Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Cupcakes and My Budget

Phoebe’s Cupcakes
3327 North Broadway
Chicago, IL 60657
(773) 868-4000

I would like to thank Clinton Bissett and Jennifer Cameron in the editing of this particular entry. 

Dear Reader, you probably have noticed that I have been most languid in my blog postings as of late.  Initially I wanted to finish all of my “30 Blogs” prior to my 30th birthday; alas, I did not have the time, and I also have other writing/reading engagements on the side.  But I would like to reveal that I am about to finish my last 5 blogs shortly.  On a separate note, I have been trying to think of other subjects to tackle after my final 30th blog.  Some ideas include: grilled cheese sandwiches, cheeseburgers, restaurants noted on the Food Network and Travel Channel, movie reviews and/or commentaries about books.

I have actually gone to Phoebe’s Cupcakes twice for this blog.  The first time I went, I thought it was called Phoebe’s Cupcakes [Cupcake Bar].  Well it is not called that.  Shit.  So I went a second time and actually sat at “the bar” and consumed my cupcake, and guess what Dear Reader, there have been many sacrifices in history and culture.  Melville was entranced with sacrifice and martyrdom.  Lincoln was “sacrificed” to preserve the union.  Syndey Carton engaged in self-sacrifice for his love.  And we are coming close to Easter, so we should not forget about a minor event regarding two planks of wood and a spear.   But Dear Reader, I too have engaged in sacrifice – I spent $5.60 at Phoebe’s to bring you this blog.  Love does spring eternal. 

Phoebe’s Cupcakes offers several different types of cupcakes.  But for some reason, probably attributed to an early onset of dementia, I ordered the same type of cupcake twice - “Salted Caramel.”  Now when I go back to a restaurant for a second time, I try to order an item I did not previously consume; thus, getting a broader picture of the kitchen.  I failed here.  I ordered the same cupcake twice.   In hindsight, and in defense of my forgetfulness, I tend to order interesting item on the menu, and Phoebe’s as much as it tries to dress up its carbohydrates in couture, provides relatively lackluster fare.  “Red Velvet” – boring!  “Tuxedo” – I can go to Starbucks and get an Americano with it for 10% off.  “Apple Crunch” – if I wanted a muffin, I would get one at Einstein’s.  So “Salted Caramel” it was – Parts One and Two.

(On a side note, Phoebe’s also offers a breakfast cupcake which is soaked in maple syrup and topped with ½ a strip of bacon.  I did not order this because I did not find this to be an adequate play on sweet and savory.  In fact there is no “savory” on the item.  Think about it, a strip of bacon does not make an item savory, it may make it salty and smoky, but that’s it.   A more interesting item would have been actually incorporating the bacon into the cupcake).

Now I want to dispel any insinuation that I loath Phoebe’s.  They make an adequate cupcake.  But that is the point, it is merely adequate.  The most noteworthy item of Phoebe’s is that its cupcakes are moist.  Like two reunited lovers in a Nicholas Sparks novel, the mere press of its flesh elicits so much sugary liquid that it verges on the grotesque.   Moist and sweet, that is all I can say about it, I left unsatisfied.

There was no cigarette afterwards.  But the point of culinary criticism where I must gnash my teeth is the light hand in the salt.  To wit I quote from Phoebe’s website “topped with Himalayan Rose Sea Salt.”  Now I am the first to stipulate, salts do taste differently.  Sea salt does taste differently than table salt, than kosher salt, than Hawaiian black sea salt.  But what is the point of calling it “Salted Caramel” when it is only the caramel you can taste.  In fact, as I look at the pictures, no matter how much I use Adobe and magnify, I can’t find anything red on the cupcake.  THERE IS NO SALT!  And if there is no quantifiable amount of salt, then what is the point of calling it “Salted”?  Now Dear Reader, I am not speaking in hyperbole but in fact, you are clearly a genius for finding me in this vast terrain as we know as blogspot - and you will likely argue “Eric, maybe the problem is that you have an inferior palate.”  I probably do; nay, I stipulate, my tongue is likely not as sharp as yours, - my taste buds are dull and ground to fleshy nubs that can not distinguish between “Mandarin Chicken,” “Orange Chicken,” and “General Tso’s Chicken,” but there was no discernable salt in these cupcakes.  This is not to say that caramel and salt are not interesting plays on food.  Some ice-cream parlors actually do it quite well.  Paciugo, Sapore di Napoli Pizzeria &; Gelateria (which is half a block down the street) does an excellent “Salted and Caramel Gelato.”  It is just that Phoebe’s fails on riding the bandwagon.  It is merely a “Caramel Cupcake.”

Returning to the $5.50 that I spent at Phoebe’s, my blood begins to boil.  Now a cupcake costs $2.50 – yes $2.50 – the price of a Venti Iced Americano – the Holy Grail which gives me life.  $2.50 for a cupcake, or lets face it, a glorified piece of cake molded into the form of something cute that we remember in our childhoods, and then charged a premium.  Is it worth it?  Well from tone and text of this blog you can probably gauge my answer, but let’s look to Microeconomics for the answer.

We all live with “Budget Constraints”.  With my income, I can buy a designated amount.  Since I have very little disposable income, I cannot take a vacation to Rome.  Since I have some disposable income I may be able to buy Final Fantasy.  Since I bought Bank of America stock right after TARP, I may have tons of income and I can buy whatever I like.  We all have a Budget Constraint, and most are modeled with two variables.  Based on my budget I can buy so much of X and so much of Y. 

Now once a month I volunteer for bringing dinner for Bible Study, and last month I actually purchased cupcakes at Jewel.  Now due to Google Analytics I have been able to somewhat customize my blogs to my readers: for those in California think of Ralph’s, for those in Dallas think of Kroger, and for those in Russia think of Pyatyorochka.  Jewel was selling 24 cupcakes for $5.99.  They are not wonderful cupcakes, they are quite dense, and the icing is quite sweet.  I admit Phoebe’s provides a superior product.  But in the most craven terms, one Phoebe Cupcake is equivalent to a dozen Jewel Cupcakes ((Two dozen for $6 vs. $2.75 (with sales tax at Phoebe’s) for each Salted Caramel)).  So assuming my income is $6.00 my Budget Constraint regarding cupcakes would look pretty much like this. 

Is it worth it?

Well we then have to go into the dreaded concept of “Utility.”  Now “Utility” is one of those things in economics that I find to be fascinating, but have very little application in real life because we can’t quantify it.  Utility is defined as the amount of satisfaction one derives from the consumption of a particular item.  That is problematic because I don’t know what it means.  My utility for artichokes is nearly infinite, but my utility for refried beans is next to nil.  In fact I have this obscene and irrational hatred of refried beans.  If they even come close to touching any of my food, I must turn it away.  There was at least one meal where I chose to disenfranchise people I was dining with in order to wean myself of those infernal mashed legumes.  As I sacrificed nearly $6.00 at Phoebe’s I would freely sacrifice relationships to get refried beans off my plate.  But guess what, the world is often appalling.  Some people – including my dearest friend Pauline seems to have an irrational hatred of artichokes rather than refried beans!  She would rather eat frijoles refritos than Gaia’s Holy Thistle.  She derives more utility from a can of Old El Paso then the tender green heart of an artichoke (which is fine for me because I do not want aggregate demand for artichokes to increase).  I wager that most people are not as extreme as either Pauline or myself.  Like moderates who disdain the Tea Partiers, but crosses the street when they see a Transsexual Eskimo, most people probably straddle the middle – “I am ok with refried beans, as I am ok with artichokes.”

Through the use of some calculus you can actually derive a graph of the interrelationship of artichokes and refried beans; or in the case at hand, Jewel Cupcakes and Phoebe’s.  Now Utility is comprised of many things, maybe people like to have a place to sit and chat with friends.  You would think that this would be a component of Utility in Phoebe’s not found in the supermarket’s.  Well guess what, Phoebe is small and cramped.  I guess there is something novel in saying that you purchased an “adult cupcake.”  Maybe the cashier at Jewel is cuter than the one at Phoebe’s.  Let’s hold all these variables aside.  I approach my caloric consumption with a certain clinical detachment.  It is the cupcake I am looking at. 

But alack, before I reveal the graphs regarding the interrelationship between my utility of cupcakes there is something else called indigestion.  Holding price aside, how many Jewel cupcakes must I consume before it equals one of Phoebe’s superior, but unsalty cupcakes?  Well as many as I can before I throw up.  They are not perfect substitutes I may add, 3 Jewel cupcakes may conceivably be equivalent to one at Phoebe's, but the threat of throwing up, infernal bowel movements and diabetes will perniciously require me to consume more Jewel cupcakes to receive the equivalent amount of enjoyment as a second Phoebe’s cupcake.  Hence, the slope in utility curves.

Well with the derivation of my utility I can then transpose it onto my budget constraint, and that will tell me my optimal consumption of Phoebe Cupcake’s to Jewel Cupcakes.  As I told my cousin before, the important point in economics is where lines and curves intersect. 

I guess Phoebe’s wasn’t such a ripoff after all.


  1. wow..i thought i had graduated already..needless to say..awesome economics lesson good sir

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