Culinary Cloning

Popular eateries spawn sequels

When I travel to other countries, some of my favorite places to visit are grocery stores: I’m as intrigued by what a display of candy bars says about a culture as I am an art museum or temple. So I’ve always been enthralled by St. Paul’s El Burrito Mercado—the Twin Cities’ largest and best-established Latino market—and was excited to learn that the Silva family was opening a second location in the Midtown Global Market.

Despite my love for El Burrito, it had been ages since I’d trekked across the river to shop. When I visited new Minneapolis market, I scurried through the aisles making discoveries. Who knew that Jarritos made a club soda? Or horchata came in Tetra Paks? The shelves contained cans of mini chicken wieners, bags of crispy chicharrón, pouches of dried salted fish, and plastic boxes of a foodstuff translated from Spanish as “aged chunks of hard cheese for rice.”

The new El Burrito is smaller than the original, but still overwhelming with abundance. If you want bagged cream, they carry Honduran, El Salvadorian, and Guatemalan styles. There’s an extensive hot bar of ready-to-eat meals, plus a deli section where, in lieu of lox and pasta salad, chicken tinga, Spanish rice, and a dozen fresh salsas are sold by the pound: a full fiesta, right there for the grabbing!

As I piled up my purchases, including a plate of the Silva’s famous chicken mole, it occurred to me that the Internet has impacted restaurants in more ways than Yelp, Facebook, and Open Table: it has spawned a new breed of more demanding diners. Consumers who are used to having instant access to everything their hearts desire—the new hit single, sore-throat remedies, their neighbor’s property-tax bill, Sofia Coppola’s age in The Godfather, a street map of Tubli, Bahrain—now want all their favorite restaurants right at their fingertips, too.

Guilty as charged. With the new El Burrito conveniently located just a few miles from both home and work, I’d certainly be dropping 100-percent more cash in the Silvas’ coffers than if they’d never expanded.

El Burrito is one of many Twin Cities restaurant to have cloned itself in recent months. Northeast Social spawned Eat Street Social. People’s Organic expanded from Galleria to the IDS center. Mall of America now contains mini versions of Minneapolis’s Cupcake and Masu. The Shops at West End lured a new location of Little Szechuan from St. Paul and has another Raku, from Edina, on the way. Café Maude opened Café Maude at Loring in the former Nick and Eddie space. Town Hall Brewery already has one south Minneapolis spin-off, with another one in development. Two other beer-and-burger powerhouses, Republic and the Blue Door Pub, both have sequels in the works. Meanwhile, several food trucks are launching brick-and-mortar shops.

While there’s an argument to be made against too much homogenization, I don’t think we’re likely to see, say, a Chef Shack on every corner, á la Starbucks. Replicating a successful concept can be an efficient way to get more mileage out of an existing brand than developing a new one—if restaurateurs are savvy about tweaking their concept to fit each location’s personality and needs.

Cupcake might be a case study in such expansions, as owner Kevin VanDeraa recently launched both mobile and mall-based offshoots of his eight-year-old bakery/café—and aborted plans for a second storefront. When light-rail construction on University Avenue threatened his primary business, VanDeraa jumped on the food-truck bandwagon and introduced a Cupcake van. While it’s not the business’s biggest revenue generator, it has been marketing gold. (“It’s like having a billboard parked at 10th and Nicollet,” VanDeraa says.) He also pursued opening a second location on Grand Avenue in St. Paul, a variation on his original concept that he describes as “Cupcake grown up a bit,” with a chic, Shea-designed ambiance and wine bar, to fit into the neighborhood’s nightlife scene. But after neighbors raised concerns over parking and alcohol service, he backed out of the project. (He’d already started renovations and spent $150,000).

Photo by A. Steinberg

It was a potentially devastating lesson, but, fortunately, VanDeraa’s big win on this summer’s championship episode of the Food Network’s Cupcake Wars buoyed his base business—and caused the Mall of America to come calling.

VanDeraa’s new MOA Cupcake is actually more like the van than the original shop: a bright-orange, 700-square-foot box that sells only cupcakes and beverages. But it incorporates one major feature that made the first Cupcake so successful: the pastry chefs decorate cupcakes right in front of their customers.

The Mall of America, VanDeraa says, presents an entirely different retail experience than the original location. In the Central Corridor, people who come within a pastry’s toss of Cupcake’s front door have arrived at that spot with the specific intent of visiting the shop. In the mall, shoppers are everywhere, but they’re not always buying cupcakes. “Maybe they came from New Jersey,” VanDeraa explains. “They didn’t necessarily come to see us.”

When shoppers do cross the threshold, they’ll find the sweets at the new shop are just as tasty as at the original, especially VanDeraa’s prize-winning Glee themed cupcakes, inspired by the television show. The treats named after Glee’s cheerleeders look like pom poms and, topped with marshmallow and coconut, taste like winners. The Slushie is a strange but tasty breed: red-velvet cake soaked with maraschino-cherry syrup, filled with cola-flavored chocolate ganache, and topped with a little chocolate “straw.”

I’m not really a mall person, but as I licked elderberry buttercream off my fingers, it struck me that Cupcake’s MOA location was actually closer to my house than the one on University Avenue—though not quite as convenient as having the van pull up to my door.