If you are over the age of 12 and have eaten a cupcake recently, thank Candace Nelson. The founder with husband Charles of Sprinkles Cupcakes in Beverly Hills, Nelson pioneered the modern cupcake craze. With Houston's first Sprinkles set to open on Monday in Highland Village, CultureMap talked to Nelson about dessert, philanthropy, and her newest gig as a reality television star.
CultureMap: Where did the idea for a cupcake bakery come from?
Candace Nelson: I grew up in Southeast Asia and I think it made me more obsessed with American culture than someone who grew up here. In Indonesia I couldn't get a chocolate-chip cookie or a cupcake so I had to make one. And when I graduated from pastry school, I went into special occasions cakes, because that's what you do if you like baking and design.
But I'm a firm believer in dessert that you can eat every day, and special occasions cakes are not that, you have repeat customers that come in maybe one or two times a year. To be honest the whole scene was a little too precious for me. I wanted to do something you can eat every day, but that was a little more special than cookies. So I wanted to make an updated cupcake with premium ingredients and modern touches.
CM: When you opened Sprinkles did you expect the cupcake to become such a phenomenon?
CN: I knew Sprinkles would have a following, but I had no idea it would blow up into this craze. I figured we would be in a few of the big cities, but my husband is from Oklahoma City and there are three cupcake bakeries there now. That's incredible.
And the architect who designed all our stores [Andrea Lenardin] is from Vienna and she just sent me a picture of this famous old bakery there with cupcakes in the window. In Vienna! They take their pastries very seriously there.
CM: You're a judge on the new Food Network show Cupcake Wars. How was your experience?
CN: You know, I own a cupcake bakery, so I already thought I had the best job ever. and then all of a sudden I was offered a job eating other people's cupcakes and offering my opinion. The most unexpected thing is how difficult it was for me to give honest, tough critiques. I feel like when someone bakes they put so much love into it and I want to be nice, but my job is to be honest and fair.
CM: Do you still experiment with new flavors? When you come to a new location do you customize the flavors to local tastes?
CN: With five stores opening this year, it's been so busy I haven't had the time I usually do to just go and play in the kitchen. But I was really inspired by the show, the contestants had to use some really crazy ingredients — like tobacco, which has quite a kick — but also things like dates and rosewater.
You never know what flavor combinations are going to work — we just came out with a sea salt and caramel cupcake and had such an overwhelming response, e-mails from people asking us to put it on the everyday menu.
When we go into a market I like to research the cuisine and what people like there. Texans are really into German chocolate cake, so we are working on that and it will be coming soon. But If we do a flavor at one location, we do them at all locations or else people hear about it and we get e-mails, "Why does Houston have German chocolate and not us?!"
CM: How did you decide to have a Rockets player serving your cupcakes on opening day?
CN: Doing the opening with Shane Battier is so fun because you never think to connect sports and cupcakes. We're a mom and pop bakery but with stores in five cities we don't want to be thought of as a chain, and being involved with the local charities in one way we can give back to the community and learn about new causes.
We've worked with food banks since the beginning, it's important in how we want to run our business and important to us as people.