By Tracy Brown
Los Angeles Times
October 14, 2012
Johnny Cupcakes' Cupcakes From the Crypt national tour is scheduled to make a stop at the fast-growing brand's Los Angeles store at 7 p.m. Wednesday, offering fans limited-edition merchandise sold from coffins and the opportunity to meet founder Johnny "Cupcakes" Earle.
Earle — a college dropout from Hull, Mass. — started the cupcake-themed clothing and accessories line as a joke in 2001, initially selling T-shirts and pins from the trunk of his 1989 Camry. Since then he's won accolades — Business Week named him to its list of best entrepreneurs 25 and under in 2008, and the Boston Globe named him the most innovative retail leader in Massachusetts in 2011. Inc. Magazine cited the company as one of the fastest growing in 2012 for increasing revenue 72% over a three-year period, earning $5.2 million in gross revenue in 2011.
But back to the joke.
"I used to get a lot of nicknames," Earle, 30, explained in a recent phone interview. "People called me Johnny Appleseed. Johnny Pancakes. Johnny Cupcakes."
He was working in both a record store in Braintree, Mass., and a screen-printing shop — and playing in a metal band on the side — when he decided it would be funny to make a few Johnny Cupcakes T-shirts at the print shop. They were a hit with co-workers and customers at the record store, so he kept on screening shirts to sell.
Keeping to his cupcake theme, he began incorporating pop images and icons into his designs, replacing a prominent aspect of each with a cupcake print — his business logo, for instance, is a cupcake and crossbones. Soon, Earle expanded to selling shirts out of his suitcase while on tour with his band.
Earle's efforts and word-of-mouth success led him to focus on Johnny Cupcakes full time, eventually enabling him to start an online store and open several shops in Massachusetts, one in London, England, and the one in Los Angeles. His brand has grown to include occasional collaborative projects with companies such as Nickelodeon, Sanrio and Warner Bros.
Like his other locations, the one in Los Angeles, which opened in 2008, is designed to look like a vintage bakery. The Los Angeles shop is especially whimsical and "Willy Wonka-like," with details including pipes oozing frosting and a wall of 27 vintage ovens that open to release steam at random times. Vintage display cases showcase the merchandise. And even now novices sometimes visit the shop expecting it to be a traditional cupcake bakery, which makes the experience a practical joke for the uninitiated.
The Cupcakes From the Crypt coffin tour is hitting 21 stops across the U.S. with pop-up shops that feature limited-edition merchandise, including Halloween-themed T-shirts, hats and accessories that will be sold from mini-coffins. Customers are encouraged to come in costume, and Earle mentions that an impromptu costume contest is a possibility.
Like the brand's Suitcase Tour in 2010, Johnny Cupcake's coffin tour is a way for Earle to revisit his roots by selling merchandise out of a suitcase while touring with a band. This time, it's a tour staff of seven traveling with him as they take the Johnny Cupcakes van from East Coast to West and back during October.
"There is no real demographic," Earle said in describing his fans. "But some of the fans are so die-hard they even have [Johnny Cupcakes] tattoos." He said some devoted fans camped out waiting for the pop-up event during the last tour.
It's all a long way from the brand's beginnings. But one thing is still the same.
"I just like making people smile," Earle said.
Johnny Cupcakes, 7959 Melrose Ave. 7 p.m. Wednesday. Free. http://www.johnnycupcakes.com
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