Category Archives: Economics of Desserts

Get Your Economics Out of My Dessert

A Review of the Book:

An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies

By Tyler Cowen


The focus of this thought provoking book is on “constructing a better eating experience” by following economic principles – some of which are not so intuitive. 

Mr. Cowen believes:

● You don’t have to spend a lot for good food.  Stick to restaurants where “the owners are chefs are devoted to food they love to prepare.”  He’s a particular fan of ethnic restaurants where the owners and chefs are preparing the foods of their respective homelands.

● “Food is a product of supply and demand, so try to figure out where supplies are fresh, the suppliers are creative, and the demanders are informed.”

●  The quality and taste of American food declined when food production and preparation became so commercialized and efficient. 

While desserts are only mentioned in passing in this book, his principles can surely be applied to the tastiest part of any meal – dessert.

We’ll use cupcakes as an example. Cupcakes, once a treat for children only, are now extremely popular.   A quick scan of the Manhattan cupcake landscape turned up:

● 9 different cupcake retailers, including bakeries whose main products are cupcakes

● 41 different cupcake stores since a few of the retailers have multiple locations

● Numerous bakeries selling cupcakes as part of larger product lines

Interestingly, cupcakes are bi-coastal and international.  One retailer who got its start in Los Angeles has a location in New York and a New York retailer has locations in Los Angeles, not to mention a number of other cities.  Another retailer has a store in Dubai.

While some of these bakeries emphasize their artisan roots, in some respects cupcakes have become mass market products.  (On display in housewares stores are scores of “cupcake paraphernalia” – cupcake images adorn trivets, serving plates, aprons, dishes, and trinket boxes.  What’s more, you can even find cupcake-themed clothing and jewelry.  This writer confesses to owning disposable cardboard coasters with outlined images of cupcakes as well as a gold cupcake necklace.)

What would you expect from the ubiquitousness of cupcakes?  A decline in quality.  What would be the result of still strong cupcake demand from children?  A decline in taste since visual appeal may matter than taste to children.

Has this happened?  Probably.

While the writer has not tried all of the cupcake retailers in Manhattan, she has tried several.  She has found some of them to be OK – the cupcakes are fresh and pretty looking, but the taste is nothing special.  Her favorite cupcake retailer is Buttercup, although she’s not happy that the lemon cupcake was retired.  She enjoys cupcakes (and other baked goods) from Two Little Red Hens.