Cupcake wars: Celebrity favourite Sprinkles launches a legal bid to lick the competition

They are America's biggest food craze since gourmet coffee. Now frosted cupcakes have cemented their standing as a staple of the national diet – by tapping into the business community's insatiable appetite for legal disputes.

Sprinkles, the cupcake chain based in Beverly Hills, whose celebrity patrons include such opinion-formers as Oprah Winfrey and Tom Cruise, has launched a series of trademark battles against rivals attempting to break into its lucrative market. In what local news outlets are calling the "cupcake wars", Sprinkles has sent half a dozen cease-and-desist letters to competitors, and filed three lawsuits. It accuses rivals of copying the design of its sugary products and infringing its trademarked name.

At the new Sprinkled Pink Cupcake Couture store in Montecito, near Santa Barbara, the owner, Wendy Jones, received a lawyer's letter last week, just one day after opening her doors. It demanded that she drop the verb "sprinkle" from her signage.

"They're going too far," she told the Los Angeles Times. "I'm sure they're protecting themselves, but there's a whole big United States out there. There's room for other cupcake shops. They shouldn't be bullying around or picking on little people like us ... I really, honestly, don't think they invented the cupcake."

Famous Cupcakes in North Hollywood was sued last month for using coloured "dots" on the top of its icing. According to Sprinkles, they resembled the trademarked "modern dot" which it uses to differentiate between different flavours of cakes.

The dispute may sound delightfully petty, but a highly-lucrative industry's future is at stake. The cupcake craze began roughly five years ago, when stars of the television show Sex and the City became patrons of Manhattan's now-famous Magnolia bakery.

In 2005, the trend spread to California with the opening of the first Sprinkles in Beverly Hills. It gained momentum when Barbra Streisand sent a tray of cakes to Winfrey, who featured them on her show.

Widespread celebrity endorsement followed. Courtney Love soon complained they'd caused her to gain 10lb. Teri Hatcher, Kevin Bacon and Serena Williams were seen queuing at the Sprinkles counter.

Most cupcake stores sell a beefed-up American version of the traditional English fairy cake. Each costs between $3 (£1.70) and $5, measures four or five inches in diameter, and contains a variety of sugary toppings and fillings. Flavours range from "peanut butter and chocolate ganache" to "red velvet with cream cheese".

There are now about 1,000 specialist stores in the US, but no pre-eminent national chain has yet emerged. Lawyers for Sprinkles, which has ambitious expansion plans, claim this explains their aggressive brand protection.

"The law says that if you're a trademark owner, you have a duty to enforce your rights," said their attorney, John Slafsky. "These are small-business people themselves. They've worked really, really hard to build a successful business, and it's frustrating for them when other folks feel comfortable copying their original creations and their original brands."

Ultimately, the industry's future may lie in whether any firm can lay claim to the verb "sprinkle," according to Doug Lichtman, a UCLA law professor. A court may also have to decide if the "modern dot" on Sprinkles cakes really does set it apart from its rivals.

"It might be that, from the perspective of a cupcake customer, the 'modern dot' simply looks like one of several traditional allocations of frosting," he said. "That might make the mouth water, but it would not warrant legal protection."

A brief history of the cake in a cup

US celebrities may have fuelled the modern obsession with the cupcake but it dates back to a time when the likes of Hummingbird and Sprinkles were a mere glint in a baker's eye.

In 18th-century America, harried housewives apparently saved time by measuring cake ingredients in cups rather than by weight. The ovens of the day also meant larger cakes took an age to bake and burnt easily.

This explains the "cup" name but some preferred to call the treats "number" or "1234" cakes because of the proportions required to bake one (generally, one cup of butter, two of sugar, three of flour and four eggs, plus a cup of milk and a spoonful of soda).

The earliest recipe for a cupcake appears in American Cookery by Amelia Simmons, the first American cookbook (1796): "A light Cake to bake in small cups: Half a pound sugar, half a pound butter, rubbed into two pounds flour, one glass wine, one do. Rosewater, two do. Emptins, a nutmeg, cinnamon and currants."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
general electionThis quiz matches undecided voters with the best party for them
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen starred in the big screen adaptation of Austen's novel in 2005
tvStar says studios are forcing actors to get buff for period roles
Prince William and his wife Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge show their newly-born daughter, their second child, to the media outside the Lindo Wing at St Mary's Hospital in central London, on 2 May 2015.
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Ashdown Group: Part-time Payroll Officer - Yorkshire - Professional Services

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful professional services firm is lo...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before