What’s On My Plate: Philly Cupcake

Executive Director of PhillyGayCalendar

When is a cupcake not just a sweet treat?

When it’s also a community revitalization project.

Perhaps that’s a pretty grand ambition to hang on a small boutique at the corner of 12th and Chestnut. But believe it or not, that’s part of the overall vision and business plan for the owners of Philly Cupcake, and it appears to be working. “Other business owners around us have told us that they have seen more traffic [in their stores] since we opened,” says co-owner Michael Lewis.

The cupcake bakery made a splash from the day it opened last fall, transforming a nondescript hole-in-the-wall bakery into an explosion of pink and French Provincial. The vintage chandeliers and lamps, overstuffed couch, and rococo display cabinet – “1970s Victoria’s Secret,” Lewis said – all convey a high-camp, cheap-chic message that attracts passersby as much as the fashions worn by the store’s “mascot,” Isabella Cupcake.

Once they walk in, those passersby find serious – and seriously delicious – cupcakes, all baked on the premises. Tastykakes these ain’t: these cupcakes are pint-sized works of art, made with high-quality ingredients and decorated with flair. Like the gelato at nearby Capogiro, Philly Cupcake’s cupcakes are artisanal desserts that command a premium price – but at $3 for most varieties, they’re a luxury you can afford.

Co-owners Lewis and Johnny Columbo – partners in life as well as business – put as much care and thought into the business as they do their cupcakes. For Columbo, Philly Cupcake is a chance to apply the retail savvy he has acquired as the owner of Forbidden Planett, a vintage women’s clothing boutique in Old City, to specialty foods; for Lewis, it was a chance for him to take off in a new direction at midlife after years spent in advocacy work.

For both of them, it was a chance to turn a personal passion into a paying proposition. “Both of us are lifelong bakers,” Lewis said. “Cooking is a big part of our life – our families share recipes all the time, and we’re constantly making baked goods for friends and relatives.”

So the “professional home bakers” decided to turn their avocation into a vocation, capitalize on a trend, and make Chestnut Street – the Gayborhood’s northern border – just a little more gay. “We wanted to upgrade Chestnut Street and give Philly its first cupcake boutique,” said Columbo. “Of course, it took two gay men to pull all this off with style.”

But why cupcakes? And why have they become such a hot trend? Lewis says it’s the nostalgia factor. “They bring back memories of childhood, kids coming home from school to treats from Mom.” Yet he adds that they’re perfect treats for today as well: “You can eat them in one sitting and not feel bloated afterwards.”

The pair, aided in the execution by baker Danielle Ramirez-Jefferson, constantly experiment with new flavors and ingredients; the mix of varieties changes constantly, with more exotic varieties rotating alongside traditional favorites like chocolate and lemon.

So far, everything has gone according to plan. “We’ve sold out almost every day since we opened,” said Columbo, “and we want to thank the good Philadelphians for that.” The store has attracted a diverse customer base, and it’s not unusual for first-time visitors to do a double-take when they see the price tag, then buy one and discover that it’s worth every penny. Their success comes from a very simple formula: A delicious product presented with style and delivered with attentive customer service.

As befits a business with an activist partner, Philly Cupcake intends to do good and do well at the same time. “We will be looking for ways we can participate in events that serve the LGBT community, but not only the LGBT community; we want to partner with all the communities we serve, because Philadelphia is incredibly diverse,” Lewis said.

And don’t be surprised if within a year or two, a pretty pink Philly Cupcake boutique opens in your neighborhood. Lewis said that they are on a growth trajectory for the next two years and are looking for places to open additional stores. “We’ve already had offers to franchise the business,” he added.

Philly Cupcake is located at the southeast corner of 12th and Chestnut streets. They also cater weddings, parties, meetings and other events. Call 215-625-4888 or visit www.phillycupcake.com for more information.

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