Las Vegas Sun

June 17, 2019

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Bakers count their success in cupcakes

Retro Bakery translates taste of sundaes, pies, Kool-Aid and even bacon into cupcakes

Retro Bakery

The slow economy hasn’t taken a bite out of the baking business — Retro Bakery in northwest Las Vegas serves up some 300 cupcakes a day on weekdays and as many as 500 per day on weekends, say the owners, professional bakers Brian and Kari Haskell.

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The country's obsession with cupcakes has translated into chocolatey success at Retro Bakery in northwest Las Vegas.

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Professional bakers Kari and Brian Haskell concoct many colorful cupcake creations at Retro Bakery, their business in northwest Las Vegas.

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Buttercream frosting is a mainstay at Retro Bakery in northwest Las Vegas, say the owners, professional bakers Kari and Brian Haskell.

Beyond the Sun

It’s been about a year and a half since Retro Bakery first opened its doors on Feb. 10, 2008, in northwest Las Vegas.

But the time can be measured in cupcakes – around 200-300 sold on weekdays, with sometimes more than 500 flying out the door on weekends. Sundays, closed. That’s six days a weeks for 72 weeks – give or take a day off for a baking-free vacation – or about 135,000 of the shop’s perfectly manicured, butter cream-crowned cupcakes.

Say it once: One hundred thirty-five thousand cupcakes.

Retro Bakery is brain child of Kari and Brian Haskell, who turned professional bakers last year when they opened the petite, pleasantly-mod shop in a strip mall just off Route 95.

Today, the business seems a natural fit for the pair. They share duties easily with Brian focusing on the business end and steering their move into more custom cakes and Kari providing the creative juice to keep the counter stocked with fanciful flavors like peanut butter cup and cinnamon toast.

However, when the Haskells first met, preciously presented miniature cakes couldn’t have been farther from their minds.

Both servers at a California Red Robin, Brian and Kari dated, eventually getting married and moving to Las Vegas where Brian helped open the Centennial location of the famous burger chain as the General Manager. But it was Kari, a stay at home mom at the time, who first thought about capitalizing on the cupcake craze.

“I’m an Internet junkie,” she says with a laugh, an open laptop computer playing top-40 songs in the background. “Being a stay at home mom, there’s no one to talk to.”

Instead of talking, the petite faux-hawked blonde surfed the Internet, mostly baking sites and blogs. And she noticed the nation's obsession with the almighty cupcake.

The Haskells, who had been saving for 10 years, saw an opportunity for Brian to leave the corporate restaurant world behind for a family business that would pay the bills and sweeten prospects: cupcakes.

Today, baking has become second nature for the couple and the handful of employees that keeps Retro churning out $2.50 treats and made-to-order cakes. But it didn’t start that way.

Ingredients were the first issue. You can’t use a measuring cup for sugar when you’re baking 200 cupcakes a day, Kari explained. You have to weigh the ingredients, learn to multiply everything and cook en masse.

She seems to have mastered the process.

On a recent Friday, cupcakes fly from the counter as a steady stream of customers flows into the shop. Through a cut out in the door, you can spot Brian or one of their employees dressing up a cake for delivery with fondant and tiny edible beads. As it nears completion it starts to look like a tidy, pink present. Soon, the last pink lemonade cupcake is snatched up buy a customer. Yellow lemon cake crowned with a beehive of pink lemonade butter cream and a drizzle of hot pink sugar - it’s dessert in Technicolor.

If pink lemonade isn’t the first thing that springs to mind when you think cupcake, it means Kari is doing her job. The creator of most of Retro’s 20-plus flavors finds inspiration not only in the bakery but also in the cereal aisle at the grocery store.

“We constantly thinking about [new flavors],” she says. “I have a notebook. It’s in my purse all the time.”

August’s flavor of the month came from a trip not to the grocery store, but to the casino.

“Brian’s favorite thing is a brownie sundae,” Kari says laughing, adding that the best one in town is served at the Pahrump Nugget. “They pull it out and it’s this huge thing. I said, ‘I have to make it into a cupcake.’”

Whipping up a micro-batch of the new flavor, Kari rockets through the process like a lifelong baker. She combines a few ingredients to create a deep chocolatey brownie batter the color of wet soil, then she adds the secret ingredient: chocolate chips.

Using her “baker’s muscles,” Kari gives the batter a few last turns before she takes an ice cream scoop to the bowl and starts doling out portions into a muffin tin.

Lifting a heaping scoop of batter in front of her nose, Kari cracks a wide smile. “It’s taking all my strength not to eat this,” she says, before dumping the batter into a waiting cup.

When the cupcakes are baked and cooled, she’ll add a generous dollop of vanilla buttercream to the top and then crisscross over that with hot fudge. Voila! The hot fudge sundae cupcake.

The buttercream, Kari says, is key – not just for the cupcake that mimics an ice cream parlor extravagance, but for nearly all the cupcakes sold at Retro. Real American buttercream is totally different than the canned stuff that Betty Crocker hocks at the supermarket, she explains reverentially. Only one cupcake comes without a hefty serving of the stuff: the glazed doughnut, which is vanilla cake “drenched in doughnut glaze.” The bakery’s slogan echoes the baker: It’s all about the buttercream.

Plus, Kari adds in an exaggerated whisper, “I don’t like cream cheese.”

Her customers seem to agree. Business is up despite the down economy and more and more people who wander into the shop are ordering the custom cakes that Retro crafts, as well. The Haskells even have their eyes on the empty storefront next door for a sister cake shop.

“We’d do it in opposite colors,” Kari says, “like Spy vs. Spy.”

Cupcakes are clearly recession proof.

And if another ingredient is surviving 2009 without a dip in sales, it would have to be bacon, which also has a place on Retro’s counter. The bakery serves up a maple bacon cupcake that consists of vanilla cake with bacon and maple syrup inside topped with maple buttercream and bacon bits.

Inspired by Hash House A Go Go’s bacon waffles, the bacon hits you right at the end, Kari explains.

Next from the notebook are likely Kool-Aid flavored cupcakes and fruit pies translated into cupcake form. If they can stand next to current flavors like milk & cookies, which comes topped with a chocolate chip cookie to dunk in the frosting; or a chocolate fountain that boasts a crown of chocolate ganache-dipped chocolate buttercream, chances are those two will fly off the brightly lit shelves and into the stacked white boxes piled behind the counter.

For now however, a customer is pondering her box of four, perusing the flavors with the intensity of a used car shopper.

“Mint [chocolate chip] is just like the ice cream,” Kari ventures. And the customer is sold.

There goes cupcake 135,001.

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