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Me and Magnolia: Life Before and After the Cupcake Bomb Went Off

Eater's critic looks back at the 20 year history of the bakery that kickstarted the cupcake craze

I live a block away from the original Magnolia Bakery on Bleecker Street in the West Village, so I definitely noticed when it opened 20 years ago. But nobody paid much attention until it was popularized by an episode of Sex and the City in 2000. I tried the cupcakes and found them — even at the original price of $1.25 — small and expensive, with the dryish cake completely overshadowed by a thick layer of frosting. I was a little suspicious of that frosting, too, ever since I saw the crew from the bakery loading boxes of something called "butter solids" into the basement. Why not regular butter? That crew labored under sweatshop conditions on every available square foot of floor space, baking cupcakes in small convection ovens and sprinkling little doohickeys on top — but I guess watching them at work was part of the appeal of the place.

As I said, the original bakery remained obscure for a time, but then long lines started forming outside that wrapped around the building and went down the block. Soon there was a "cupcake bouncer" stationed outside, regulating the flow of customers and perhaps forestalling the feared cupcake riot. German, French, and Japanese tourists appeared, noses deep in their guidebooks, and the place eventually came to be considered an annoyance by the folks who lived nearby. Cars double parked in the bike lane out front, the engines still running, as the occupants scrambled out to stand in line.

Cupcake fanatics took over adjacent Bleecker Park and came to occupy every table at peak evening hours and on weekends. They would buy several cupcakes apiece, daintily eat them with a fork, and then some would throw their trash on the ground or simply leave it on the table. At one point, the city completely renovated the park and installed new landscaping and tables, making it even more appealing to cupcake eaters. On busy nights every trash can within a two-block radius overflowed with Magnolia Bakery bags, boxes, and napkins. I took to tweeting the pictures, and a couple of times Magnolia tweeted back that I should email them when the trash cans overflowed — as if they couldn’t simply look out the window.

In the early days Jonathan Gold was a fixture in the neighborhood, during the period he was the New York City critic for Gourmet. He once went into Magnolia to get cupcakes for his daughter’s class at nearby P.S. 3 — not because he liked them (he once said in an interview, the cupcakes were aimed at grown-ups whose moms never made baked goods that didn’t come from boxes), but because the kids loved the cupcakes, with their small size and lavish decoration. The clerk refused to sell him more than a dozen, and he stalked out of there pretty mad. What bakery won’t bend the rules for a class of first graders? It was one of several regulations you had to observe, which also included an elaborate ritual for selecting the cupcakes from open trays in the window, boxing them yourself, and then standing in line.

As the years have passed and the branches of Magnolia and other chains have multiplied, so that you’re never far from a mediocre cupcake in NYC, the lines on Bleecker Street have dwindled — though twice a day, a busload of Sex and the City tourists disgorges outside and the fans stand and gawk. But I and many others have come to appreciate Magnolia’s excellent banana pudding. So twice a year or so I hypocritically dart inside and score a tub. It has the consistency of thick whipped cream and tastes powerfully of banana flavoring, backed up with real ripe bananas. I love it. Magnolia, on your 20th birthday, I forgive you all your sins if you just keep making that pudding.

Magnolia Bakery

401 Bleecker Street, New York, NY 10014 (212) 682-3588 Visit Website
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