The Retirement of the Cupcake Class

The news broke while I was out of town, so it looks a bit like I was asleep at the blogging wheel.  Plus, Chris has called for a comment.  I'm still jet-lagged (thanks as ever to the Philadelphia airport - for nothing), but I'm happy to step up.

Cupcakes in Pittsburgh, at least the cupcakes that prompted the Craze of the Cupcake Class, are over.  Dozen is closing.

Chris covers the critical landscape here pretty well.  The only thing the cupcake fad tells us is that Pittsburgh is susceptible to marketing fads masquerading as economic development strategies, despite the region's reputation for (private) (economic) sobriety.  I don't have much to add.

Except this:

I think that Chris is too quick to accept part of the blame for pushing the cupcake meme.  He and I both had some fun with it, of course, but Null Space, Pittsblog, and even Post-Gazette readers were more than happy to play along.  No one can tell too much about Pittsburgh by reading a couple of blogs, or even by reading a handful of pieces in the PG, but the idea of the Cupcake Class captures something real.  And the response reflected that.

Cupcakes and cupcake businesses are fleeting, but the Cupcake Class is more durable.  The Cupcake Class is a local version of David Brooks's "BoBos," or "Bourgeois Bohemians," the people in the region who believe that if they wish hard enough that Pittsburgh is really a thoroughly vibrant, revitalized city, and spend enough money and time at Whole Foods and the South Side Works and talk about trails along the riverfront a whole lot, then it all will really be that way.  It's the Music Man's "Think Method" applied to economic, political, and cultural development.  Only life isn't a Meredith Willson musical.  Robert Preston walked off with Smithton's Shirley Jones, but Dozen, like thousands of small businesses before it, is in the tank.

I like Whole Foods.  I think that the South Side Works is a few more wins than losses, all things considered, and I believe that the continuing transformation of the riverfronts is a great thing.  But if the kernel of Pittsburgh's renewal isn't in cupcakes, which Chris and I each argued, then its ongoing potential (and unrealized) transformation isn't in the cultural extremes of upscale groceries, shopping malls, and recreational amenities, either.  That transformation, if it ever comes, lies in the slow reconciliation of Pittsburgh's gastronomic and cultural mean with that of the country as a whole.

That reconciliation may appear to be sinister.  Denny's restaurants is rolling out what the chain calls the "Midwestern Meat and Potatoes Sandwich," and what that means is that the fries are in the sandwich.  I don't like to eat Primanti's sandwiches, but I recognize the appropriation and dumbing down of the Primanti's idea when I see it.  Reconciliation means a potential loss of local distinctiveness.

And that reconciliation may be productive.  The much more interesting food-oriented PG story last week was Diana Nelson Jones's report on the struggles of food truck entrepreneurs in Pittsburgh.  The tale of the trucks is typically Pittsburgh-insular:  would-be entrepreneurs are shut down by outdated regulations that protect incumbent businesses.  If Pittsburgh really wants to get moving again economically, then Pittsburgh needs to buckle down and get serious about enacting local small-business rules that support competition.  Let entrepreneurs compete.  Let entrepreneurs fail.  Make Pittsburgh a free market.  Reconciliation may lead to market-oriented growth.

That, I think, is the last lesson of the Cupcake Class.  Dozen had a cupcake truck, but Dozen's troubles in the end weren't  regulatory.  They were competitive.  Congrats, then, to the cupcake folks, Gray and Twigg.  Closing a business is traumatic, but they succeeded in failing, and by failing.  New businesses come, new businesses go.  Dozen showed Pittsburgh the way to its future.

What will they do next?


3 Responses to "The Retirement of the Cupcake Class"

bcw said... 7/09/2011 2:44 PM

Their cupcakes really took a nosedive in quality when they started expanding, not to mention they expanded way too fast. It took Magnolia Bakery 12 years to open a second store in NYC, and they have said they won't open any more after their fourth store opened in Grand Central. Why did Dozen think they needed to open 5 stores in Pittsburgh in just five years? If they had stuck with one store and kept up the quality control, they would probably still be in business. Oh, well, as you say this is the free market at work. I don't think this closing means that Pittsburgh can't support a place like this. It just means Pittsburghers aren't going to pay a premium for bad cupcakes just to look trendy.

Mike Madison said... 7/09/2011 3:09 PM

My guess is that Dozen's expansion plans were dictated by the conditions of its financing, rather than by the logic of quality control.

Andy Kozusko said... 7/10/2011 10:27 PM

I'm in the midst of serious withdrawal. Those scones were like crack.

Sad to see interesting small businesses fail in Pittsburgh, but it is a constant theme. I'll now be changing my route to Penn Circle.

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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.

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