IT’S ALL A MATTER OF TASTE IN CUPCAKE CITY

Photos by Stacie Fanelli. To enlarge the slideshow, click the embiggen symbol in the lower right corner.

By DUSTIN RACIOPPI

Late in 2009 and into 2010, a sign in a window on West Front Street indicated a new specialty shop, Cake Red Bank, would be moving in soon, teasing the palates of passersby.

It never came.

But then, amid a series of pounding snowstorms that buried the area, a couple from Manhattan brought baked batter to the table in a nook on East Front called Sugarush, offering an array of cupcakes and confectionaries. It appeared  that Chris Paseka and Jesse Bello-Paseka had firmly staked their frosting knives in the ground.

Little did they know that two prospective cupcake merchants were greasing mini foils in preparation for their own cupcake outlets within blocks of Sugarush. Within a matter months, Red Bank, a town of 1.7 square miles, has become home to three cupcake shops — the Pasekas’ Sugarush, Cupcake Magician and Mr. Cupcakes — setting the stage for a turf war.

But several months in, the rivalry has shaped up as plain vanilla, with owners playing nice and customers, apparently welcome to options, having largely formed their own opinions and allegiances, showing that even in a small market, it’s possible to find a niche within a niche.

“Red Bank’s big enough for all the cupcake shops,” said Mr. Cupcakes owner Johnny Manganiotis, who opened a  location inside Ricky’s Candy, Cones and Chaos on Broad Street in May. “It is all opinion, and it is all word of mouth.”

That appears to be the case.

Linda Mansfield, of Oceanport, has been to Mr. Cupcakes about a half-dozen times since it opened, and decided not to go anywhere else. She likes the variety of the shop — it boasts about 30 different types, from Red Velvet to Mint Volcano, French Toast to Oreo Cheesecake — and its consistency, she said.

“I’m pretty loyal to Mr. Cupcakes because I’ve never been disappointed,” Mansfield said. “Once you find something that’s a sure thing, you stick with it.”

It’s the same case for Maritza White of Red Bank, though her loyalty belongs to Cupcake Magician, which opened on Monmouth Street within days of Mr. Cupcakes. She went to dinner at a friend’s house who had Cupcake Magician’s varieties for dessert, and she’s been a regular ever since.

“I never really gave it any thought,” she said of the competition. “I tasted them, I liked them and I keep coming here.”

Owner Roseann Nardini, who says she was planning to open at around the same time Sugarush did, said each shop has at least one distinction from the others. And that’s how they’re going to survive, she said.

“You’re going to have your loyal customers,” said Nardini, of Middletown. “They like you, they like your product, your atmosphere. They find their little niche.”

The response has been overwhelming, she said. Cupcake Magician is booked for orders through September. There’s enough work for her that there’s no time for mudslinging. And she’s quick to point out that’s not her goal, saying, “competition is good.”

“The community has been more than loving to us,” Nardini said. “We’re holding our own here.”

And what about those guys over at Sugarush? Doesn’t it chafe to watch two other shops follow what you’ve established?

Chris Paseka says not at all. Business at his shop hasn’t taken a hit, but rather, orders for private events have quadrupled. And Sugarush, which unlike the other shops offers a “naked” cupcake and full topping bar, strives to be different from all the rest, he said.

“For me it was never about other cupcake shops in town, because we’re not just a cupcake shop. We do so much more,” he said. “We always wanted to be different. We always wanted to be a custom shop. I really only want to feel positive vibes.”

Like the other shops, there is the following. There’s a “Donovan Family” cupcake, named for a Red Bank family that visits the shop regularly. Another family, the Venturas, say they’ve gone to the shop every Wednesday since it opened.

Last Saturday, Peter Cavanaugh and his mother Tammy made their first trip to the store and walked out with a red velvet cupcake, unsure at the time if they’d be back.

When asked about having all the different options to fix their sweet tooth, they said, the more, the merrier.

“It’s definitely a rising trend,” said Peter Cavanaugh, of Matawan. “I’m excited. I’ve never heard of anything like it.”

Just as people have their favorite nail salon, Italian restaurant and place to grab a slice of pizza, all three shop owners say when it comes to competition, it’s simply a matter of taste.

“The biggest thing is, taste is subjective. You can’t compete with someone’s taste buds,” said Paseka. “Go for it. Get what you want.

“Certainly I don’t want to have 16 different (cupcake) places, but I just want to survive, that’s all.”

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