Let Them Eat Cake

Let Them Eat Cake


“A chef and a mixologist walk into a bar…” reads the Twitter bio of the tag-team that comprises Prohibition Bakery, NYC’s original alcoholic cupcake shop. In September, partners Brooke Siem and Leslie Feinberg celebrated one year of successful business at the tiny Lower-East-Side cupcakery with an attitude as potent as their product. Prohibition Bakery is steadily gaining the attention of press and a short film on the company will even be featured at this month’s New York Food Film Festival. “Please eat responsibly,” the website warns.

“Boozy cupcakes…Seriously.”

Every day except Monday, the chalkboard sign outside Prohibition Bakery entices passersby to come in and try the sinful sweets in a sardonic voice clearly reminiscent of its owners, chef Brooke Siem and mixologist Leslie Feinberg.

The spunky and more-than-slightly sarcastic 20-somethings don matching aprons six days a week in a 200-square-foot kitchen at 9 Clinton Street to run New York City’s original alcoholic cupcake company, Prohibition Bakery.

Prohibition’s anniversary in September celebrated a year of success marked by daily orders of up to 900 bite-size confections, catering a high-end event for Marc Jacobs and the release of three seasonal flavors for fall, Shiny Apple (cheddar, apple, cider spices, moonshine), Saucy Pumpkin (pumpkin, Oktoberfest, Divine chocolate, sage) and Hot Buttered Rum (brown butter frosting, brown sugar crumble, spiced rum). What accounts for the massive success of these miniature cupcakes, the stars of the short film, “Prohibition Bakery” to be screened at the New York Food Film Festival at the end of this month? Blame it on the business’s brazen personality and of course, the alcohol.

The cupcake craze is nothing new and a Google search restricted to Manhattan alone reveals more than 500 shops promoting adorable mini-cakes filled with rainbows and smiles. But Siem and Feinberg don’t consider themselves in the same business. “I’m more concerned with other boozy desserts [such as ice-cream],” says Feinberg. “But our product is so sound I’m not terribly concerned.”

The creative collaboration responsible for Prohibition’s products began a little over two years ago. While on a birthright trip to Israel, Siem and Feinberg met and bonded over a mutual affinity for sarcasm and a frustration with a recession that made finding financially and emotionally rewarding work difficult for both baker and bartender. Upon their return to the city, baker Siem leaned on bartender Feinberg’s expertise when Siem’s friends requested boozy baked goods for their birthday parties. The millennials’ first projects included car bomb (Irish stout, cream, whiskey) cupcakes and a Cosmo cake. The ardent approval by party guests inspired Prohibition Bakery and by June, five months after they met, Siem and Feinberg each contributed $300 and signed the paperwork.

The duo began filling orders out of Siem’s apartment and moonlighting at a catering kitchen. By summer 2012 they signed a lease at Clinton Street to meet the growing demands of companies including Google. “Since then we’ve stopped making cakes and cosmos,” laughs Feinberg. Instead, Prohibition creatively utilizes every sacred square foot to concoct batches of mini-cupcakes and the occasional special-order cake topper. “It’s a good thing Refrigerator Tetris is one of my many skills,” says Feinberg.

More than two-thirds of the business comes from catering for corporate and office events but walk-ins are welcomed. Yo-pros (young professionals), college dudes, moms and adorable elderly couples who think the shop’s concept is “cray-ah-zee” all step up to the two wooden barrels that fittingly form the shop’s makeshift counter. The Bakery also has its regulars who return almost daily hoping that one of the six flavors scribbled on the chalkboard menu will be one they haven’t yet indulged. If not, they’ll likely settle for a Pretzel and Beer (pale ale, Nutella, pretzel, white truffle) or a White Russian (Kahlua, vodka, coffee), the shop’s most popular selections.

The boozy cupcakes go for $2 each (or three for $5, a dozen for $20), but amidst the kid-unfriendly menu options there are a few virgin choices for the young ones, or those expecting young ones soon. These temperate treats such as For the Love of Bacon (bacon, bittersweet chocolate, toffee) were crafted with the same reverence for uniquely detailed savor as their fermented counterparts.

Prohibition Bakery uses local and seasonal ingredients and real eggs, gluten, dairy, nuts, caffeine, soy and bacon. “We’re not vegan; we’re vice,” says Feinberg. No artificial colors or flavorings. The booze is added after baking to prevent alcohol diffusion. How do they create the alcohol-filled gooey centers and decadent frosting without soaking the sweets into a soggy mess? “Magic,” the website teases.

There is definitely a sense of charm that surrounds the Lower-East-Side venue. This was the first spot the young women looked at because it was within budget and they were thrilled to find such a fan base immediately.  “I didn’t expect the neighborhood to be such a neighborhood,” says Feinberg. “Everyone’s warm and welcoming—even our quote ‘competition’ Clinton St. Baking Company across the street is great. We borrow flour, they get cinnamon.”

Prohibition Bakery’s walls are lined with black-and-white photos evoking its namesake’s era and the obligatory warning sign over the counter. In compliance with NY state law, each cupcake contains less than 5 percent alcohol by volume but you do have to be of age to partake. They card.

“And we’re highly trained to know if you’re a 19-year-old undergrad trying to pass us a fake ID,” warns the website. Even the tongue-in-cheek name encapsulates the business’s temperament that celebrates a healthy lack of temperance.

The pair agrees that part of their appeal is the snarky attitude.  “The cupcakes and our branding make us memorable,” says Siem. Feinberg adds, “We’re not super cup-cakey girls. We’re not pink or bubbly or adorable Hello Kitty. There’s an edge to our cupcakes like there’s an edge to our personalities.”

They’re searching for a larger space. They’re designing merchandise including t-shirts to be sold alongside the customized bags in store. And, they’re constantly inspired to create new cupcake cocktails, which on average take at least a dozen tries to perfect.

“We will never make a red-velvet cupcake,” says Feinberg. Like their cupcakes, Brook Siem and Leslie Feinberg are made of sugar, vice and not everything nice.  But as Feinberg removes her apron on a Tuesday afternoon and heads toward the door to attend a Prohibition Bakery promotional event, she flashes a wry smile at Siem and reflects,  “Bitches get shit done.”

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