Update as of Thursday 1 p.m. EST: CNBC is reporting that one of its hosts, Marcus Lemonis, and a group of investors are nearing a deal to buy Crumbs Bake Shop.
Crumbs wasn't built to last, much to the dismay of cupcake fans everywhere. Did Americans' fixation with health do it in? Or was the cronut to blame?
The answer, says David Sax, author of "The Tastemakers: Why We're Crazy for Cupcakes But Fed Up With Fondue," might lie closer to home, on the Web. The life cycle of food trends is getting shorter and the cupcake trend proved that in real-time. "Anyone in the world could turn on their computer and see photos of cupcakes," he says of the early 2000s craze. "There are now cupcake shops in Rwanda opened by people who blogged about them."
The cronut, hand-crafted by baker Dominique Ansel, was the second pastry to become a cultural phenomenon. Imitators spread from Manhattan to Dunkin' Donuts in South Korea, and there was even a black market on Craigslist. Similarly, imitators appeared on the scene when Crumbs went public in 2011.
"Usually [food trends] took [a long time to evolve] as someone tasted something, put their own spin on it, worked on it, and had someone else taste it," says Sax. "Now someone can see a clip on YouTube and spin out their own version in a week. The lag time for innovation is speeding up."
That's not to say there aren't definitive cycles. Yogurt is unique in that it has always cycled in and out of fads unlike cupcakes, which aren't as healthy and easy to tweak, says John Gordon, principal at Pacific Management Consulting Group, a restaurant industry analysis firm. In fact, if you're a food entrepreneur, there are plenty of lessons to be had in the yogurt business.
A Lesson in FroYo
In the 1970s and 80s, frozen yogurt's popularity prompted TCBY to franchise--and overexpand. But by the late 80s and early 90s, consumers were craving traditional flavors and sundaes, which helped Marble Slab and Cold Stone Creamery become national hits. By the late 90s, customization took hold, ushering in hybrid flavors and gourmet staples like Haagen Daaz.
By the early 2000s, the pendulum had swung back again, this time in favor of healthier (albeit sour-flavored) West Coast concepts like Pinkberry and Red Mango. Huge cups of froyo piled high with kiwi sold for as much as $7, while imitators like iYO and Orange Leaf tried to capitalize on the trend. When the recession hit and froyo felt expensive, the companies tried to diversify with made-to-order juices, soups, and salads.
What consumers are seeing now, says Gordon, is an evolution of fancy froyo, where everything is self-serve and they pay by the ounce. 16 Handles and Menchie's are leading the pack, but the category will likely keep changing.
The lesson for entrepreneurs is largely one of careful timing when you enter a market, warns Gordon. "If you go in too early, there won't be enough market awareness and it will be hard to build consumer brand interest and knowledge. And if you go in too late, there will too many competitors."
"The millennial generation is known for trying to find the next great thing," adds Darren Tristano, executive vice president at Technomic Inc., a Chicago research and consulting firm that specializes in the restaurant industry. But you have to know where a product is in its life cycle if you're trying to stick around.
For Crumbs and its competitors, latching onto a fad wasn't enough.