Retro Bakery’s cupcakes come with classic buttercream in flavors that are anything but traditional
Fri, Aug 7, 2009 (1:15 p.m.)
Photo: Sarah Feldberg
It’s been about a year and a half since Retro Bakery opened its doors on February 10, 2008 in northwest Las Vegas, but the time can be measured in cupcakes – around 200-300 sold on weekdays, with sometimes more than 500 flying out the door on weekends. Sundays, closed. That’s six days a weeks for 72 weeks – give or take a day off for a baking-free vacation – or about 135,000 of the shop’s perfectly manicured, buttercream-crowned cupcakes.
Say it once: One hundred thirty-five thousand cupcakes.
Retro Bakery is the brainchild of Kari and Brian Haskell, who turned professional bakers last year when they opened the petite, pleasantly mod shop in a strip mall just off U.S. 95. Today, the business seems a natural fit for the pair, who share duties easily with Brian focusing on the business end and steering their move into more custom cakes and Kari providing the creative juice to keep the counter stocked with fanciful flavors like peanut butter cup and cinnamon toast.
However, when the Haskells first met, preciously presented miniature cakes couldn’t have been further from their minds. Both servers at a California Red Robin, Brian and Kari dated, eventually getting married and moving to Las Vegas where Brian helped open the Centennial Hills location of the famous burger chain as the general manager. But it was Kari, a stay-at-home-mom at the time, who first thought about capitalizing on the cupcake craze.
“I’m an Internet junkie,” she says with a laugh, an open laptop piping top-40 songs into the bakery behind her. “Being a stay-at-home mom, there’s no one to talk to.”
Instead of talking, the petite faux-hawked blonde surfed. Baking sites and blogs, mostly, and she noticed the nation’s obsession with the almighty cupcake.
The Haskells had been saving for 10 years, and saw an opportunity for Brian to leave the corporate restaurant world behind for a family business that would pay the bills and sweeten prospects: cupcakes.
If you’ve been on a diet for the last few years, cupcakes are huge. In fact, they’ve gotten so big that their celebrity is shrinking again, with treats like frozen yogurt moving in on the sweet-toothed masses. First, Magnolia and Crumbs bakeries became New York City hot spots, then household names, and soon Sex and the City characters were snacking on the individually packaged desserts. When Carrie touts, trends ensue, and so it was with cupcakes. The craze spread across the country, landing in Las Vegas in January of 2006 when The Cupcakery opened its doors under the watch of self-proclaimed “Cupcake Queen,” Pamela Jenkins.
Today, The Cupcakery has two Vegas Valley locations and two more in Texas. Locally, Retro and The Cupcakery share an uneasy peace; each has its own territory and its own devoted customer base. Though Kari says she and Jenkins have never actually sat down to cupcakes and coffee together, “the Queen” did stop by the shop soon after Retro opened to pick up a few of her competitor’s goods. However, Jenkins didn’t identify herself as a fellow baker, and Kari only realized whom she was serving halfway through the transaction and decided not to call out the other cupcake maker.
Months later, Kari is unconcerned by The Cupcakery’s local success. Baking has become second nature for the Haskells and the handful of employees that keep Retro churning out $2.50 treats and made to order cakes. And as word spreads, their biggest problem is keeping up with the demand at the door.
However, it didn’t start that way.
Ingredients were the first issue. You can’t use measuring cups for sugar when you’re baking 200 cupcakes a day, Kari explains, you have to weigh the ingredients, learn to multiply everything and cook en masse. For a home chef used to baking one batch at a time, transitioning into a professional kitchen was like trying to run a marathon when you’re used to just a light jog around the block.
She seems to have mastered the process. On a recent Friday cupcakes fly from the counter as a steady stream of customers walks into the shop. Through a cut out in the kitchen door, you can spot Brian or one of the employees dressing up a cake for delivery with fondant and tiny edible beads. As it nears completion it takes on the look of a tidy, pink present. Soon, the last pink lemonade cupcake is snatched up by a customer. Yellow lemon cake crowned with a beehive of pink lemonade buttercream and a drizzle of hot pink sugar - it’s dessert in Technicolor.
If pink lemonade isn’t the first thing that springs to mind when you think cupcake, it means Kari is doing her job. The creator of most of Retro’s 20-plus flavors finds inspiration not only in the bakery but also in the cereal or ice cream aisle at the grocery store.
“We’re constantly thinking about [new flavors],” she says. “I have a notebook. It’s in my purse all the time.”
August’s flavor of the month came from a trip not to the grocery store, but to the casino.
“Brian’s favorite thing is a brownie sundae,” Kari says, adding that the best one around is served at the Pahrump Nugget. “They pull it out and it’s this huge thing. I said, ‘I have to make it into a cupcake.’”
Whipping up a micro-batch of the new flavor, Kari rockets through the process like a lifelong baker. She combines a few ingredients to create a deep chocolaty brownie batter the color of wet soil, then she adds the secret ingredient: chocolate chips.
Using her “baker’s muscles,” Kari gives the batter a few last turns before she takes an ice cream scoop to the bowl and starts doling out portions into a muffin tin.
Lifting a heaping scoop of batter in front of her nose, Kari cracks a wide smile. “It’s taking all my strength not to eat this,” she says, before dumping the batter into a waiting cup.
When the cupcakes are baked and cooled, she’ll add a generous dollop of vanilla buttercream to the top and crisscross over that with hot fudge. Voila! The hot fudge sundae cupcake.
The buttercream, Kari says, is the key,not just for the cupcake that mimics an ice cream parlor extravagance, but for nearly all the cupcakes sold at Retro. Real American buttercream is totally different than the canned stuff that Betty Crocker hocks at the supermarket, she explains reverentially. Only one cupcake comes without a hefty serving of the stuff: the glazed donut, which is vanilla cake “drenched in donut glaze.” The bakery’s slogan echoes the baker: “It’s all about the buttercream.”
Plus, Kari adds in an exaggerated whisper, “I don’t like cream cheese.”
Her customers seem to agree. Business is up despite the down economy and more and more people who wander into the shop are ordering the custom cakes that Retro crafts, as well. The Haskells even have their eyes on the empty storefront next door for a sister cake shop.
“We’d do it in opposite colors,” Kari dreams, “like Spy vs. Spy.”
If another ingredient is surviving 2009 without a dip in sales, it would have to be bacon, which also has a place on Retro’s counter. On Fridays, the bakery serves a maple bacon cupcake that consists of vanilla cake with bacon and maple syrup inside topped with maple buttercream and more bacon bits.
Inspired by Hash House A Go Go’s bacon waffles, the bacon hits you right at the end, Kari explains.
Next from the notebook are likely Kool-Aid flavored cupcakes and fruit pies translated into cupcake form. If they can stand next to current flavors like milk and cookies, which comes topped with a chocolate chip cookie to dunk in the frosting; or chocolate fountain, which boasts a crown of chocolate ganache-dipped chocolate buttercream, chances are those two will become regular menu items, as well.
For now, however, a customer is pondering the last spot in her box of four, perusing the flavors with the intensity of a used car shopper.
“Mint [chocolate chip] is just like the ice cream,” Kari ventures.
There goes cupcake 135,001.