An Embarrassment of Riches
Dear Seattle: Please Stop Opening Cupcake, Ice-Cream, Chocolate, and Candy Shops
"All our truffles have a different flavor because of where the cocoa beans come from," the woman standing behind Chocolopolis's table at the Seattle Chocolate Salon enthusiastically explained. "What do you taste in that one? It's from Colombia, which is a region obviously known for its coffee."
She watched as I put the small piece of Colombian chocolate truffle in my mouth. I told her it had a slight coffee flavor, and she smiled and nodded, satisfied that I could distinguish the difference. But I was lying. I couldn't taste the difference between that piece of chocolate and the piece of chocolate I ate just 20 seconds earlier, which apparently came from Ecuador and had tinges of grapes, blueberries, and orchids—whatever orchids taste like.
After 45 minutes at the Chocolate Salon, I had sampled dozens of varieties of chocolate from local companies like Chocolopolis, Theo, Oh! Chocolate, Intrigue, and Crave. By this point, nothing could wash away the thick coating on my tongue. Chocolate just tasted like more chocolate—not espresso, not cassis, not salt and/or pepper. Just chocolate. The Chocolate Salon didn't give me a new appreciation for all the chocolate companies that exist right here in the city limits. Instead I slumped away with the urge to vomit chocolate-vomit all over the sidewalk.
It was way too much of a good thing. And seeing it all there in one room, then putting it all into one ultimately pained stomach, I realized that right now, Seattle itself has become a perfect example of Too Much of a Good Thing.
Over the past six months, the city has seen more specialty sugar shacks pop up than you can shake a Pixy Stix at. For example: Despite an already crowded pool of cupcake options (do I even need to run down the list?), the Yellow Leaf Cupcake Company opened shop in Belltown in May. Curio Confections, a charming and creative candy store, and Fainting Goat, a family-run gelato shop, both opened in May (in the U-District and Wallingford, respectively), and we also recently got frozen custard, times two—Peaks in Ravenna and Old School on Capitol Hill. Two other ice-cream places less than a month old: Pretty Kitty Organic Ice Cream in the University District and Bluebird Homemade Ice Cream & Tea Room on Capitol Hill (both have beer flavors on the menu for the adult sweet tooth).
Sweets-slinging businesses that have been around for a year or more are flaunting their success by opening additional locations: Molly Moon's Homemade Ice Cream celebrated its first year of business recently with a new store on Capitol Hill, and Cupcake Royale opened (its fourth location!) one block away mere hours ago. In May, Wallingford's Trophy Cupcakes branched out to University Village. Full Tilt Ice Cream of White Center will have another shop as of later this month in Columbia City. Then, of course, there are all the chocolate companies. But I can't even think of the chocolates right now.
And now, terrifyingly, these places are joining forces. Last month, Cupcake Royale featured a cherry cupcake with Theo's cacao nibs sprinkled on top. Molly Moon's is currently offering a sundae made with a High 5 Cutie Pie, tasty fruit pies made here in Seattle by Dani Cone, owner of Fuel Coffee.
In March, Christine Haughney wrote in the New York Times: "The recession seems to have a sweet tooth. As unemployment has risen and 401(k)s have shrunk, Americans, particularly adults, have been consuming growing volumes of candy, from Mary Janes and Tootsie Rolls to Gummy Bears and cheap chocolates, say candy makers, store owners, and industry experts."
Everybody's blaming the economy. "You can't underestimate the feel-good factor of baked goods and sweets, and they are a far more accessible indulgence than, say, buying a new car or even a new pair of shoes," says Jessie Oleson, founder of Cakespy.com, a local blog dedicated to the latest baked goods and candy trends. "Also, you have to consider the effect of all of the recent layoffs in the city—you've got all of these people who have time to kill but not much money, so they will go to a bakery, and get a fairly inexpensive cupcake or pastry and coffee, and hang out and use the Wi-Fi. I was recently talking to a girl who had been laid off a few months ago, and when I asked what she'd been doing with her time, she said, 'I've been going to Molly Moon's a lot.'" When I interviewed Molly Moon recently about her expanding ice-cream empire, she said, to paraphrase: It's the economy, stupid.
Jody Hall, founder of Cupcake Royale (which started in Seattle in 2003), isn't worried about all the competition—she thinks there's room for everyone. "The fact that Seattleites have an increasingly diverse group of dessert spots to pick and choose from doesn't make me nervous," she said by e-mail. "In addition to being affordable, our cupcakes will always be delicious, all natural, and nostalgic, and that really resonates with the neighborhoods we're a part of. Five years of Seattle cupcake goodness is something I'm really proud of." And new kids on the block Yellow Leaf Cupcake Company are still going strong—they were selling out of cupcakes on a daily basis after opening in the spring, and business has hardly slowed down. They credit their Belltown location for their success.
Is this some conspiracy against the weak-willed sugar lovers in the city? Is this the natural waxing of yet another trend that—like dot-coms, like Starbucks, like beards (god willing)—will wane again?
Right now, while everything's new (and we all still fit into our jeans), we love it. But eventually, we're going to eat our last chocolate. Or cupcake. Or ice-cream cone. It will all start to taste the same, and eventually, we're going to want to barf. At what point will Seattle get a collective sour stomach and turn on all the treats?