Upper West Side, New York City
Bobbie Lloyd, the chief baking officer at Magnolia Bakery, is hungry. Not just because her days are surrounded by rows of dollhouse-perfect cupcakes, but because she is a born entrepreneur. When we met one morning in New York City, she put it this way: “In the culinary world there is this two year rule –whatever position you are in, you should spend two years doing it before you move on. I wanted to move so much faster.”
Magnolia Bakery, which first opened in 1996 in Manhattan’s West Village, is probably the most recognizable cupcake brand in the world. From Sex and the City to SNL, these frosted puffs have firmly wormed their way into pop culture. Magnolia is a name, a taste, but most of all a smell – a buttery hum snatched in the air from blocks away that intensifies as you approach, transforming into a sugary scent as cloying as a grandmother’s perfume when you open the doors and walk inside.
But Bobbie wants you to know that Magnolia is more than cupcakes, and it’s much more than that little corner shop in the West Village 20 years ago. In fact, thanks to her and her team, Magnolia has quietly expanded to new locations and improved the original recipes that earned it such a loyal fanbase. Don’t call it a revolution, just call it clever cooking.
"I’m kinda stubborn and very, very driven. I always want to go beyond what people are showing me"
We are more than 20 years old, but many people think we’ve been around a lot longer. There was a gentleman sitting here the other day – an older man, he may have had dementia – and he said “my mother used to bring me to this bakery as a child”. But I knew what he meant. It was the feeling this place gave him. It’s that bakery on the street corner that every town has. That's not just something we replicate, that’s who we are.
My mother wasn’t a cook, but she was a great baker. Every week there was a cake in my house. Most people in New York would call it a Texas sheet cake – that kind of pan cake with poured fudge icing over the top. She made grape jelly from grapevines in the backyard, rhubarb pie from rhubarb we grew. Every Friday was chocolate donut day. There was a local bakery, and she would get up early and bring them back for breakfast, still warm.
My mother and grandmother gave me the foundations of baking, but love of food was something I had to learn on my own. To this day my mom is still like, “how did you learn to like liver?” I’m from Chicago but went to culinary school in Boston. I definitely knew I wanted to go into food.
Did I imagine becoming an entrepreneur? I did, because I’m kinda stubborn and very, very driven. When I work for other people I always want to go beyond what they are showing me. In the culinary world there is this two year rule – whatever position you are in, you should spend two years doing it before you move on. I wanted to move so much faster.
I opened my own restaurant at 27. I always joke that’s how I got my PhD in restaurant management. I was young and had a female partner – we were stupid and smart at the same time. We made mistakes but we learned from our mistakes. That’s an education you can’t get anywhere else.
"Every Friday was chocolate donut day. My mom would get up early and bring them back for breakfast, still warm"
I first came to New York as Calvin Klein’s private chef, a six month contract in The Hamptons. But I knew that what I really wanted was to work for Union Square Cafe. I knew someone who knew [the founder] Danny Meyer, so I reached out and got an interview. He didn’t hire managers from outside, so he said I would have to work as a waiter first. And I was like, “alright, whatever it takes”. I started as a waiter in February and by June I was a manager.
I stayed for three years, and then I went to Danny and I said, “I need to learn more, I need to do more”. And he said, “what do you want?” And I said, “I want your job!” and he said, “well that’s taken.” So I made the decision to leave and join another restaurant group. But then I turned around and went back in the kitchen.
Magnolia Bakery was originally started by a woman named Allysa Torey in 1996. For 10 years it was just the one store in the West Village. My business partner Steve Abrams and I bought the bakery in 2006. The real attraction was that it was already loved and known around the world, partly because of Sex and the City. People’s eyes would light up when you said Magnolia. And it brought me back to my love of baking.
Our first question was, what makes this tiny store so successful? We started talking to people, and we found out that there was this brand image that made people stand in line, but people were unhappy about some things. The first thing we changed was the chocolate cake. You’ve got a generation now that’s grown up with Betty Crocker and there’s a texture that this age group likes: super-moist and spongy. The original chocolate cake recipe was more like a pound cake: denser, heavier, a really tight crumb. We also got complaints that our buttercream frosting was way too sweet. So we worked on reducing the sugar and changing the type of sugar we used.
"It was cupcake, cupcake, everywhere. A ton of bakeries opened and closed. The ones that stayed understood how to build a Business, not just make a pretty cake"
Pretty much everything on the menu has changed a bit. The customer doesn’t know that, they just know things taste better. But we were worried – what happens if you pull a thread and the whole thing unravels? But we listen to our customers to find out what’s working and what’s not. The banana pudding recipe? Oh, I haven’t touched it. There are some things you don’t mess with.
There were a boatload of other copycats – it was cupcake, cupcake, everywhere. Cupcake shops are super easy to open, you just need a shop and a mixer and you’re good to go. A ton of bakeries opened and closed. Remember Crumbs? Where are they now? The ones that stayed were the ones that understood how to build a brand, build a presence and run a business, not just make a pretty cupcake.
A lot of people still refer to us as a “cupcake business” but we are so much more than that. We’ve worked hard to dispel that myth – it’s Magnolia Bakery, bakery, we just happen to sell cupcakes. That’s why we’re successful because we aren’t just a one trick pony.
We still bake here on the premises. A lot of people in the chain restaurant industry don’t understand that model because it’s not machine driven, it’s people driven. They are like, let’s make it in a factory, let’s freeze it, let’s par-bake it. That’s not baking.
All photos taken by Feeder