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27 February 2024

'Godmother' of cupcake industry bites into the Dubai market

Magnolia Bakery in Bloomingdales in The Dubai Mall is the first branch outside the US. (PATRICK CASTILLO)

By Aimee Greaves

Cult New York bakery Magnolia has arrived in Dubai to take a bite out of the lucrative cupcake market.

The cupcake pioneers put the cherry on top of the new Bloomingdale's Home store in The Dubai Mall when its kitchen opened for business earlier this month.

As the first outlet outside the United States, Dubai – and franchisee Al Tayer Insignia – has won a ferocious battle to encourage the owners to expand internationally. But this was not the first time Steve and Tyra Abrams have considered bringing the brand to the UAE.

"I came to the region once before to discuss opening a store in Abu Dhabi. It was meant to launch last year but we couldn't agree on terms," reveals Steve, 52.

"Al Tayer has the rights for the UAE and the plan is to get this store up and running and get notoriety and then expand here and eventually regionally, although we won't tie up with other brands."

Abrams says that he gets franchise requests on a daily basis from around the world but more come from this region than any other, making the decision to opt for Dubai as its first overseas outlet "compelling". "We knew we to go international at some point and having a partner that has done this before is very important," he says.

"It's still the same family owned business. We're not going to do franchises in the traditional sense. We respect the brand very much and therefore plan a slow, controlled roll out. We thought this was the right partnership as we still have a say but we're not looking to have 500 stores around the world."

But the company is not just expanding to Dubai; a fourth New York location opened in Manhattan's Grand Central Terminal last month, while its first location on the West Coast is due to open in the spring.

This strategy for Magnolia Bakery is very different from its early days when founded by Allysa Torey and Jennifer Appel in July 1996. The bakery started life on Bleeker Street, in the West Village selling cakes and bread. Cupcakes were not initially on the menu but became a permanent fixture by chance when there was extra mixture left over from the six-inch coconut cakes as the owners traditionally made nine-inch puddings.

Today, the cupcake variety has grown from the original "Barbie cake" so called due to the vanilla cake and pink icing to include among others chocolate varieties, caramel, banana, carrot and its now signature red velvet – red chocolate – cupcakes.

The Abrams, who were good friends with Torey, bought Magnolia, which also has branches on the Upper West side and near the Rockefeller Centre, three years ago. Steve has 25 years experience in the restaurant industry but also spent 10 years working in construction. Since he and his wife bought the firm, they have invested millions of dollars into it, he says.

"We were ready to buy at a time the owner was ready to sell and they thought we would be good owners. They'd had lots of offers but chose to sell to me so I felt very blessed," he says.

I amuse Abramses as I recount the tale of my first encounter to the 885sq ft branch in The Dubai Mall when an eager American customer asked if he could buy more than 12 (the bakery famously limited the number of cupcakes per customer to prevent selling out) but he assures me that rule no longer applies.

"It's an amazing legacy that it lives on around the world but the day took over the business I stopped the 12 cupcake rule. I still have the sign in my office but we are here to sell a product and if the first person of the day buys everything in the store then so be it," he says.

To help get the Dubai operation up-to-speed, a team from New York, including the company President and head baker, has been temporarily re-located to the emirate. "I have no-one left here," he laughs. "But we need to do it to ensure quality and because Bloomingdale's is such a massive operation, it's impossible to give everyone enough education."

Unfortunately not all product lines will be available in Dubai due to the inability to source ingredients but there are plans for unique offerings in the future. They also plan to bring the clothing and apron range here, with the inclusion of "I cupcake Dubai" t-shirts.

Abrams is also confident that his business, which has whipped up such a huge following thanks to featuring on TV show Sex and the City and movies such as The Devil Wears Prada and Prime, will survive long after any of the competition sinks.

"Sex and the City helped to build the brand and we still see references of it but the reality for us is that there are many more pop cultural references to a young demographic. The show has taken Magnolia to a female demographic but we have been on other shows and we're certainly not going to rest on our Sex and the City laurels.

"We are the Godmother of the cupcake craze but we're not looking to exploit this. It would be easy to do that and cheapen the brand but we're only going to partner with brands such as Al Tayer who have the same ideas as us."

But in a city where the market already appears to be at saturation point, is the craze here to stay? "In the US cupcakes have exploded but the reality is I'm 52 and was making them with my mum and grandma when I was eight. It's been a phenomenon forever. Things ebb and flow and I don't know how long it will last. The cupcake industry will shake out and market in the will find itself. Some brands will remain and we will be one of them."

The cupcake rush

Magnolia Bakery is the latest in a long line of cupcake brands in Dubai eager to feed off the growing taste for the sweet treats.

The Emirati owners of Sprinklez say they started the craze in 2006, before Kitsch Cupcakes and Sugar Daddy's Bakery got in on the act in a month of each other in 2008.

Then, Sweet Stuff joined Kitsch and Sugar Daddy's on Jumeirah Beach Road in June last.

Completing the Dubai line up is a number of home-based bakers Lima's Treats, Sweet Secrets and Scrumptious Cupcakes. Sugar Daddy's Bakery has also expanded its business to Abu Dhabi in recent months.


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