When college-going Abeeha threw a retirement party for her father, she covered the table with cupcakes, each depicting an aspect of his career as a naval officer. On one the butter-cream icing created a naval officer’s badge while the fondant on another depicted a Pakistan Navy vessel. Her father was tickled pink and the guests fascinated.
Unlikely as it may sound, cupcakes are a new trend in Pakistan. Honing in on a niche market with a disposable income and a fervent desire to entertain with as much gusto as possible, young, home-based entrepreneurs are creating specialised flavourings, personalised decorative elements and thematic cupcake lines. These are the in thing with which to celebrate anniversaries and farewells, announce births and engagements, and use as gifts at baby showers and Eid. As the popular Facebook page of one cupcake-maker claims, ‘As long as you have a cupcake, it’s a celebration!’
The antecedence of this fad comes, naturally, from the home of consumption, the United States, and has trickled its way down to Pakistan. Whereas cakes can be shared by a large group of people and are more economical, cupcakes emphasise individuality and allow people to pick just the very confectionary item that their heart desires. In the West, even wedding cakes are being substituted with ‘pull apart cakes’ which basically comprise cupcakes that are decorated to look like one complete cake. Serving them is naturally easier since they are not required to be sliced.
In Pakistan, cupcake-makers tend to operate from home rather than from commercial outlets. For them, baking has been a hobby rather than a means of income. These small businesses have been given a phenomenal boost by Facebook, which has helped them reach their target market directly and generate explosive popularity: Cupcake(s) by Cookie has 4,552 fans on Facebook, Mavmade has 1,136. These emerging cupcake-makers use the social networking site to market their product by uploading photos online, booking orders and answering queries from potential buyers.
These young entrepreneurs are at the helm of the hottest trend in confectionary, a market more popular in this part of the world than anywhere else, but chances are that established bakers will soon catch up. Many commercial bakeries, seeing the growing popularity of cupcakes, have already started to stock up on them with simple variations in frosting. HobNob’s Nilofer Saeed claims that her bakery has been stocking cupcakes that have always been popular amongst a certain segment of society. Another well-established bakery, Pie in the Sky also stocks them. However, the cupcakes at these bakeries are common and cannot compare in taste, attention to detail and artistic flair to the gourmet cupcakes provided by specialists. Commercial bakeries will thus find it something of a challenge to provide competition for customers wishing to take the customised approach when it comes to giving cupcakes as presents or gifts.
But these independent cupcake makers have yet to make a dent in the confectionary business which is dominated by a handful of giants. The emphasis is still very much on the traditional chocolate cake. Shama Askari, who provides a variety of cakes to Espresso and various international franchises in Pakistan says, “My business has seen no change, maybe because I mainly deal with franchises. But even my individual orders remain as abundant as before.” Her assortment of baked goodies does not cater to a market demanding individual helpings. With regards to the cupcake trend, she says, “Fads come and go. I’ve been in this business for 17 years and specialised in what I do best. That’s what my clients know me for and I see no need to change my area of work.”
Nilofer Saeed foresees that the cupcake trend will soon be replaced by muffins. Zahra, a home-based cupcake maker, is of the opinion that while cupcakes are all the rage now, they will face a steady decline as well. The current popularity of her wares can be judged from the size of the orders that she gets on an almost daily basis which can range from about half a dozen to five dozen or so.
Cupcakes have not replaced cakes but have instead created their own niche. Personalised cupcake maker, Umamah Z Hanafi, feels that cupcakes don’t compete with other confectionary items. She finds that most of her orders happen to be for occasions like engagements or baby births and are therefore replacing the traditional mithai-giving culture. With Eid looming, she is flooded with orders from people who wish to give cupcakes to their acquaintances on Eid instead of mithai.
Whether one views them as yet another novel way to spend money and keep up with the Joneses, or as a distinct trend that will evolve over the years, for the moment, cupcakes have Pakistanis in the thrall of their Marie Antoinette-esque charms.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 12th, 2010.
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