All The Rage: Silliness and Kickass Cupcakes

Kickass Cupcakes

Kickass Cupcakes -- Image via Flickr courtesy (cup)cake_eater

A recent Yelp! review called Kickass Cupcakes — a specialty cupcake bakery in the Davis Square area of Somerville — “the most divisive place in the Boston area.” True or not, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more frequently-debated bakery in the area, maybe even in New England. Their most frequent rating on Yelp! is 2/5 stars. One-star raters weave bitter tales of stale, overpriced “cuppies.” Why would you go here?! You can go to this other cupcake place, whose cupcakes are clearly superior! Or such-and-such bakery, whose cupcakes are obviously the very best!

What could cause people to get so worked up over cupcakes? Ostensibly, it’s the cake itself: many label Kickass’ cakes too dry, and less frequently, too small. Cupcake-heads consider these transgressions gravely disrespectful, tantamount to someone marching into your mother’s house and peeing on her carpet. When you charge $3+ for a single cupcake, the thinking goes, customers should get a lot: a lot of cake, a lot of frosting, a lot of sugar, a lot of butterfat, and — perhaps most importantly — a lot of special feelings. These are cupcakes, after all.

Kickass’s detractors are a lot more vocal than their supporters, which doesn’t say as much about the quality of the product as much as it does about the nature of the “debate” itself. Some people like them, a lot of people really adamantly dislike them. The battle lines which surround these desserts are framed entirely of the absurdness of the cupcake trend itself, which has spawned a set of largely abstract factors by which to judge what is a simple and sort of ridiculous product: a frosted, sugary muffin, adorned with little sprinkles and fruits and fontant zebras.

If you think in terms of current market prices, it’s indeed very difficult to justify a single cupcake that approaches $4. You could make a dozen in your home for less than that. It’s enough for practically an entire day’s worth of food at Taco Bell. This price-value gap can only be made up in a handful of ways. One is that you could really deck out the joint: big televisions, fancy wallpaper, expensive lighting, cash registers made of gold. Another way is to introduce “premium” ingredients into your cupcakes: a chai espresso cupcake made with rare indonesian coffee beans? Now there’s a cupcake you can charge $5 for!

What often gets lost in the senselessness of this debate is the fact that almost all cupcakes are built with the same six ingredients: flour, baking powder, butter, sugar, milk, and eggs. Three of those are animal products. We as a society habitually ignore the practices of the industry which provides us with our dairy; this is problematic, as factory farming is both hugely detrimental to the environment and often unethical. When most boutique bakeries talk about their ingredient sources, they predictably limit discussion to the premium items. Here, for example, is what Sweet says about their ingredients on their website:

All of the Sweet frostings, fillings and batters are handcrafted from scratch using the finest ingredients including Callebaut chocolate, Madagascar bourbon vanilla, and Bensdorp cocoa.

Belgian chocolates, prized vanillas – these are luxury ingredients that bakers can comfortably charge a premium for. They draw and placate the status-conscious consumers; not coincidentally, these consumers have fueled the boutique cupcake trend almost entirely. Free-range? Caged? Who has time to talk about dairy cows when you’re clawing each other over whether or not the mojito cupcake tastes enough like a real mojito?

While Kickass is certainly proud of their chocolate garnishes and syrup infusions, they’re admirably — and unusually — transparent about the sources of their animal products. The milk and cream? They come from Shaw Farm, in Dracut, MA. The eggs? Coll’s Farm, in Jaffrey, NH. Both are local farms, and both are solidly (though not perfectly) committed to sustainable, ethical practices. Kickass also sells those same dairy products (and more) at their adjacent storefront, The Dairy Bar at Kickass Cupcakes.  In doing so, they not only cater to the cupcake crowd, but they also actively support and encourage investment in local dairy, something that many local businesses — even those which derive their success entirely from dairy products — simply are not doing.

Kickass Cupcakes

Kickass Cupcakes -- Image via Flickr courtesy lefauxfrog

It’s absolutely a departure from the industry norm, but it actually makes a lot of sense: your average consumer isn’t frequenting places like this, and unfortunately, your average consumer also doesn’t really have dairy standards on their radar. Sure, they get their share of customers who couldn’t care less about dairy standards. And no, they don’t do as much as they could to really broadcast the fact that they’re buying from local farms. But sustainability isn’t about being spartan; it’d stand to reason that there is a healthy population of people who both care about their impact and enjoy modern, artisinal baked goods. Isn’t there room in the local and/or sustainable movement for a little bit of buttercream, too?

Kickass is pretty comfortable baiting those who bash them; they very wryly display a “people [hate] us on Yelp” sign on the front window. This further wrankles their detractors, but it also makes a statement: hey, these are premium cupcakes, baked by talented people with quality ingredients. Chill out, everyone. In the end, much of the “controversy” surrounding these cupcakes stems simply from Kickass not bending over backwards for the substantial portion of the cupcake crowd who’ll take to Internet to complain that their cupcake isn’t big enough. This isn’t an attitude they cop, it’s just a fact. Their staffers are really very friendly, and will always happily answer any questions you have. Nobody’s trying to swindle you.

When people complain about food, you should pay attention to what they’re actually complaining about. Everyone’s got an angle, and if you’re going to really do something with another person’s opinion, you absolutely need to know what that angle is. Kickass makes a great cupcake, and they do right by their ingredients, their suppliers, and their community. Leave the negative reviews behind and peer under the hood here. There’s more going on than meets the eye – even Yelp’s all-seeing one.

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