Cupcake interview with James Gray of Pittsburgh's Dozen Cupcakes

Name: James Gray

Title: Baker/Owner, Dozen Cupcakes

Age: 33

Location: Pittsburgh, PA

Occupation: Baker (used to be a high school English teacher)


Why did you decide to start Dozen and what prior baking experience did you have?

I started Dozen Cupcakes on a lark, really. I had been looking for a job teaching high school English but kept coming up short. I had to get a job so I started thinking about my culinary training again. I attended the culinary institute in Chicago and worked in various restaurants as cook, chef, and baker. My first cooking job was as the baker for a small café in Chicago, which really propelled my interest in baking. When I moved to Pittsburgh 6 months ago I saw that it was a city going through some big changes culturally. I recognized that now was the time to start a business like this.

What was the Pittsburgh cupcake scene like before you came along?

There wasn't one. Pittsburgh has some great old-school bakeries that have been around forever, and many of them do cupcakes. But their cupcakes are more of a traditional approach. I want to bring a bakery to Pittsburgh like the ones you find in Chicago or New York.

You say on your website that your shop is "not just a place to grab a cupcake and run." What have you done in terms of designing the bakery to make it welcoming? What will your hours be and do you have a main type of customer you're marketing yourself towards?

Our aesthetic is going to be very comfortable and welcoming. We are taking the "modern-rustic" approach. So there will be a lot of antique elements combined with some more modern fixtures. We are in a very small space so it will be quaint. Because of its size we will only have about 4 tables, but one of them will be a kids table. We are planning to be open from 10-7 every day and closed on Mondays. Because we are offering the Cosmopolitan cupcake on Friday and Saturday, we will eventually stay open later on those nights. Our customer is anyone who enjoys a good cupcake every now and again. We have even put a Pittsburgh Steelers cupcake on our menu that you can get on Sundays for football fans. We certainly won't discriminate.

What makes Dozens cupcakes different from other bakeries'?

Dozen is a fresh idea in these parts. We focus on the cupcake because we feel that it is a little gem. Our unique flavors and decorating approaches make the cupcakes exciting. But what really sets us apart is our commitment to variety and creativity. The cupcake is like a blank canvas and can be transformed easily to suit any sort of purpose. The other advantage is its convenience factor. Having a cupcake bakery makes it very easy to quickly satisfy one’s urges for a great piece of cake.

You offer some unusual flavors, such as the mint meltaway, rocky road, key lime pie, asteroids (chocolate cupcake topped with vanilla buttercream and coco puffs cereal), the root beer float, and pineapple upside down cake, with a coffee cupcake and a cosmo cranberry-vodka cupcake (!!) coming soon. How'd you come up with these, and which is
your favorite? Do most of your customers prefer the basics or do they like these more out-there flavors?

These flavors are classic. One thing I prefer in baking is a real home-style approach. I wanted to translate some classic flavors into a cupcake and so worked to do that in a way that was unique. I've been surprised at what people prefer. Just when you think you know someone they change it up on you. So I have tried to offer a variety of elegant to kid-oriented cupcakes to suit people’s wide culinary tastes and curiosities. Most customers have wanted to try all of them!

Your retail space is set to open on December 15th. Is there going to be a grand opening party or specials that week? What can customers expect when they come to Dozen?

Well, we are working hard to open on this date, but people should watch the website for official details. We don't have anything crazy planned, but since it is a Friday night I think we will stay open late and have hundreds of cupcakes for people to taste and to buy. I hope to have samples of all our varieties so if you want to sample root beer float and asteroids you will be able to do that. I imagine the music will be playing and we will be ready to see the community come out give it a try.

What else will you serve besides cupcakes? Are cupcakes going to be the only food item available?

For now, cupcakes are it. Although we have lot's of ideas. The website will keep you updated on what we have running around in our heads. We will also offer Intelligentsia coffee, Horizon Organic Milk, and a variety of other hot and cold beverages including tea and specialty sodas.

Right now, you do custom orders and will continue to do catering. What areas of the city do you serve, and how far in advance should people order their cupcakes? Will you do custom flavors or write on the cupcakes?

We will cater to just about any area of the city. For large orders, like weddings or black-tie events, we just ask for about a week’s notice. Of course, the sooner you let us know the better. We can also create custom flavors and frostings; if anyone is interested in that, then we will just sit down and work it out. We are very flexible people and want to help make customers' parties and events exciting and unique.

You have several holiday cupcakes you're now offering: gingerbread with vanilla buttercream topped with a ginger snap, white chocolate peppermint, and eggnog with buttercream frosting. How long will you be selling these, and do you have any other special holiday offerings planned (Valentine's Day, etc.)?

We will sell the holiday specials through Decenber 31st. We will also do specials throughout the year. I'm thinking about a spicy chocolate cupcake for Valentine's, but check back for this one.

Where did you get the idea for the Andy Warhol cupcakes? Were they for a special event or just an experiment?

I found this neon colored food coloring and thought I'd like to see what that looked like. After I did the four different colors it reminded me of an Andy Warhol silk screen. So I dropped the pansies on top and called it the Warhol. After I posted the pictures on the website I got a lot of interest. So I will probably do them as a special order option for now.

And now for some personal questions . . .

How often do you eat cupcakes?

Now that I am baking them for a living I eat them a lot. I have to taste for quality (but mostly to satisfy my own cravings.)

What's the best thing about eating cupcakes?

It's a piece of cake in a manageable, on-the-go form. The shape of the cupcake is what is important. It is easy to hold and provides the paper barrier between your fingers and the actual cake so you don't get it all over. You also lose the need for utensils. It's so convenient.

What's your favorite type of cupcake?

Hmmm. I think they should be hearty. In most of my recipes I use a combination of cake and all-purpose flour to add just a bit of heft to the cake. I don't care for a delicate crumb and over-decorated frosting. Good and simple with bold flavors is what I prefer.

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

I love all baked goods. Especially if they are homemade.

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

No way. I think the cupcake is becoming an ambassador to the bakery industry and it needs to maintain its true self.

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

Currently I do all the baking. 100%. Once the store opens there will be an additional baker who will help bake the cupcakes and run the kitchen.

What's your first cupcake-related memory?

That's a hard one. Probably the bake sales at the Polish and Slavic picnics we used to go to every Sunday when I was a kid. When my grandparents were still alive we ate a lot of traditional desserts. So anything that was "American" really fascinated me. Especially the way cupcakes were often decorated with sprinkles and colorful frostings. I always felt like you were getting more for the bang than just a simple cake.

What's the most fun you've ever had with a cupcake?

My 32nd birthday. My partner Andrew purchased 60 cupcakes from a shop in Chicago, where we used to live. The entire party was crazy for the cupcakes and everyone enjoyed the different flavors.


Anonymous said…
I can't wait for this to open! Pittsburgh truly needs a place like this. My only wish would have been that this place be in Regent Square instead of Sq. Hill!
Anonymous said…
Watch out, bitches!

Looks like there'll be a CUPCAKE BATTTEL ROYALE here in the 'Burgh, with
(in Squizzle Hizzle)

(in Shadyside)

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Anonymous said…
cupcake rivalry never hurt anyone good luck to both of you and especially dozen cupcakes keep the cupcakes coming.

whiting In
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Unknown said…
i would PAY someone if they have a recipe for the cupcakes in Intelligensia Coffee and Tea shop. Or something that tastes as amazing!
Intelligensia is a chain store in Chicago area, and i dont know if it exists elsewhere.
Anonymous said…
I am in the process of starting my own cupcake shop in Canada! Way to go Good luck!
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Sugar said…
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