Jody Hall Brings Cupcakes to the Masses
Let’s travel back to the dark days of 2003, when Seattleites wandered the streets, searching in vain for that most precious of commodities: the cupcake. Oh, there were spongy toadstools in grocery store bakeries and shrink-wrapped gut bombs from Hostess, but weary souls looking for scratch-made bundles of buttercream--frosted heaven were basically SOL. Enter Jody Hall. After watching the success of New York’s Magnolia Bakery, she marched into Madrona that December, opened the first Cupcake Royale, and saved Seattle from its single-serving-cake drought. The people did rejoice, spreading wide their arms—and mouths—to welcome six more locations in the decade since. And they ate cake. Lots and lots of cake.
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Our first year, the food writer for the P-I wrote this huge piece about us and cupcakes right before Valentine’s Day. And our business went from 100 cupcakes a day to a thousand. Madrona’s an awesome neighborhood, but nobody goes to Madrona unless they live there. People were coming from Vancouver, Washington; from Spokane. They were coming from all over.
In the beginning it took us almost two minutes to frost each cupcake. I didn’t want to pipe on frosting like they do in grocery stores; I wanted to hand frost them with a wooden spatula. But we just couldn’t frost them fast enough. Then one night it’s seven o’clock and we’re exhausted, covered in buttercream, and there’s a knock on the door. This girl walks in and says, “Hi, are you guys hiring?” We might be. What’s your story? “Well, I just moved here from Manhattan, and I used to frost cupcakes for Magnolia Bakery.” I was like, “Get in here and frost this cupcake.” She took a nice dollop of the pink vanilla buttercream frosting, and pat-pat-pat, it was the most beautiful cupcake ever. And it took six seconds. She started the next morning, and today that’s our signature swirl.
The recipe is nothing. I could give it to you, and I can guarantee that you couldn’t make our cupcakes because you’d need the methodology. For example, once you add the flour to the batter, you can’t overmix it or the glutens start to get strong and make a really chewy, cornmeal-style cake. Everybody who starts baking cake at home from scratch can relate to that.
We made over a hundred recipes of each flavor to land where we are today. Oh my god, we have lab books full of this stuff. We would take photographs. And we would weigh them. And we would look at the color. We would taste it every six hours or something and evaluate flavor properties, mouthfeel, crumb, how tight the crumb is, how loose the crumb is.
If you break cakes apart, they have very different crumbs. Do they hold together? How fine or coarse is the crumb throughout the cake? You look at the chocolate cupcake’s crumb, and it’s pretty coarse. You can break it apart. So there’s a lot of texture, right? And then the crumb of vanilla is a lot finer. You break it apart, and it’s a lot more dense cake than chocolate. It took us two or three months to do about a hundred recipes for each flavor—and that was just vanilla and chocolate.
The third time Cupcake Wars asked us to come on, we finally said yes. And no, we didn’t win. On one hand, reality shows like that are great because they help people appreciate really well-prepared meals with ingredients that are sourced sustainably. On the other, it’s completely unrealistic, and it almost makes buffoonery of really smart, well-trained pastry chefs.
I appreciate the real price of food. We could get strawberries from Chile, which will taste okay, and they’ll cost a fifth of the price of what we would pay to get strawberries from the Skagit Valley. But these are real people in our community doing amazing work. And the real price of those strawberries is a lot more than a dollar a pound. It’s more like five dollars a pound.
My mom and grandmother, we did a lot of baking together. When I was in seventh grade, my dad’s company had this contest, and I entered a cheesecake and won. It was really just a recipe from a Betty Crocker cookbook that I tweaked a little.
Oh, I’m approached constantly to franchise. I even talked with Howard Schultz about carrying our cupcakes at Starbucks. It was an interesting conversation. My employees were like, “Jody, don’t do it! Don’t sell out.” I’m like, “You guys, I’m going to meet with one of the best entrepreneurs of our time. Are you kidding? That’s a great opportunity.” It didn’t work out, but here’s the funny part. Never, ever do I do this, but I was running late for the meeting, so I had someone run across the street to this little sneaker store in Ballard and grab me a sweet pair of sneakers that I could wear so I wouldn’t be too dressed up. I literally walked downstairs with my new sneaks on, got in the car, drove to Starbucks, walked across the parking lot to Howard’s office, and by the time I got back home to Ballard—after maybe walking 500 steps in these sneakers—I had blisters. I called them my stigmata.
I’ve never felt like my sexuality is something that I need to share with other people. But it’s good for people to know that this innocent, nostalgic, American product is made by a lesbian business owner. Because it’s okay. We’re just like everybody else.
We all love indulgences. It’s just part of our existence.
This article originally appeared in the December 2013 issue of Seattle Met under the title "The Frostitute."