Beyond its appearance in Sex and the City, this cupcake makes you smile

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By Joseph L. Garcia, Reporter

THIS WAS supposed to be a piece telling you how Magnolia Bakery is something to line up for so you can take a photo of yourself holding the same cupcake that Carrie Bradshaw bought in Sex and The City, Season 3, Episode 5 (“No Ifs, Ands, Or Butts”). The show’s lead, played by Sarah Jessica Parker, up to now an icon of feminine fashion, ate a vanilla cupcake with a pink buttercream swirl and a small sugar daisy. This was going to join all the other pieces extolling the influence of Sex and The City on pop culture, lost in the swirl of the internet.

But in the end, the cupcake won over the HBO show.

When this writer stepped into the BGC branch of Magnolia Bakery — called M Bakery in the Philippines to avoid confusion with a much larger Magnolia — I was handed a chocolate and buttercream cupcake, and I can write words and words about how good it tasted, how one can almost picture the chocolate melting when it went into the batter, the taste of real buttercream, so rare these days — but really, all it takes to know how good something is if it gives you a smile. My smile stretched further with a taste of the blueberry jamboree, with a cream cheese topping and a dollop of fresh blueberry topping. I had a bite of the cranberry-chocolate cookie, as large as my hand, and my eyes lit up.

If you line up at M Bakery when it opens on Aug. 22, I can assure you, as a person whose palate has been beaten up by several cupcake flavors from other outlets, you will leave with a smile.

Magnolia Bakery opened in 1996, and because of its product placements on TV shows like Sex and The City and Saturday Night Live, has earned its place in pop culture, and even kicked off a cupcake craze. Its name continues to be dropped in movies such as The Devil Wears Prada, which came out in the 2006, well beyond the date of the Sex and The City episode where the cupcakes were introduced in 2000.

While the bakery was founded by Jennifer Appel and Allysa Torey, Ms. Appel broke off the partnership in 1999, and opened her own bakery. In 2006, Ms. Torey sold Magnolia Bakery to Steve Abrams, who still sits as CEO to this day. It was Mr. Abrams who kicked off the expansion plans of the bakery: Erick Larios, Director of Franchise Operations of Magnolia Bakery, counts nine locations in the US and 18 around the world, in locales as diverse as Dubai to Tokyo.

In the Philippines, the franchise is held by Phil Jacobe Ventures, Inc. Its managing partner is Stewart Lee Ong, whose other holdings include the LCG Group of Companies, which distributes cars and pharmaceutical goods. He told BusinessWorld that he’s been eating its goodies for about five years now, after first tasting the brand’s banana pudding in New York. Since then, whenever he travels to a locale that has a Magnolia Bakery in it, he makes sure to have a bite. The process of obtaining the franchise for the country took about three years, he said. In preparation for the bakery’s debut here, Mr. Larios said that Mr. Ong was trained for four weeks, the Philippine staff trained for six weeks, and the US people came to the Philippines for four to six weeks to train everyone again. The cupcake swirl, after all, takes about 40 hours for someone to learn, according to Mr. Larios. The long weeks spent in training is also accounted by the fact that everything is made in-house: no commissaries, no prepackaged mixes.

“Baking things on premise: I think that’s something that’s essential,” said Mr. Larios. “I’m so confident in saying that the majority of our competitors are not following the same best practices that we do.”

Take away the fluff, take away the product placements, take away the association with everything good that ever came from New York: is this cupcake good? Mr. Larios said, “Yes! And I’m going to tell you why it’s a ‘yes’ with an exclamation point. The placements didn’t happen because we seek them. We are that popular. We were that sought-after that we were placed.”

The world has changed since the company opened in the late 1990s. Diets came and went, and political and economic instability rocks the news every few weeks or so. But the cupcake, despite being declared dead, keeps coming back like a fairy you need to see from a story. Mr. Larios said, “I think it’s a combination of nostalgia, and we’re an indulgence. If anybody tells me they’re on a diet, the first place I send them to is not our place. When you have a cheat day, come and see us.”

“Everybody has different life events that they want to celebrate. We want to be the ones to help them celebrate that.”