Twentyfive: Candace Nelson

Say what you want about America’s ongoing fascination with cupcakes, and whether the trend is now crumbling, but no sweet good has had a more profound effect on the bakery business than the cupcake in the past 10 years. And no single individual has innovated and elevated the cupcake to the throne better than Candace Nelson, founder and pastry chef of Sprinkles Cupcakes.

Founded in 2005 in Beverly Hills, California, investment banker-turned-investment baker Nelson launched this now iconic brand to bring a sophisticated take on the classic American cupcake and guided Sprinkles into an overnight sensation. Choosing store locations as carefully as they place the famous modern dot in the middle of each $3.75 cupcake, Sprinkles Cupcakes has grown to 17 locations in less than a decade. What Nelson recognized earlier than others is that cupcakes could be as fashionable as they are delicious and convenient to eat. “The zealous squeals you hear and the ear-to-ear smiles you see in the shoe department of Bloomingdales are the very same ones we experience with our beloved and loyal customers at Sprinkles,” Nelson says.

Continuing to innovate in 2012, Sprinkles introduced the world’s first Cupcake ATM and expanded its foray into classic American desserts with the launch of Sprinkles Ice Cream in 2013. Future expansion plans include a franchise agreement that will bring 34 Sprinkles Cupcakes bakeries to the Middle East. Now, every move that Sprinkles makes seems to cause a stir. When Sprinkles opened the first Cupcake ATM in New York City, the event was so significant that David Letterman gave the Sprinkles ATM its own top 10 list on “Late Show with David Letterman.”

Sophisticated design

Sprinkles Cupcakes are handcrafted from fresh ingredients, including sweet cream butter, bittersweet Belgian chocolate, pure Madagascar Bourbon vanilla, fresh bananas and carrots, real strawberries and natural citrus zests. Topped with Sprinkles trademark modern dots, rich chocolate sprinkles from France or seasonal sugar decorations, Sprinkles cupcakes are a sophisticated update on an American classic.

So are their stores. Designed by architect Andrea Lenardin, Sprinkles evokes the memory of European bakeries flooded with the smell of baked goods and awash in natural light. The pure material palette speaks to the quality of ingredients, while signature design elements reflect the playfulness and joy of the Sprinkles experience. Sprinkles Beverly Hills was the recipient of two AIA Los Angeles restaurant design awards.

“Living in LA, I am constantly surrounded by great modern art and architecture, which lends itself perfectly to my modern take on desserts. It has always been my belief that you can make the best product in the world, but if the customer experience does not rise to the occasion, customers will not return,” Nelson points out. “Our employees take orders directly next to the cupcake display so they can point out our specials and most popular flavors and really form a connection with each customer. Our store also has very clean lines and surfaces making it easy for us to keep the space clean – a must for any foodservice business. We generally are not afforded a very large customer area so we do our best to make it feel spacious and airy with floor to ceiling windows, skylights and soft lighting. We also arrange our stores to enhance customer flow from start to finish making it easy for customers to order, pay while it is being packaged, and be on their way within a few minutes.”

Nelson says that her goal was to move away from the traditional bakery lush with doilies and cake cloches – the cupcakes needed to shine and the space needed to speak to the quality of Sprinkles cupcakes. Perhaps due to her Austrian background, Andrea’s eye gravitates towards pure palettes with clean lines to create a light, airy feel. While avoiding the feeling of being over-designed, every piece in a Sprinkles space suits a purpose. For example, Andrea even incorporated a spoon chute into our ice cream shop for customers to dispose of their used sample spoons!”

Sprinkles cupcakes inspire long lines of devoted fans, as well as accolades from the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Blake Lively, Katie Holmes, Ryan Seacrest and Barbra Streisand. “We were very fortunate early on to have some great celebrity endorsers.”

Candace Nelson followed her love of baking and is a graduate of Tante Marie’s Professional Pastry Program in San Francisco and Wesleyan University. She is also a dedicated philanthropist, an angel supporter of Baby2Baby and a board member of LAXart.

Simplicity and elegance

“I believe that with simplicity and elegance, a product can also be versatile. Of course, I imagined our cupcakes at children’s birthday parties and backyard barbeques, but I also wanted them to be fit for weddings and red carpets,” Nelson says.

Part of the Sprinkles mission is to continuously innovate and grow. For this reason, Sprinkles integrated TV monitors and outdoor retail displays into newer stores. “We have also incorporated more color into newer stores, growing the Sprinkles color palette beyond its original brown and pink identity. Each store is unique given the space we have to work with and its local connection to the community,” Nelson says. “For example, our New York bakery has a larger lobby area so we specifically designed Sprinkles ottomans complete with chocolate brown and modern dot finishes!”

She firmly believes that design is integral to a retail business’ success primarily because of its role in the customer experience. With regards to merchandising, the goal is for the product display to speak for itself. “Of course, employees can always speak for the product,” she adds, “but the first emotions a customer feels about it are largely influenced by how the product is visually presented. We always place our cupcake display directly in front of our entrance so there is no confusion that cupcakes take center stage at Sprinkles. The display is purposefully angled towards the customer and cupcakes are neatly and evenly arranged on die-cut trays so the customer is not spending his or her energy making sense of which flavor is which.” 

Local connections

Sprinkles takes into account the needs of local communities when designing new stores. For example, after they launched the Cupcake ATM in Beverly Hills, Sprinkles immediately worked on getting one installed into the façade of its Chicago bakery given the city’s on-the-go nature.

In New York, Sprinkles occupied a space that was formerly Gino’s, a beloved Italian restaurant which had served the local community for decades prior to going out of business. “They were known for their vibrant red zebra wall paper. We felt it important to leave up a wall adorned with this wallpaper to pay homage to Gino’s legacy.”

The latest Sprinkles innovation is Sprinkles Ice Cream, which offers cookies and ice cream. These ice cream and cookie shops are all located next door to Sprinkles cupcake bakeries. They are unique stores, each with separate entrances, separate brand identities, and separate employees. “However, over time,” Nelson says, “I do see the two merging into one Sprinkles shop where you can purchase any of our products and new ones in the ever-expanding Sprinkles dessert line.”

Cupcakes, cookies and ice cream? The future is certainly sweet at Sprinkles.