what love looks like in a baked good."