Digger talked to
Memo Christodoulou who runs the 1950s-themed Cupcake
Christodoulou opened The Cupcake Emporium at London's Lancaster Gate
to much media attention and to a lot of public interest. It seems
that 50s retro is very much in vogue. Memo has ambitious plans to
develop his cupcakes business, both in the UK and back in his home
city of Athens, keeping faithful to the nostalgic authenticity of
his product and his venues. We caught up with this hands-on
entrepreneur to discuss the history of cupcakes and his new
Digger: What’s your background, Memo?
Memo: When I started this venture I didn’t have any experience
of baking professionally or anything like that. But I have been
baking since I was old enough to hold a spatula really and I was
about five when I started. The stuff we have in the shop is stuff
that has been passed down through generations. Given to me by my
mother and to her by her grandmother. So we just try to keep it as
traditional as we can around here and that’s the way I like most
Digger: How big is the team?
Memo: It’s four people at the moment. We’re a relatively
small business, but I think it works to our advantage really.
Digger: You’re working shifts?
Memo: That’s right. There’s one of us at all times in the
shop and it does get a bit manic but hopefully we’re going to be
expanding here in the next few months because of the amount of
demand we’re getting.
Digger: That’s great. Is it me or is there a big thing about
cupcakes at the moment?
Memo: There’s a huge thing about cupcakes at the moment. It’s
quite competitive and cutthroat apparently, although I don’t want
to compete so much with our so-called competitors as I feel we’re
a completely different product. There’s a big market for them at
Digger: What are your biggest sellers?
Memo: They seem to be all the traditional cupcakes like the
chocolate, the vanilla, the red velvet which was made famous by
Hummingbird bakery to the point that anyone who does red velvet now
people think they’ve stolen the idea from Hummingbird. But the red
velvet cupcake is actually from the red velvet cake which was
traditionally a 50s/60s cake that was made in Texas, USA. The
cupcake version is a reduced version of the cake and it’s kind of
different and most people want to try it because it's a mixture of a
chocolate and vanilla based cake and a cream cheese topping. The way
we describe it to customers is a cake with cheesecake on top.
Digger: Do you remember the Viota cakes from the 60s and 70s?
Memo: Yes, I’ve heard of them, they sound great. There’s all
these little trinkets that you used to get in the old days that I
kind of like.
Digger: You’re too young to remember them first hand Memo.
Memo: It’s a bit of a curved ball because I wasn’t alive then
but my parents were. 'Cos unfortunately my parents are slightly
older so I wasn’t raised listening to The Beatles like everyone
else my age did. I grew up listening to Elvis and Louis Armstrong
and all these things. But I can’t really complain.
Digger: When you talk to a lot of under 30s these days certain
references to the past just go straight over their heads.
Memo: Exactly, that’s it.
Digger: I can’t understand why because when I was that age we knew
a lot about our parents’ and the previous generations.
Memo: They should recognise some of these names and references.
It’s one of those things that happens, even with me. I mean,
we’ve got 50s music playing in the shop and between 600 to 1000
tunes and a lot of the time customers will mention specific artists
to me. And I know quite a few by name but I wouldn’t necessarily
know the name of the song or the artist who sang it even though I
Digger: A lot of people my age who lived through it the first time
wouldn’t know either. So what is the history of cupcakes?
Memo: From the research that I’ve done before I started this
properly was that it was a very similar cake to the fairy cake. A
lot of the British people we get coming in here say that they’re
very much like fairy cakes. More or less the same thing but it’s a
much larger cake usually.
Digger: I can remember we used to make them at school in the 60s.
Memo: Fantastic. I think that’s the kind of nostalgia that
people have, even the people that haven’t lived in the 50s is that
kind of “We used to make fairy cakes and cupcakes at school"
and so they love to sit down with their kids and get them to do it
Digger: Up on stools in the kitchen making a hell of a mess.
Memo: Yes, of course. (Laughs) That’s the whole point. I think
from the research that I did it started before the 50s.
Digger: It even became a term of endearment for one's girlfriend,
Memo: Exactly, we’ve got a line of T-shirts coming out with
1950s pinups on them with the phrase on top ‘don’t call me
Digger: If you’re selling them can you do an XXXL for me? (Both
laugh) So what are your plans for the future?
Memo: So far we’ve had publishing agents coming in wanting to
publish a recipe book which is something in the pipeline. We’re
also going to be opening another shop very soon, possibly in 2011.
We don’t know exactly where but probably somewhere around the
Digger: Are you hoping to move out to the ‘provinces’?
Memo: Potentially, yes. I think when we get closer to the time
we’ll do a poll of our customers and see where they live and where
they would like us to have the next shop. We’re really going to go
where the demand calls for it really.
Digger: Bath, York, Edinburgh and such places immediately spring to
Memo: Definitely, and next year we’re opening one back in my
home city of Athens ‘cos there’s nothing like this over there.
The original idea got hindered slightly by the health and safety
laws over here. If I can find some way around it we might get some
roller waitresses and have a proper 50s diner.
Digger: God bless health and safety. They were a bit funny about the
idea were they? Only In the UK!
Memo: Yes, I think Greece is a little more flexible in that
respect but we might find it a bit harder to find people who
actually can roller skate over there. I’m sure we can train people
up, but that’s the general idea. At the moment we’ve got a lot
of 50s memorabilia in the shop and we’re planning to get a lot
more of the traditional kind of 50s diner tables. We’re hoping to
use a company which you might have heard of called Cola Red?
Digger: I certainly have.
Memo: They do this amazing furniture so we’re saving up some
money to buy some authentic-looking furniture and do it up properly.
We are very much a niche market but a lot of people have reacted
well to it because there’s not a lot of places like this in London
which is a shame but then again it works in our favour.
We don’t tend to go for the overly-elaborate patisserie versions
of cupcake. We try to make them more home-baked, still with the
pretty frostings on top but we are essentially a 1950s diner and
they didn’t have all these fancy butterflies and things. We keep
them as home-baked as possible. When I went around researching, and
being Greek I tend to like my food a bit, I found that cupcakes are
traditionally quite small but we have muffin-sized cupcakes here so
at least people get more of a fill for their money.
Digger: You’re doing special occasions as well.
Memo: Valentines was absolutely crazy. We have a lot of things
happening here that would probably be a bit more traditional and
interest your site visitors, for example a singing trio called The
Polka Dot Dolls coming in to sing in March and two jazz nights
lined-up. We’re trying to keep it as themed as possible.
Digger: It sounds as though you’re doing an excellent job.
Memo: We try. (Laughs)
Digger: Many thanks for telling us about your retro business, Memo.
Memo: You come round and have a cupcake next time you’re in
Digger: I certainly will.
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