Carrie Nickerson and David Menestres, the minds behind the bakery delivery service Crumb, met online and started dating after bonding over their mutual love for the obscure Japanese band Butter 08.
That wasn't their only shared interest. The pair rarely met a cake they didn't hate.
So Menestres, 29, a professionally trained jazz musician, and Nickerson, 38, the former pastry chef at Raleigh's Hayes Barton Cafe and Dessertery, decided to make their own. Crumb (413-8134, www.justcrumb.com) entered the Triangle's growing specialty cupcake market last October boasting the tagline, "So Good It Makes Fat People Cry."
That may sound like pretty aggressive marketing for cupcakes, but the field is crowded. A solid white cake recipe and better-than-average buttercream won't turn many heads these days. Triangle dessert lovers have come to expect top-notch baking and innovative incarnations from the many purveyors vying for a slice of the cupcake pie.
Menestres and Nickerson say they owe the success of Crumb to the evolving nature of Triangle food culture, which increasingly values local, handmade, high-quality products.
"A few years ago there's no way we could have pulled off what we want to do," Menestres said. "A lot of people don't care about what food tastes like. I think this is indicative of American food culture. But it's changing here."
Crumb's cheeky irreverence stretches beyond its slogan. Menestres and Nickerson's wild-flavored cupcakes (they prefer the term "cupped cakes") have been hits at downtown Raleigh parties, gallery openings and fashion shows. Favorites include Atomic Fireballs (yellow cake doused with cinnamon-infused vodka and topped with cinnamon-infused vodka butter- cream), Chupacabras (stout cake with raspberry tequila filling and Patrón XO buttercream) and the Little Lebowski Urban Achievers (Duck-Rabbit Milk Stout cake with vodka ganache filling and vodka-coffee liqueur buttercream), inspired by the White Russian, the favorite drink of The Big Lebowski's Dude.
For customers with smaller appetites, Crumb offers the DeVito, a miniature chocolate cupcake with chocolate ganache. Famously diminutive actor Danny DeVito reportedly read about his namesake cupcake on Crumb's Twitter feed and thought it was "really funny."
Crumb also does wedding cakes, specializing in multiple smaller cakes, rather than the traditional tower o' sugar. They do made-to-order cookies, tarts, pastries, gluten-free cakes and more—it's a buyer's market. Cupcakes run between $4 and $8 a piece. Cakes start at $40.
The bakers have no set menu; they prefer to work with customers to create individualized treats. For a recent commission, they attempted to re-create a childhood favorite for a patron's 60th birthday, a yellow cake with chocolate icing and apricot jam that his grandmother often made for him.
Nickerson and Menestres eschewed the thought of store-bought jam and instead cooked down apricots on the stovetop to approximate the grandmother's homemade filling. The customer was delighted.
"When I told him we cooked it ourselves, he was floored," said Nickerson, a petite woman with close-cropped, dyed-red hair.
That means using high-end chocolate and local eggs and cream, and hand-making everything from fruit fillings to candied ginger. No food coloring, no Crisco, none of the kind of lab-made ingredients Menestres, a Michael Pollan acolyte, describes as "food analogs." And no fondant—the smooth sugar paste that cake decorators so often use to make cakes resemble Corvettes or teddy bears or the Empire State Building.
"Fondant is the nastiest stuff known to man," said Menestres, his gaze intense behind a pair of scholarly, thin-rimmed glasses.
Both Nickerson and Menestres come from food-mad families that sparked their love of eating. "My dad's Belgian and I remember him arguing with my mom about the butter-margarine debate," said Menestres, who grew up in North Raleigh. "He was big into the real food thing."
Nickerson moved to Raleigh from her hometown in upstate New York in 1991. "My entire family's Italian, everything pretty much centered around the kitchen," she said.
Both embrace the label "food snob." Both are self-taught.
Nickerson learned the ropes during her 12-year tenure at Hayes Barton. Menestres simply learned by cooking at home. He thought about going to culinary school, but as a lifelong vegetarian he couldn't stomach the idea of being forced to cook meat.
Most of Crumb's products are baked in Nickerson's home kitchen, where her two young children frequently peer into a refrigerator filled with temping treats they're not allowed to touch.
"We do a lot of experimenting," Nickerson said, recalling the time she and Menestres literally gassed themselves out of the house attempting to candy habanero chilies on the stovetop.
Twitter has helped them reach a wide network of the kind of young, plugged-in people who might be interested in cupcakes made with, say, beer and miso caramel.
The two are currently searching for a retail location, which they imagine as part sit-down café, part bakery, part bar, the kind of place you could stop in for a morning espresso and return after an evening symphony performance for a glass of wine. In the meantime, they'll be in the kitchen dreaming up more boozy, cakey delights.