The Cupcake Crumbles and the Donuts Rise

Last Friday was the last day of business for Dozen's Downtown shop. Let us pause for a moment of silence. May the Cupcake Class find other amusements.

I know that some occasional Pittsblog readers are not amused by my less-than-completely-serious posts on cupcake matters; if you're in that camp, you may stop reading here. But Napoleon allegedly said that an army marches on its stomach, and I think that you can learn a lot about the culture of a place by studying its eating habits.  Plus it's fun.  This is a blog, not an economics journal.

It's notable that the Dozen that closed the doors of one location last Friday is not the Dozen that opened that shop.  The opening Dozen was Dozen Cupcakes; the closing Dozen is Dozen Bake Shop.  That's more than a matter of terminology or semantics.  Cupcakes are no longer Dozen's vision and mission.  Dozen saw the icing on the wall some time ago.  Pittsburgh's cupcake eyes were bigger than its stomach. 

Equally important, Pittsburgh's tastes in food have gotten vastly more heterogeneous than they were even a few years ago.  Après le cupcake, Pittsburgh's deluge, I wrote some time back, meaning that a cupcake crash was coming, and the challenge for cupcake entrepreneurs was and is to pivot and keep growing.  Pivot where?

Go low, and aim high.

At both ends of the food-and-culture spectrum, the donut is back, both in the original, humble form that speaks to Pittsburgh's working class roots and in new-agey, high-priced hipster form.  Better-Maid Donut Co. in Elliott appeals to traditionalists; two-dollar doughnuts have popped up in Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan and are undoubtedly on their way to the Burgh.  Dunkin' Donuts will have some 'splainin' to do.

High-end donuts in Pittsburgh?  I think that they're on their way in, even as $4 cupcakes are losing their edge.  The New York Times, arbiter of all things that progressive upper and upper-middle class Pittsburghers should aspire to, has declared that Pittsburgh's local food renaissance is ready for prime time.  Instead of après le cupcake le deluge, it's après Primanti Brothers le deluge. 

The diversification of Pittsburgh's food culture isn't so significant in itself, though demand for higher-end cuisine signifies something about the health of the local economy, at least in certain neighborhoods and among certain populations. 

What's more interesting is how the diversification of Pittsburgh's food culture likely signifies the diversification of Pittsburgh's master narrative.  Once the city and region were defined at least metaphorically and often literally by stories of steelworkers and steelmakers, by  those who worked in the mills and those who financed the mills.  Working class and upper class, or donut eaters and cake eaters, to be brutally and somewhat unfairly reductionist about Pittsburgh's past.  In linear form that narrative goes like this:  Steel made Pittsburgh.  Steel crashed in the 1980s.  Pittsburgh crashed with it.  Pittsburgh has slowly managed to pull itself up, replacing steel with innovation, whatever that is.  (That is a partly non-ironic comment.)  I've written before that Pittsburgh's master revitalization narrative is incomplete, even if the pre-crash part of the narrative (steel made Pittsburgh; steel crashed; Pittsburgh crashed) is pretty persuasive.  But incompleteness isn't necessarily a sign of weakness.   A new 21st century Pittsburgh narrative is emerging.  The peaceful co-existence of donuts and cupcakes in a literal and metaphorical baked goods ecology is testimony, I submit, of the maturation of an increasingly complex community.


1 Response to "The Cupcake Crumbles and the Donuts Rise"

Frank Pasquale said... 3/14/2011 9:47 PM

Check out the cupcake/gang nexus:

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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at] Mike also blogs at, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

All opinions expressed at Pittsblog 2.0 are those of their respective authors and of no one (and no thing) else, least of all the University of Pittsburgh.

Pittsblog 2.0 has a motto: "It's steel good in Pittsburgh." Say it aloud, with a Pittsburgh accent.

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