Interview with Red Velvet Cupcakery in DC and Reston, VA

Ciji (left) and Stephanie, of Red Velvet Cupcakery.

Name(s): Ciji Wagner
Stephanie MacGlaughlin   
Age(s): CW-26
Location(s): CW-Reston, Virginia
SMG-Washington, DC
Occupation(s): CW-Pastry Chef
SMG-Executive Pastry Chef

How long have you been with Red Velvet Cupcakery?

CW: I have been with Red Velvet for just over a year and a half.

SMG: I started just after they opened, so January 2012 will be three years.

Red Velvet Cupcakery

Red Velvet Cupcakery

How did you begin your cupcake/baking career?

CW: I’ve wanted to be a chef for as long as I can remember but had a hard time deciding between culinary and pastry. As I grew into my geekdom, I decided to go to school for baking and pastry; the draw of the science and chemistry involved in pastries was just too much for a nerd like me to resist. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, I worked in all aspects of the pastry industry—everything from large-scale wholesale pastries to cake decorating to restaurant work. After moving to the DC area, I started with Red Velvet and fell in cupcake love. 

SMG: Well my cupcake career started by accident. I needed a part-time job and just walked in and was like, "Hey, do you need help in the mornings a few days a week?" and from there it has grown into a career.

What's your favorite thing about red velvet cupcakes?

CW: The cream cheese icing for sure. There’s nothing quite like the creamy, smooth richness of a well-made cream cheese icing.

SMG:   We have the freedom to be creative with some of our flavors. Yes, we have our standard flavors but then every week we get to play with one. Sometimes it is traditional; like our grandma cake -- a vanilla butter cake with chocolate buttercream and a Hershey hug, and then sometimes there are crazy combinations like caramelized onion and goat cheese cake with caramelized onion roses.

Red Velvet Cupcakery

Red Velvet Cupcakery

What do you think of the competitive Washington, DC-area cupcake business?

CW: It’s fantastic and encouraging and stressful and difficult all at once. It definitely keeps a girl on her toes to know that there are many other options for customers out there but reassuring to know that they chose us when they walk in the door. It forces me to maintain our standards yet keep the creative juices flowing with new flavors and options. The competition in the DC area gives me a great incentive to strive to be the best and know why I stand wholeheartedly behind the product I make.

SMG: There is a lot of competition in DC, and it keeps growing! Three years ago the cupcake scene was small, maybe four cupcakeries, now I think we are in the 20’s for cupcakeries in the DC metro area. I like the fact that our guests come to Red Velvet Cupcakery because they really like the cupcakes, not just because we are the only cupcakery. There are some cupcakeries that I have no problem going to and enjoying whatever it is I get from there, as well as others that I prefer not to waste my time on. It’s refreshing to hear from our guests who has preferences where, and who their cupcake loyalty is to, and why.

What makes Red Velvet Cupcakery different?

CW: My first inclination is to say the quality of ingredients; while that’s true, it’s such a generic answer. Seasonality is a big deal for us. We make sure that our feature flavors line up with the flavors and feels for the time of year. You’re never going to find a strawberry cupcake at our store in January, but you better believe that we’re going to have it in June. The other pastry chefs and I go to local farms to pick our own fruit as much as we can for our feature flavors. That way, we support local farmers while ensuring the freshest, highest-quality ingredients possible go into our cupcakes. I would say that the employees make it what it is as well. We have trained pastry chefs on staff to make the highest quality pastries. We have total artistic control over the feature flavors we run—that’s why you’ll find everything from the classic eggnog to sweet and salty chocolate covered pretzel to funky blue cheese and walnut gracing our cupcake case every week.

SMG: As far as the cake goes we really do use excellent products, European butter with high-fat content, Valrhona chocolates, Maldon sea salts, local Virginia peanuts. In the summer/fall we can be found out on the farms picking our own fruits for our feature flavor cupcakes; this year we picked strawberries, peaches, and apples. Also, we do whatever we can to make an event memorable. We are one of the only cupcakeries (to my knowledge) in the area that will do custom work from company logos to engagement rings, baby onesies and teddy bears, we have done purses and stiletto heels! 


Do you have any special flavors planned for the upcoming holidays?

CW: We sure do! Starting after Thanksgiving, we’ll have a cardamom and pistachio cake with a kumquat buttercream. Then we’ll roll out the classic eggnog cupcake, followed by a peppermint chocolate. To ring in the New Year, we’re doing a mulled cider cupcake.

We have a feature flavor that changes every Friday. Coming up we have a take on the Girl Scout Cookie Samoa, after that our fans on Facebook can vote for their favorite spice cake we have listed and the winner will be the flavor that we make that week. The week before Christmas we have eggnog cake topped with homemade biscotti, then for Christmas we have classic combination of peppermint and chocolate. And to finish out the year we have a mulled cider to toast your friends with.

Red Velvet Cupcakery

(Left to right, top to bottom: B-Day, Cookies 'N Cream, Peanut Butter Cup, Devil's Food, Cookies 'N Cream, Peanut Butter Cup)

How often do you eat cupcakes?

CW: That’s a tough question to answer. I regularly taste cupcakes to ensure quality or if I am trying to develop a new recipe. But, eat? I would say that I eat a cupcake for the sheer pleasure of eating one about once a week or so.

SMG: If I see something I might like, that intrigues me, or I am in a different city, I will have a cupcake, but not often.

What's the best thing about eating cupcakes?

CW: The sandwich! I tear the bottom off the cupcake and put it on the top. So, it gives you two layers of cake with the icing in the middle. It brings me back to growing up with whoopie pies and makes me feel like a kid again.

SMG: Feeling like a kid again; simple joy that’s what a cupcake can do.

What's your favorite type of cupcake?

CW: Peanut Butter Cup—I have always been a sucker for the sweet and salty combo. Tied for second would be two different feature flavors that we’ve done—a Mexican hot chocolate or dark & stormy.

Nothing really sweet. To sit and enjoy, I like it simple, a nice vanilla or almond pound cake with a chocolate buttercream is good for me.

Red Velvet Cupcakery

Peanut Butter Cup "Chocolate buttermilk cake with chocolate chips and not-too-sweet, not-too-salty peanut butter topping"

Red Velvet Cupcakery

B-Day "an almond scented blonde cake topped with Valrhona milk chocolate garnished with confetti birthday sprinkles"

How do cupcakes compare/contrast to other baked goods for you?

CW: It’s great that they can range anywhere from the rustic to elegant and elaborate. Few baked goods and pastries have the capability of reaching out to such a broad scope of people. Certainly, they are limited by the fact that they are always going to be some form of cake with some form of icing on top. But to be honest, all categories of baked goods have limits to them too.

I like brownies, they are my weakness. As far as baking, I like bench work, rolling tart shells is a stress relief for me. And ice cream, I like to be able to play with the flavors and figure out the perfect balance for different types of ice creams.

Is there any innovation you'd like to see made to the cupcake that would improve it for you?

CW: I keep trying to introduce more savory ingredients into cupcakes, and I would love to see that embraced industry wide. I enjoy getting people to expand their horizons and branch out a little bit. Savory cupcakes are a great way to do that; it’s still something familiar, just with a bit of a twist.

I enjoy savory cupcakes as well, so the maybe growth of that side of the industry.

Do you bake your own cupcakes? Or (even better) have someone who bakes them for you?

CW: Of course! Whenever I go somewhere, people ask for cupcakes, and I have to give the people what they want. Unfortunately, no one bakes cupcakes for me. I’ve found that being in the industry, most people are scared to bake or cook for me…very few people make that leap to give me a treat.

SMG: They wouldn’t be as much fun if I couldn’t do the work myself. Every day that I am available to be in the kitchen I bake cupcakes, and work on the day's prep list. But for the times I do not get to be in the kitchen I have a team that rocks it out for me.

What's your first cupcake-related memory?

CW: My mom would always make cakes for my birthday growing up that were cutouts or cartoon characters or whatever. I remember being very young, and she made a bunny cake for me that had cupcakes for the feet and arms. I grabbed one and vaguely attempted eating it—according to the pictures, little of it actually made it to my mouth. She should have known that she was making a monster by letting me play with my food at such a young age.

SMG: Oh, that’s hard…I know I had cupcakes before this but, when I was in second grade everyone in the class took turns bringing in cupcakes one Friday a month, we would all look forward to that week.


Red Velvet Cupcakery

What's the most fun you've ever had with a cupcake?
CW: Isn’t that a little personal?? ;) 

SMG: That’s easy, when I was in college we had a kids day and taught them all about cookies and cupcakes and helped them decorate what they made. Their faces and how much joy they had when they figured out how to do it was just amazing.  

Thanks, Ciji and Stephanie, for answering our questions and sharing so much about Red Velvet Cupcakery and the cupcake business in the Washington DC (or Doha, Qatar!!) area. We'll be sure to drop by for some of your signature red velvets (called Southern Belles) next time we are in the area!

Washington, DC: Penn Quarter
501 7th St. NW
Monday-Friday, 8am-11pm
Saturday and Sunday, 9am-11pm
t: 202-347-7895

Arlington, VA: Clarendon
3035 Clarendon Boulevard
t: 703-243-5660

Reston, VA Town Center
11939 Democracy Drive
Monday-Thursday, 11am-10pm
Friday-Sunday, 11am-11pm
t: 703-464-7075

West Bay, Doha
Katara - Valley of Cultures



daniela newhart said…
Great interview, I am a childhood friend of Ciji's and was blessed by being able to taste a tiramisu cupcake she made over the summer, which is probably the best cupcake I've ever had!! She is doing amazing things and is truly inspiring!!!