I called Two Little Red Hens, my go-to bakery, to order four or five dozen mini-cupcakes for a holiday party I was giving on December 18. After waiting on hold for some time I was told I’d missed the deadline for holiday orders. “Can’t you make an exception I pleaded?” “No, I’m sorry, the deadline for holiday orders has passed.” Determined, I asked to speak with a manager. The woman on the other end of the phone told me she was the manager, and, had been working at the bakery for about eight years. When I asked her what she suggested I do for the cupcakes, which would be the only desert for my party, she told me, rather unapologetically, “try somewhere else.”
Turning customers away was an unusual response I thought, but, one that reflects the bakery’s popularity, authenticity and confidence in a superior product. As much of the retail industry was trying to lure customers this holiday season with more and more promotions and slashed prices this little bakery was happy to send a customer somewhere else.
Two Little Red Hens is a teeny, brick-walled, country looking, “American Bakery” located smack in the middle of the Second Avenue Subway construction zone tucked between Schaller & Weber, a German butcher, and Heidelberg Restaurant, both vestiges of Yorkville’s roots as a German neighborhood. The bakery – it has a few small café tables, but to call it a café is a stretch, is not easy to find if you don’t know where it is. But, Upper East Siders – even those who live dozens of blocks away, as well as New Yorkers from outside the neighborhood do find it, as do lots of tourists. The line in the tiny store often snakes outside on Friday and Saturday, the store’s busiest days.
This bakery is consistently rated highly for its cheesecake — Number 1 Cheesecake in New York by The Daily News – and for its cupcakes, especially the “Brooklyn Blackout” – rated number-one by the Village Voice and by scores of food oriented website, blogs, travel sites, social and traditional media including New York Magazine and The New York Times. It ranks ahead of Magnolia Bakery — the bakery that made cupcakes a trendsetting treat after Carrie gobbled one up while telling Miranda about a “Sex and the City” crush. Since then, cupcakes have become an acceptable self-indulgence as Magnolia Bakery has opened multiple branches in iconic New York locations including Bloomingdales, Rockefeller Center and Grand Central Station.
A manager at Two Little Red Hens told me customers come for cupcakes and the cheesecake – also sold by the slice. A group of Japanese tourists who spoke no English waited on line for 20 minutes the day after Christmas armed with a travel guide featuring a photo of a slice Cherry Cheese Cake and a description in Japanese characters. When the group got to the front of the line a counter person tried to explain that there was no cheesecake that day because of the holiday. The group, while disappointed, made do with cupcakes.
All baking at Two Little Red Hens is done on the premises. A counter at the rear of the store displays gorgeous cakes, each a little art piece, organized on horizontal shelves in several sizes and flavors. Cupcakes — regular sized ($4.00 really large enough to share– and mini ($1.75 bigger than bite sized) are on the top of the counter. Besides the famed Brooklyn Blackout, rich chocolate cake with a center of chocolate cream and chocolate frosting, there are Red Velvet, Carrot, Marble, Yellow, Chocolate, Peanut Butter and seasonal specials like Pumpkin and Lemon Gingerbread. There are also “chilled ‘n filled” cupcakes — Coconut Cream, Key Lime and Boston Cream. What the bakery lacks in size it makes up for in variety.
Cupcakes are baked and replenished more than once a day. As trays empty, new ones emerge to customers’ delight who have been waiting for their favorite flavor and watching while on-line to see if there are any left. I was one of those customers who, after a conversation with a more helpful staff member, decided to purchase 54 mini-cupcakes the day before my party without placing an order. Customers who do succeed in placing orders – cakes can be customized for birthdays, weddings and other special occasions — proceed to the head of the line for pickup.
I waited on line for nearly an hour as customers ahead of me selected single or multiple cupcakes, cakes, cheesecake, pies, or a slice of pie or cheesecake, a coffee, a hot chocolate or a cookie. Not one of the people waiting on this line seemed disturbed, unnerved or cranky on this slushy, snowy, cold early winter Saturday afternoon. This was a patient queue. Young families, couples, singles, all waiting for something they wanted. And that is the key.
What these customers want and get at Two Little Red Hens is an authentic, consistently high-quality food experience. A treat for the self that is not expensive. One that is unique, pleasurable and fun. Calories don’t count here and neither does price. What counts is the joy of the experience whether shared with friends, family or alone. A family of five or six adults gathered around the store’s two tiny tables to celebrate a two-year-old’s birthday with a just purchased mini Lemon Gingerbread cake covered with added sprinkles. A man and woman from separate neighborhoods met mid-afternoon; he chose Carrot, she Brooklyn Blackout – it was her birthday. A woman on her own treated herself to a Red Velvet. A couple stood in line for coffee to go and a pair of mini-cupcakes, an earned break in a hectic day. When I asked customers what flavors they chose they responded eagerly, delighted to share their experience.
In our ever turned-on, ever-connected world, people want to treat themselves well — if they can. And, those who can, do. The product here is superior, unique, well designed, well executed and indulgent. And it is worth waiting for. Can you honestly say that about your product or your store?