Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2008 | 2 a.m.
There’s always been an underground economy in Las Vegas. Since the town began, businesspeople with varying degrees of legitimacy have gifted and bribed one another with women, booze, money and fancy casino digs.
Beyond the Sun
Now there’s a new and even more insidious bit of baksheesh going around.
If you need a favor in this town, you’d better show up with a dozen cupcakes.
“People tell me they’re the best bribery in the world,” says Pamela Jenkins, the 27-year-old founder of the Cupcakery, a Henderson boutique bakery that supplies fresh-baked bribes and frosted kickbacks to celebrities, judges, pharmaceutical reps, and you and me.
“We’ve got attorneys that send them to all the judges. And the pharmaceutical reps come in and tell us we’ve created monsters out of these medical receptionists and doctors. They’re like, ‘We’re not giving out your samples of Zoloft unless you bring us some cupcakes.’ We even get requests to draw purple pills on top of the cupcakes.”
The Cupcakery opened 2 1/2 years ago and created a niche market for its luxury product. Today Jenkins sells more than 2,000 per day out of a tiny Henderson storefront next door to a sports nutrition shop. There’s also a Summerlin store, and last month the Cupcakery opened its third location, outside Dallas. Business has been so good that a batch of cupcake competitors — Retro Bakery, Mad Hatter Bakery and Cupcake Lane — have appeared on the scene, hoping for a piece of the pie.
Jenkins’ cupcake customers have included Britney Spears, Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz (he loves the red velvet cupcake, the shop’s biggest-selling item), Fergie, Quentin Tarantino, rocker Vince Neil, NBA All-Star Chris Webber and Palms co-owner George Maloof, one of her biggest customers.
And noncelebrity patrons have come to accept paying $3.75 apiece and $30 a dozen for the upscale indulgences. In the first year of business, the Cupcakery sold more than 275,000 cupcakes. Office workers across the Las Vegas Valley quickly learned to recognize the box with the iconic pink and brown packaging — the Tiffany box of cupcakes.
“When we first opened, we had a little bit of sticker shock at the price,” Jenkins admits in the Cupcakery’s microscopic kitchen.
Jenkins and her crew bring more than a little Vegas flash and decadence to the innocent little cupcake. The cake flavors, which change with seasons, include Key lime, Bailey’s Irish Cream, pina colada and red velvet, far and away the store’s best-selling item. During her pregnancy, Jenkins was craving Rolo candies, so she created a caramel-filled chocolate cupcake.
And then there’s the inch-thick frosting, made with cream cheese, butter and “all the full-on fattening stuff,” Jenkins says. She makes no effort to accommodate the low-cal client.
But it’s the sensational presentation — sheer showbiz in frosting, neon hues bedazzled with iridescent edible glitter — that makes the Cupcakery such a representatively Vegas phenomenon.
“We do a lot of Elvis cupcakes. And Bob Marley is real popular. We’ve got a big stoner clientele,” Jenkins says. “And people love glitter in Vegas. They’ll say, ‘The more glitter you can put on ’em the better. We want ’em extra sparkly!’ ”
And then there’s perhaps the most Vegas aspect of the cupcake trade: Jenkins has a booming sideline in custom-made erotic cupcakes. The naughty nibbles fetch a premium price: $50 a dozen.
“People will send photographs and say, ‘Can you make it look just like this?’ ” Jenkins says of the custom-cake customers. “One of the nastiest ones we ever did was for (former boy band star) Joey Fatone, I think it was for his bachelor party, and they wanted female body parts, and it was just nasty.”
Jenkins breaks out a binder with samples of X-rated cupcakes; there’s a parental advisory on the cover. The cake artists don’t mind these special assignments, Jenkins says. “They have the best time. It’s pure comedy and enjoyment for them.”
The Cupcakery gets lots of casino business, and the hotel concierges have the bakery on speed dial for special-order late-night deliveries. They’ve done birthday parties for Celine Dion and Toni Braxton. Bette Midler sent them as thank-you gifts to her crew and dancers, with her autograph on them. “And Vince Neil and his wife are our total rock star clients,” Jenkins says. “She would buy them — $30 a dozen cupcakes — for their dogs!”
After moving to Las Vegas from New York five years ago, Jenkins noticed something missing in the market — something homemade.
After reading about a San Francisco woman who baked cupcakes at home and delivered them across the city, Jenkins recognized her life’s calling, and began assembling the ingredients for her startup business while working as an executive assistant to then-Golden Nugget co-owners Tim Poster and Tom Breitling.
She turned the casino’s corporate offices into her personal testing ground — not that anyone complained.
“Our poor bosses didn’t have a clue what was going on,” Jenkins says. “They just thought we were nice employees bringing baked goods to the office.”
“We really miss working with her,” Poster says, laughing. “Every day it was something different. But all of us gained at least 5 or 10 pounds.”
It turns out Jenkins’ blood was made of icing.
“We’re from the South, and everybody in the South bakes from scratch,” says Jenkins’ mother, Vivian, who moved from Texas to help her daughter with the business. “You would never have bought a cake mix, and you certainly couldn’t show up at someone’s house with something store-bought.”
However outlandish and outre they become, cupcakes will never lose their association with childhood memories, Jenkins says, and that can’t be bad for business.
“Cupcakes take people back,” she says. “And they’re not intimidating, either. You see a lot of trendy specialty foods come along, and they’re too fancy for just anybody. But nobody’s gonna be scared of a cupcake.”