Before posh donuts, rolled ice cream and unicorn-flavored-everything, there were cupcakes. The original Instagram-favorite dessert, the frosted treats experienced a massive surge in popularity in the late 2000s — a sweet love affair that has yet to show signs of waning.
One of the pioneers of the trend was Lola’s Cupcakes. The cupcake bakery has enjoyed phenomenal international success since it was started by two friends in a London kitchen just over 10 years ago, and while several dessert fads have since tried to steal their crown, the continued growth of Lola’s is the proof in the pudding that cupcakes are more than just a passing trend.
Now, the cult of the cupcake has come to Japan with Tokyo’s very own branch of Lola’s Cupcakes — well, two branches to be exact, the flagship in Harajuku and a recently opened store in Roppongi. Lola’s grand opening this time two years ago saw lines around the block. Today the bakery, operating out of the small kitchen at the back of the Harajuku location, has to roll out more than 1,000 cupcakes a day (cupcakes are sold fresh daily, never frozen). We sat down with Aya Hoshino, an accountant turned cupcake entrepreneur who brought Lola’s to Japan, to find out more.
How did you get involved with Lola’s Cupcakes?
Actually my husband discovered it while on a business trip in London. Between meetings he was looking for a cup of coffee and ended up in the Mayfair store and saw how cute it was. So I looked up the website and it said “Franchisees welcome in the Middle East and beyond.” At that time, cupcakes were really popular in the Middle East, so the owners were focusing on that region. But I contacted them and said; “What do you think about Japan?” I was working for a bank and had no experience in the food industry but there was something about Lola’s that made me want to be involved.
What made you think that Lola’s had the potential for success here in Japan?
I think that the Japanese culture has more of a feeling for cute, visual brands and Lola’s is that way. Lola’s Cupcakes is playful and that does very well here, especially with youngsters. Also, people like London, they like products connected to the UK.
What were some of the challenges establishing Lola’s in Japan?
After we got the franchise agreement, the first big hurdle was finding the right site to open the store. For us, Harajuku was the ideal place but at the time nobody knew about Lola’s Cupcakes. Then, in January 2015, we found out that there was this new Cascade Harajuku building opening in July. Luckily they were focusing on food, and already planned on hosting Mexican, American, Italian restaurants, and a Taiwanese cafe, so I think they thought cupcakes would be something interesting, something sweet that wasn’t in the building yet.
How does the Japanese Lola’s differ from the stores back in the UK?
We tried to make it a balance between keeping things London-esque while adding in some Japanese originals. We had to adjust the UK recipes to give them a different type of sweetness to suit Japanese customers. Our Japan originals include Matcha, Tokyo Vanilla, which uses white bean curd, Royal Milk Tea and Blood Orange. Of course, we had to bring everything back to London to make sure the UK owners were OK with it. In fact, the matcha flavor was a huge hit and Selfridges [a famous British department store] are now selling it.
What are your best-selling products?
Red Velvet is the most popular flavor here, as it is in London. People don’t know the red velvet flavor here and Lola’s Cupcakes have helped to kind of spread knowledge of it, and people do come back for it. Matcha and Tokyo Vanilla also sell well too.
Do you accept orders for custom-made cupcakes?
We have a London lookbook where customers can order custom-made cakes. Of course, they can call or come into the store and make orders for cupcakes too. We get a lot of requests for parties, especially around occasions — White Day is definitely our busiest period.
Halloween cupcakes were very popular this year, we got a lot queries over the phone for big batches of Halloween cupcakes. We’re also planning some special recipes for Christmas too.
Do you have any plans to expand?
We want to go online when the timing is right. We do need another store in a year’s time or so but I don’t think it’s right to have one in every station in Tokyo — I want it to be a bit more of a special place that you have to travel to. We’re thinking three or four in central Tokyo, perhaps one in Yokohama and Chiba. Of course, we’ll need a bigger kitchen!
Finally, what’s your favorite cupcake?
The first Lola’s cupcake I had was blueberry. It’s such a pretty color, and a lovely balance of flavor with the cream cheese which also keeps it moist at the same time as being fluffy. After I had it, I knew that there was no going back; Lola’s belonged in Japan.
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