Chef Chat, Part 2: Candace Nelson of Sprinkles Cupcakes

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Candace Nelson is known as the creator of the boutique-cupcake craze. She began her company, Sprinkles, several years ago in Beverly Hills and now has locations across the country, including our own Houston store in Highland Village. We caught up with Nelson to talk about the fickle nature of food trends and how cupcakes have a chance of staying on top in a world obsessed with the "next big thing."

Eating Our Words: You mentioned using the best-quality ingredients in your cupcakes, and on your website says that you are dedicated to sustainability. How do you go about maintaining those practices?

Candace Nelson: For one thing, we make sure that all of our leftovers do not go to waste. At all of our stores, the leftovers at the end of the day go to homeless shelters or food banks, and we use recycled materials in our store and certainly recycle whenever possible. Our architect is very focused on using recycled materials in our buildings, as well.

This week, we're doing a promotional cupcake for the Houston Foodbank, trying to support local charities whenever possible. Best ingredients means we use the finest ingredients possible. For the chocolate, we use Callebaut chocolate. We sell organic milk in the stores, but we're not using all organic ingredients, per se, in the cupcakes. When we go into a market, we try to source locally as much as possible, but obviously things like the Belgian chocolate need to come from Belgium.

EOW: I wanted to talk to you about the idea of cupcakes being "trendy," which I'm sure helped you in the beginning. But do you now worry that that popularity might go away and people might turn toward something else? What measures to do you take to prevent that?

CN: You know, for us, we look at other businesses as models, but the defining factor in these businesses that have been around for so long is that fads can come and go, but they focus on what they do and doing it really well. They focus on the customer and they focus on the product.

I can't say what's going to happen with the cupcake craze, but I do know that if we focus on what we do well, which is creating the best-tasting, freshest cupcake and providing the best service, that's what we can control in this whole little cupcake phenomenon, and just making our customers happy.

Now having said that, when we first opened, we had people saying, "This will be gone in no time," and then a year later, we heard the same thing. And for a while, everyone has been trying to crown the next big dessert. For a while it was macaroons, and then it was ice cream sandwiches, and now I think it is pie. But I'm not sure that we'll see anything that has the lasting power of the cupcake, because it's so intrinsic to our culture and it's something we all grew up with.

It is sort of the perfect treat in that it is portable; I mean think about the most beloved American food items, like the hamburger, the hot dog, something you can eat with your hands -- it's casual, it's perfect for any occasion, it's sort of just how Americans like to eat. And I think the cupcake fits into that category. So while I don't think cupcake bakeries will continue popping up at the same rate you see now, I do think that people who love cupcakes will always love cupcakes. They're just part of our culture, and as long as we're doing a good job, we'll always have our customers.

EOW: I think that's an excellent answer. Let's talk for a minute about Cupcake Wars on the Food Network. We see them come up with some really crazy cupcake flavors on that show. What's the strangest thing you have had to eat?

CN: Some of them are terrible, and we're pretty honest when we come across cupcakes that are really hard to get down. There was an oxtail cupcake the other week, and when it was being described, I was thinking "Oh Lord, I really have to eat that?!" And then everyone at the judges' table wished there were more for lunch. It was delicious.

EOW: What new things can we expect coming up from Sprinkles?

CN: We will be coming out with mini cupcakes, which is very exciting. They won't be available when you stop by the store, but by preorder. So if you're having a party you'll be able to pre-order them one flavor per dozen, which will be great. And actually, let me backtrack by saying that we'll be having a Mommy Happy Hour which is during the week. If you come by with your son or daughter -- actually we should call it the Mommy or Daddy Happy Hour -- and if you buy a cupcake before noon, you'll get a little mini cupcake for your child. So that's fun. That should be at the end of this month.

The best part about our chat with Candace Nelson? Eating the cupcakes. Check it out right here tomorrow.

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