Cupcake Counter sweeps up as Crumbs closes: Steinberg

Written By By NEIL STEINBERG Posted: 07/09/2014, 03:09pm
Array Marlene Kritlow, owner of The Cupcake Counter, 229 W. Madison, greets customers Tuesday. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

You shouldn’t celebrate when any business goes under. Money lost, people out of work, dreams dashed.

Yet, score one for the little guy.

It will be five years ago this September that the mother-daughter team of Holly Sjo and Samantha Wood opened up The Cupcake Counter, a tiny, 290-square foot store wedged between a parking garage and a La Quinta Inn on Madison Street. And a year later, New York giant Crumbs opened up directly across at Madison and Franklin.

In 2011, I compared the two this way:

“Cupcake Counter cupcakes weigh about 2¾ ounces and look exactly like the cupcakes your mother would bake and bring to your first-grade classroom in a tinfoil-lined box to celebrate your birthday. The icing can be spare — sometimes it doesn’t even cover the cupcake top, but leaves a gap of bare cake rimming the crinkly paper wrapping. Decoration might be a single tiny red candy heart, set directly in the center. I would describe Cupcake Counter cupcakes as simple, classic cupcakes with a certain quiet dignity; solemn cupcakes, maybe even a little sorrowful; cupcakes as Wayne Thiebaud would paint them. Sometimes only a handful are on display.”


“Across the street at Crumbs is a different story. … The display case is jammed with cupcakes, ranging from 1-ounce minis to the “Colossal Crumb” intended to feed eight people. The ‘signature’ cupcakes are 7-ounce, 500-calorie behemoths the size and shape of grapefruits, domed high with icing, studded with candy, drenched in chocolate, crusted with sprinkles. Circus-like cupcakes. Mardi Gras cupcakes.”

The assumption, of course, was that the big chain would drive the tiny storefront out of business. That’s how life works. Sometimes. But just as mice outlasted mammoths and the Book Bin in Northbrook saw Borders come and go, so Crumbs shut down while the The Cupcake Counter bakes on.

This week Crumbs announced it is closing its 65 stores in 12 states, including two in Chicago, on Madison Street and in Water Tower Place. Its stock has been delisted.

What happened? Though one pastry chef I talked to called Crumbs, off the record, “shockingly bad,” in the taste test I conducted with my family three years ago, we decided Crumbs was as good as The Cupcake Counter, while offering 250 percent more cupcake at a 25 percent greater price.

They were huge.

“Crumbs was big,” said Sarah Levy, a desert maven who had boutique bakeries around Chicago and now is entering the airport food concession business through her S. Levy Foods. “Not a nice little indulgence. There’s guilt associated with eating such a large cupcake.”

She speculated that the out-of-town aspect might be a factor. “Chicago likes to support local business, so maybe the fact that they were this big chain …” but then she observed that Sprinkles, based in California, still has “lines out the door.”

Does this mean the cupcake craze is over?

“I hope the cupcake craze is over,” Levy said. “In a way, I never full understood it. I think there’s still a ton of people who absolutely love cupcakes. The cupcake craze is not dead, but maybe it’s slowing down. Maybe doughnuts have taken over. The doughnut eaters are taking away from the cupcake eaters.”

And then she went on to rhapsodize the Doughnut Vault. She certainly has a point.

The only downside, except for those who worked for, invested in or genuinely liked Crumbs, is for the mother-daughter duo who owned The Cupcake Counter. Facing family obligations, they sold three years ago to Marlene Kritlow, who is not at all puzzled as to why Crumbs went belly up.

“It makes a difference when you bake fresh,” said the lifelong Chicagoan, who grew up in Uptown and “had the itch” to bake. “I think people can tell the difference.”

She said she has been watching Crumbs close locations around Chicago for a year.

“Their quality was different,” she said, noting Crumbs cupcakes were baked off-site and not always that day. “My customers would go, then they would come back.”

She watches expenses closely, and her store is always busy. “There’s no downtime,” she said. “We’re happy, a great location.”

Does she see the cupcake craze fading?

“No, cupcakes are never going out of style,” Kritlow said. “Some of these franchises might open and close, there will always be trends. But people have always wanted and loved cupcakes. It’s a portion, like an individual little present to the person. That never goes out of style.”


Twitter: @NeilSteinberg

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