Bakers' Dozen

Dozen Cupcakes is conveniently located. Wedged between Coldstone Creamery and Panera in Squirrel Hill, the narrow bakery covers 700 square feet and seats about six.

Of course, such close proximity is only part of the charm. The seating area is tucked immediately to the right, with three tables and chairs opposite a self-serve coffee and tea station.

From here, the main attraction is only a couple steps away: rows and rows of finely decorated cupcakes. Thursday’s menu featured the Vanilla Vanilla, Milk Chocolate, Chocolate Peanut Butter, Caramel Apple, Snowball, and the Mint Meltaway. All the cupcakes look good — firsttimers often don’t know where to begin. Luckily, part of the Dozen Cupcakes experience is its fine service.

James Gray, the head baker and co-owner of Dozen Cupcakes, is happy to help.“Do you like peanut butter?” he’ll ask. “What about apple?” After a series of questions, Gray can determine the perfect cupcake for almost any customer.

What makes Dozen cupcakes unique, Gray believes, is its commitment to quality and variety. The menu changes every day, with the exception of two permanent selections, the Vanilla Vanilla (white cake with vanilla icing) and Milk Chocolate (chocolate cake and chocolate icing).

Gray envisioned Dozen over a year ago; when he moved to Pittsburgh and could not find a job he enjoyed, he began to think about starting a business. With his formal training at the Chicago Culinary School and years of experience as a baker and chef, Gray decided to start with cupcakes. Then, Gray had to decide what would make the store unique. “[Andrew and I] wanted our store to be someplace that we would want to work,” Gray said, referring to Andrew Twigg, Dozen’s other co-owner. “We wanted it to have the feeling of a Main Street store. You know, very old-style Americana. Nothing too pretentious or super modern.” An experienced graphic designer, Twigg is in charge of branding.

“Our design was based on an old, homestyle feel, but we wanted to update it and put a more sophisticated spin on it,” Twigg said. To this end, Twigg came up with the idea of using an old-fashioned sign shape as the frame for the Dozen logo, in addition to the selection of colors: red and white — two colors associated with dairy products — and a saturated blue, both bright and cheerful.

Preparation for the store also required market research and networking. To get the word out, Gray made charitable donations on behalf of Dozen, in addition to placing advertisements in local papers. After that, Gray and Twigg were confident that Dozen was ready to go.

Or so they thought. Dozen opened its doors on Dec. 29, 2006 to an enthusiastic line out the door — too enthusiastic. “We had no idea the demand was going to be so great,” Gray recalled. “We had to make the appropriate changes quickly.”

“James and Andrew thought it was going to be a small business,” said Sora Borensztein, a Pittsburgh native who worked behind the counter when the store was new. “They thought they only needed one person other than themselves.”

“We thought wrong,” Twigg said. Dozen has since hired three bakers, one dishwasher, and four behind-the-counter workers.

For Gray, a typical day begins at 4 a.m., when he, along with his assistant baker, bake anywhere from 450 to 1200 cupcakes. Earlier in the week, Dozen sells around 400 cupcakes a day, but on Friday and during the weekend, they sell anywhere from 600 to 1000 cupcakes. Most of the sales are walk-ins, though some are pre-orders for special events, including weddings and birthdays.

Nearly a year after its opening, Dozen has found its niche in the Pittsburgh community and earned a diverse following: college students, families from the city and neighboring suburbs, young professionals, and regulars of a variety of ages and cultures. Seventy-five percent of Dozen customers are repeat customers, and 10 percent of those appear more than three times a week.
“We’ve become a fixture here,” Gray said. Referring to a customer, Gray said, “Tammy, who is quite a regular, doesn’t even have to call anymore. We have her peanut butter chocolate ready for her in a bag.”

Borensztein, also considered a regular, makes a trip to Dozen every Friday for a box of cupcakes for the weekend. “My brother, sisters, and I are trying to make the perfect 4 box, the perfect combination of four cupcakes so that we’re all satisfied,” Borensztein said. “It’s hard. There’s a debate between the Carrot Cake and Lemon Gingerbread. I always get the Milk Chocolate; it’s still my favorite.”

After making a buzz with their cupcakes, Gray and Twigg are ready to take Dozen to the next level. In mid-January, Dozen Bakery will open in Lawrenceville. The bakery will feature freshly baked scones, pastries, cookies, and other sweet treats along with a full coffee and tea bar. Brunch will be served every Sunday and will include quiche, waffles, and homemade granola. Twigg believes the bakery will provide Pittsburgh with something it seems to be missing: an inviting, casual place for people to eat breakfast.

For now, Gray and Twigg couldn’t be happier with what they’ve been able to accomplish with Dozen Cupcakes. “It’s cozy and quaint,” Gray said. “The people who work here are very nice. People like the interaction they get here, even if it is brief.”

Twigg added, “That our customers come in every day and tell us how much they love our cupcakes and how happy they are that we’re here — that’s something we’re very proud of.”