One or two days a week, a little before noon, a crowd of people begins to line up in downtown Oakland, right off Broadway near City Hall. It’s unclear what they’re waiting for though, because there’s nothing there. Shortly, a big white truck painted with colorful polka dots rounds the corner. Stenciled on the side of the truck, it says “Cupkates—a mobile cupcakery.”
Cupcakes are the only item on the menu at Cupkates, but there are plenty of flavors to pick from—red velvet, s’mores, strawberry swirl, salted caramel, lemon raspberry, double vanilla, double chocolate and even Twinkie, which is made from vanilla bean cake filled with marshmallow cream and topped with toasted marshmallow frosting and coconut. All of the cupcakes are sticky and moist and come with a big swirl of airy frosting. Some have different flourishes — for instance the salted caramel cupcake is topped with delicate sea salt crystals and the lemon raspberry cupcake is made with Meyer lemon marmalade.
The owner of Cupkates, Kate McEachern, a petite woman with a broad smile, admits that it’s daunting to “parallel park this big truck with 50 people staring at me.” But her customers know that her cupcakes tend to sell out quickly and to guarantee they get a cupcake they’d better be on time. These loyal customers find out exactly when and where McEachern is going to be by checking her pages on different social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook. In addition to downtown Oakland, she also parks in Emeryville and Berkeley.
One woman, Laura Horn, who is patiently waiting in line, says, “If you get up there and they’re sold out, it’s disappointing.” She actually put in her order the night before, which people can do online, for the two-dozen cupcakes she was bringing back to her office. “I’ve been a fan forever,” she says. “They’re too hard to resist.”
McEachern debuted her Cupkates truck on September 1, 2009. “We originally wanted to open a brick and mortar store,” says McEachern, who conjured up the business plan with her husband, Casey McEachern, who also helps out in the truck. “We put together a meticulous budget and saw it was just so difficult to turn a profit, it wasn’t feasible for us.” So they decided to go mobile, joining the growing phenomenon of gourmet food trucks in the East Bay. Then, using social media, she got out the word. Now, almost a year later, she loads hundreds of cupcakes onto the truck each day, which go for $2.50 to $3 a pop.
Formerly an editor at Dwell magazine, McEachern, who is an Oakland resident, wasn’t always a baker. “I always baked as a hobby,” she says, “but never professionally.” It was a tough transition from baking for friends to making hundreds of cupcakes a day. She says that in the beginning, “I would be in the kitchen at 3 am sobbing.” But, after going through a lot of trial and error, she says she now “has it down to a science.”
There’s a certain novelty to buying cupcakes from a truck that momentarily appears and then is gone again. As the line moves along, people take photos and pose in front of the truck. McEachern bends through the window and exchanges cupcakes for cash.
Since hitting the scene, she has had a fairly regular route that may be altered by customer requests via Twitter and Facebook. “We go where the fans are,” McEachern says. Fans also have a say in what kind of cupcakes McEachern bakes up. “We started with a set menu I liked and I had been testing for a long time,” says McEachern, but to mix it up, she asked her customers to submit new flavor ideas. “We opened the floodgates,” she says. After dozens of submissions, voters chose one winning flavor—salted caramel. “It’s very democratic,” she says.
All of McEachern cupcakes have four basic ingredients—butter, sugar, eggs and flour. She says she tries to make sure all of her ingredients are natural and locally sourced so that she can also promote other small businesses. For example, all of the dairy products she uses are from Clover Farms in Sonoma County, the vanilla is Madagascar Bourbon vanilla from Santa Cruz and the chocolate is Guittard chocolate from Burlingame.