DC: Sprinklegate Turns Food Truck War

DC's cupcake truck "Curbside Cupcakes"

By: Jana Erwin | WashingtonExaminer.com

DC's cupcake truck "Curbside Cupcakes"

Let’s go over the cupcake scene in DC again, shall we? It’s important to the story I’m about to tell you.

In the past four or five years, a half a dozen cupcakeries, spurred by the national trend of “reinvigorated” childhood desserts, have made their home in DC. These are stores that sell nothing but several flavors of cake, mixed-and-matched with buttercream, ganache, fillings, and fruit-based frostings. There may be the barest accompaniment: perhaps coffee, a handful of cookies in the case, or even a whoopee pie or three. But these stores are, make no mistake, cupcakeries. Their appeal, business model, and entire raison d’être is the cupcake. The most well-known ones are, in no order, Cakelove (U St and Silver Spring), Georgetown Cupcake (also host to a Food Network reality show), Hello Cupcake (Dupont Circle), Red Velvet (Verizon Center), and a roving Curbside Cupcakes truck.

Why so many cupcakeries? I don’t know. New York moved onto donuts years ago, and I’m told that frozen yogurt is the thing everywhere else in America. When will the macaron have its day? I’m just asking.

Anyway, in addition to the dedicated cupcake shops, there are also at least a dozen bakeries or coffeeshops that offer cupcakes in addition to the standard rotation of danishes, muffins, brioches, bagels, and bread and sandwiches. It’s gauche not to, at this point. Even Starbucks sells cupcakes. But unlike the restaurants listed above, the cupcake is one of a group of offerings, not the only reason for stepping into the store. (Or up to the window, in the case of Curbside.)

Enter Sprinkles. It’s another Georgetown competitor, opened last week, and one of the few that isn’t purely DC-based, but a national chain. In fact, LA’s Sprinkles was the original cupcake bakery from which all the others can attribute their success. Sprinkles made the cupcake hot.

In my last ‘SprinkleGate’ post, I noted that the Sprinkles mobile has been touring town, giving away a set number of free cupcakes in the hopes that addicted customers will flood their M Street location. I called it SprinkleGate because these babies went so fast that I had yet to see one. Ten minutes after @SprinklesMobile tweeted the location of the truck, all 250 cupcakes were gone. Even armed with running shoes and a Twitter alarm, I couldn’t get there fast enough. In my lowest, most disappointed and sugar-deprived moment, I doubted the real existence of any free cupcakes.

Tuesday the Sprinkles Mobile revisited Dupont again. This time, I’d been informed in advance. I was ready, stopwatch in hand, to get my cupcake and see just how fast 300 of them would go. I thought it would be chaotic, fun, and light-hearted. At best, I was hoping for a scuffle over the last sugarbomb. Instead, I witnessed a DC food truck war first-hand.

Who would try to lead an army against a free cupcake? Kevin Michael Lynch of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), that’s who.

Unlike last week where the cupcakes disappeared in breakneck time, this set lingered. (12:30 may be too early to catch the lunch scene in Dupont.) The extra time allowed the truck to attract the notice of the commercial residents of Connecticut Avenue. The cupcake truck was parked legally, meter fees paid, distributing free cupcakes, when Mr. Lynch, owner of the HRC store next to the Chipotle, decided he needed to hoist a flag for small business owners everywhere and protest the Sprinkles truck being parked within spitting distance of Larry’s Ice Cream shop. Larry’s Ice Cream is one of the shops I mentioned above which sells cupcakes in addition to its mainline product.

So, Mr. Lynch stood in line and told passers-by that Sprinkles was out of cupcakes. He was lying—the truck had only gone through about a third of its cupcakes, by my estimation, and this was evident. Cupcakes continued to go.

It must be true that every party does have a pooper. Even I, who has denounced the ubiquity of the DC cupcake, found myself irritated. Despite the obvious joy of unexpected free cupcakes and the occasional shriek of delight at the Ding-Dong-esque marshmallow-filled variety, Mr. Lynch continued to berate those who came up to the window, and claim that Sprinkles was taking unfair advantage. When questioned by this blogger, he said, “If you were a small business owner you would understand,” and gave me a less-than-respectful hand gesture. (For the record, I am indeed a small business owner.)

I’d like to be clear: the Sprinkles Mobile had made sure to park far away from Dupont’s Hello Cupcake, which is as mannerly as it gets in the marketplace when competition is, and has to be, fierce. The fact that Larry’s Ice Cream happened to offer cupcakes in addition to frozen treats probably went unnoticed by the one staffer in charge of parking, tweeting, setting up the truck and single-handedly managing 300 cupcakes and a rush of hungry Dupont eaters. Amazingly, despite Mr. Lynch’s puffing and blowing, not once did the Sprinkles staffer respond with anything but polite words and acknowledgments, even when he called her “nasty.”

In the end, Sprinkles gave away cupcakes by the dozen to anyone who would take them back to their offices, in order to avert further dramatics on the part of Mr. Lynch.

When asked why Sprinkles was packing up without giving away all of the cupcakes, the polite and honest response was, “I’m sorry but this gentleman is upset. Please take as many as you’d like.” One volunteer saw fit to carry a case of cupcakes down the sidewalk and give them out herself to make sure no one missed out.

Graceful as ever, Mr. Lynch claimed victoriously that he’s been “running them out” all week. (The Sprinkles Mobile been in the vicinity only once before, and for less than ten minutes.)

According to my stop watch, 27 minutes and 43 seconds went by between the sight of the first cupcake and the last one.

Tension between the food trucks and local neighbors is not new. According to the nearby Adams Morgan Partnership Business Improvement District, a non-governmental organization, food trucks should not be allowed to stay in one location for more than half an hour, so as not to threaten the lunch scene of the local neighborhood. The truck vendors might respond that they often run through their entire inventory in this time, as did Sprinkles. In addition, because the trucks are in a different spot every day, their overall impact on the business in any neighborhood at any given time is negligible. (This roving adds to the appeal for consumers: spontaneity and scarcity are at least half of what makes a food truck successful.)

Perhaps Mr. Lynch has only fired one volley in an ongoing conflict? We may be entering the Summer of the Food Truck, with more than twenty operating in downtown DC. Who should the eaters side with? Did 300 free cupcakes, given away in less than half an hour, really affect Larry’s Ice Cream’s bottom line?

It seems unlikely, especially as Sprinkle’s long-term location is in Georgetown. If anyone should be worried, it’s Georgetown Cupcake. The only thing you really need to know, patient reader, is that Sprinkles’ Chocolate Marshmallow cupcake is the best DC cupcake I have had to date.