From Longworth to Dirksen, Hill staffers can’t stop talking about cupcakes.
They critique them in elevators. They share recipes over Gchat. And they order them as gifts by the dozen.
Maureen Shanahan, communications director for Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), was out to lunch recently when a colleague emailed her to say a pink box from Georgetown Cupcake had arrived for her at their Rayburn office.
As the colleague put it: “If you don’t get back here soon, they may all be gone!”
Shanahan rushed back to Rayburn. There, a box of “carrot cakes” — her favorite — were waiting for her. It was a birthday gift from a special friend. And when Shanahan made it back, she shared them with colleagues and the Congressman.
“As an office, we all usually pitch in together to pick up cake or cookies,” Shanahan said. “Personally, I prefer the cupcakes.”
The box of cupcakes Shanahan got is a common scene on the Hill. Long gone are the days when a box of chocolates makes for a proper gift for that special someone. Teddy bears are boring and flowers are old-school.
Cupcakes are finding their way into the cloakrooms and inside closed hearings. They’re the “in” gift on the Hill, and the fascination over cupcakes has conquered the mindset of many aides who also walk through the hallways worrying about a government shutdown or the possibility of votes on a Friday.
Like Shanahan, Brian Weiss, spokesman for the Senate Intelligence Committee, says pink boxes from Georgetown Cupcake are an institution in his office. Meredith Griffanti, spokeswoman for Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.), says her crew opts for the selection at Buzz in Old Town Alexandria. Brad Goehner of the House Foreign Affairs Committee notes that his colleagues go for Sprinkles Cupcakes (also in Georgetown) or the ones fellow committee staffer Layla Calderon brings to work.
The list goes on. Staffers for Democratic Sens. Mary Landrieu (La.) and John Kerry (Mass.) are known to order cupcakes from a variety of places including Hello Cupcake. Employees at agencies are seen stopping at Baked & Wired or Crumbs Bake Shop before work. The Justice Department often orders from Red Velvet in Chinatown. Cupcakes are a favorite of first daughters Sasha and Malia Obama, who are big fans of Serendipity 3 on M Street in Georgetown.
“Although we prefer the cupcake bakeries in our home district of Orange County, our office has many times ordered from Georgetown Cupcake for birthday and other office celebrations. We think they’re the best in the city,” said Adrienne Watson, a spokeswoman for Sanchez.
Cupcakes are the darling of Beltway insiders and outsiders alike, as they grab one with their gourmet cappuccino on the way to work. Others have dozens delivered to their private functions. Seamlessly, cupcake pyramids have replaced cheese and fondue centerpieces at receptions, where such a foreign sight might now send staffers running to the comfort of a cafeteria.
“We love cupcakes because we all love cake. Cupcakes give us many more flavor options and come in a more manageable size than cake, which makes them so appealing,” said Aaron Gordon, owner of Red Velvet in Chinatown. “I think cupcakes will continue to flourish because Americans’ taste for cake is not going anywhere. Are pancakes a trend? Is pizza a trend?”
Georgetown’s cupcake corridor boasts four shops. However, by now most District neighborhoods feature at least one. The market demand is prompting local cupcake impresarios to prepare for more competition.
Still, cupcakes seem to be retaining their popularity because, unlike other traditional gifts and souvenirs, they are each made by hand, that day, for the customer.
“We are no longer at a point where many customers are asking, ‘Why a shop with only cupcakes?’ People get it. Bakeries are interacting more with customers ... and I think the competition is going to be greater,” says Rachel Kramer Bussel, co-editor of “Cupcakes Take the Cake.”
The popularity of cupcakes in D.C. also was propelled by television shows, such as the Food Network’s “Cupcake Wars” and TLC’s “DC Cupcakes,” which features the crew at Georgetown Cupcake. With the show’s success, Georgetown Cupcake turned into a must-see destination almost as sought out (and busy) as the monuments and museums in town. As Sophie LaMontagne, the shop’s co-owner, puts it: “They visit the monuments, they visit the White House and they visit Georgetown Cupcake.”
Maclean Forquer, whose daughter raves about Georgetown Cupcake, traveled to the shop from western Maryland for the first time on a recent Sunday morning. “My daughter wanted some ‘TV cupcakes,’ so here I am,” she said.
Some locals are finding cupcakes even more enjoyable after dark. Filled with booze, “crunkcakes” are making their way onto some of the hipper scenes. While they are mostly featured at private parties, two spots on the H Street corridor, the Pug and Rock N Roll Hotel, serve them at the bar.
Most cupcake shops will provide nutrition facts upon request. While the price of a cupcake is often ostensibly high, some patrons negotiate with their conscience and indulge.
And in a town known for its souvenirs, cupcakes clicked with tourists since they’re basically edible trinkets.
“There’s something more personal about a cupcake, too, versus a cake. The way it’s decorated and frosted in its individual nature, it speaks to you,” LaMontagne said. “If you give someone gift-wrapped red velvet, it sends a message.”
Roll Call has launched a new feature, Hill Navigator, to advise congressional staffers and would-be staffers on how to manage workplace issues on Capitol Hill. Please send us your questions anything from office etiquette, to handling awkward moments, to what happens when the work life gets too personal. Submissions will be treated anonymously.