Some staffers bring cupcakes into the office for their co-workers’ birthdays. Others because they’re gunning for a promotion.
But on Thursday, 14 staffers will bring cupcakes to the Hill for the Congressional Cupcake War, a showdown much like the Food Network show of the same name, judged by the same cupcake judge, Sprinkles Cupcakes bakery owner Candace Nelson.
Sprinkles is considered by many the original cupcakery, and when Nelson opened up her first shop in Los Angeles in 2005, cupcakes hadn’t yet taken over the world. Her franchise has since grown to 11 shops across the U.S., the most recent opening in March in Georgetown.
The Congressional Cupcake War is part publicity for her new location, part competition for charity, but mostly just fun.
“We thought, why don’t we just marry all those elements — fun with cupcakes, the charitable aspect and the fact that I’m a judge [on Cupcake Wars] — and bring that to a local level,” she said.
The competition will involve timed frosting and decorating challenges, a trivia portion and, of course, a tasting and decorating critique. Judges include Nelson, a representative from food and culture website Metrocurean, food writer Amanda McClements and Politico reporter Patrick Gavin.
The winner will have $10,000 donated in his name to Fisher House, a home where military families can stay while their loved ones receive medical treatment.
As only two of the judges have a specific background in food, contestants will have to work hard to deliver the whole package — an enticing cupcake that’s appealing to foodies and hacks alike.
Gavin believes his lack of cupcake mania might make him a more discerning judge.
“I am very skeptical and leery and weary of the cupcake craze. I don’t entirely understand it,” he said. “If everyone’s just absolutely beside themselves with cupcakes, maybe I’ll bring them down to earth.”
If Gavin is the judge to impress with taste, Nelson is the judge to appeal to emotionally. Having judged cupcakes that run the gamut from sweet to savory, she said she appreciates a cupcake with passion.
“It’s great when cupcakes have some sort of personal story because to me that’s what baking is all about: It’s sort of giving of yourself,” she said.
And a personal story is part of the reason Anna Vetter and Alicia McAfee, staffers in the office of Rep. Timothy Johnson (R-Ill.), decided to get involved in the Cupcake War.
McAfee’s husband is in the National Guard, so if they win, the donation would support a cause close to her heart.
“Obviously we’re very supportive of the troops, and we want to give something back,” Vetter said.
She added that McAfee recently got married and, “in newlywed style,” is always baking for her husband.
Other staffers are involved in the competition because of a serious love of cupcakes. Jodi Richardson, scheduler for Rep. Todd Young (R-Ind.), loves them so much she used to work in a bakery in Indianapolis.
“Its hard to eat a cupcake and not be happy,” she said, adding that baking and eating the treats always reminded her of family birthday parties.
Her partner, Lexie Hosier, a staffer in the office of Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), said that she always baked cupcakes for friends in Indiana and that making them here has helped her settle in to D.C. life.
“[Cupcakes] are always something I’ve made for offices I’ve worked in as a thank you,” she said. “For me, it’s kind of a touch of home.”
Richardson and Hosier said they were planning to practice for the competition all this week.
“We’re still in the test-kitchen period,” Richardson said. “This next week will be full of butter and flour and sugar.”
All that practicing is likely to please their co-workers, as they plan to bring in batches of baked goods to their offices.
“My chief of staff already said that I can only do this competition if I bring cupcakes into the office,” Hosier said. “The staff will be on a sugar high!”
While Richardson and Hosier plan to work hard to craft the perfect cupcake, James McKitrick and his partner Caroline Ingram, interns in the office of Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.), are hoping to wow the judges with their thematic adherence to their team name.
“We’re Team Debt-Busting Cupcake,” McKitrick said. “It’s an issue that the Congressman cares deeply about. In the spirit of our team name we will pay for our materials upfront with cash and not with credit, so our future generations can enjoy cupcakes debt-free.”
McKitrick’s team application was also patriotic, submitting a cupcake-themed retooling of the national anthem.
Its name: “A Star-Sprinkled Banner.”