by Alexandra Sheckler
August 15, 2008 – Nearly everywhere you turn you’re facing another copycat business where skinny vanilla lattes (hold the whipped cream) and cookie-cutter sweets conquer tired taste buds. Just when it seems like originality has drowned in the sea of corporate businesses, Molly’s Cupcakes prevails.
What sets Molly’s Cupcakes apart from other bakeries and coffee shops is a combination of the atmosphere and the goodies they sell. With homemade desserts, a cozy, family-like environment and the promise of giving back to the community, Molly’s Cupcakes is truly one-of-a-kind.
The story behind the name of the cute-as-a-button Lincoln Park bakery is as sweet as the treats it sells. Owner John Nicolaides named the café in honor of his elementary school teacher. He fondly remembers her bringing cupcakes to class every time a student had a birthday.
“I was in third grade so I had a slight crush,” Nicolaides said.
Walking into Molly’s Cupcakes is like taking a step back into your childhood. An antique school desk holds stacks of board games and the walls are decorated with keepsakes of old schoolhouses, including ice skates and cookie jars. Circular tables resemble multi-colored lily pads for families, couples and singles to sit and enjoy dessert.
“They take care of me here,” James Carlson, 23-year-old customer said, holding a cupcake loaded with vanilla frosting and rainbow colored sprinkles.
Cupcakes are comparatively cheaper at Molly’s, according to Nicolaides, where places like Cupcakes and Swirlz Cupcakes charge $3-$3.50 for a basic cupcake and Molly’s charges $2.
“The first time I came here I couldn’t help but notice the size of the strawberries. They were so big that I just had to buy the strawberry shortcake cupcake,” said Peri Phillips, 22-year-old Lincoln Park resident.
Cupcakes range from $1 to $3.50, offering Mini Molly’s, Molly’s, Build Your Own, Vegan, and Center-Filled cupcakes.
Build Your Own cupcakes allow you to choose from chocolate, vanilla, carrot or red velvet cake. Frostings available are chocolate, vanilla, cream cheese, brown butter and French butter cream.
Toppings behind the counter allow you to personalize your cupcake and they include hot fudge, caramel, whipped cream, chocolate chips, M&Ms, and gummy bears.
Or, if you’re feeling adventurous, you can do it yourself at the sprinkle station. Plentiful amounts of sugary toppings share counter space with the honey, cream and coffee stirrers.
“Me and my sister got vanilla,” a young boy said excitedly as a smeared red heart painted on his cheek rubbed against a swing chair, “I got sprinkles, she didn’t.”
Separate containers keep cupcakes at different temperatures. If you’re dining in, Molly’s Cupcakes will dish out a warm cupcake, and if you’re on the go they’ll sell you a cool cupcake that’s been held in a refrigerated section.
Coffee is the same price as a regular cup at Starbucks, Nicolaides said, but he believes their coffee tastes better because he serves Intelligentsia brand coffee.
Aside from coffee and cupcakes, Molly’s Cupcakes also offers cookies, pies, tarts, parfaits, milkshakes and homemade ice cream.
Sit in a chair that resembles a park-like swing that hangs from the ceiling while you enjoy your tasty treats. If you’re lucky, Nicolaides will let you help fold cupcake boxes.
“When regulars come in they’ll sit up at the counter and they’ll say ‘Hey give me some boxes, let me help you fold,’ I’ve even done it to people who come here for the first time, I go ‘Here fold some boxes,’ And they love it!”
He said it gives the café a communal atmosphere, “Don’t worry, we don’t make everybody fold boxes,” he joked.
Time Out Chicago voted Molly’s Cupcakes the best new bakery for its Eat Out Awards of 2008.
“The award is indicative of how good we are,” he said, explaining that when the voting was done, the bakery had only been open for eight weeks compared to bakeries that were opened for a year or more.
Nicolaides is a firm believer in good education and is proud to be involved in giving back to local schools. His brochure announces, “In appreciation of Molly, part of our profits go to help schools in our community. So eat up!”
The café donated its store space for a party Alcott Elementary School held.
“It was a huge deal because we had to shut down shop and we weren’t getting any sales,” he said.
They donated 500 cupcakes to the Children’s Memorial Hospital and 500 cupcakes to Lincoln Park Zoo for a fundraiser.
“We’re very new still so we have to make sure we have enough to break even before we do things like that,” he said.
Before Molly’s Cupcakes opened in December, the space formerly housed a Quiznos. Nicolaides said he was worried about opening up where a franchise once thrived then failed.
With monarch businesses like Starbucks, Caribou Coffee, Argo Tea and Einstein Bagels in walking distance from his café, Nicolaides knew he would have competition.
“Cupcakes are an impulse item,” he said, “And we get a lot of foot traffic.”
On a sunny afternoon a customer came in looking for banana nut bread and discovered it had not been made that day. The employee behind the counter suggested calling ahead next time so she could have it ready for pick-up.
“As much as we try, Starbucks just can’t be as intimate and personable with its customers as a local shop can, and that can turn people off,” downtown Chicago Starbucks employee, Alicia Wilson, said.
Nicolaides said his revenue is slightly higher than he anticipated before opening and he is optimistic it will continue to grow. He’s considering opening up a location in Bucktown in the near future, but plans are still in the making.
The icing on the cake is the late-night hours at Molly’s Cupcakes, located at 2536 N. Clark. They’re opened until 10 p.m. on weekdays and midnight on weekends. For more information call 773-883-7220 or just walk in, sit down and fold some boxes with the owner.