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Turlock cupcake vendors challenge the reign of standard fair food at the Lodi Grape Festival

Turlock cupcake vendors challenge the reign of standard fair food at the Lodi Grape Festival

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Posted: Friday, September 20, 2013 7:31 am

Troyce Fraga was on vacation in New York City when she saw a long line of people winding down the street. Like any curious tourist, she took a walk to see what was drawing crowds. A drab looking food truck had pulled up, and was selling cupcakes to the group.

“I thought, I can do that, and I can make a cuter truck!” she said. That’s how the Cupcake Lady was born two years ago.

These days, she and her husband Steve take the truck on a few daily routes through the Central Valley. The team has expanded beyond two professional kitchens, and can make more than 700 cupcakes in 40 minutes.

But they’ve never tackled the iconic Lodi Grape Festival. It’s a stationary gig that would challenge the company’s mobile followers for the weekend. Could the dainty cakes hold up against Lodi wine, cups of beer and deep fried fare?

Thursday, 1:30 p.m.

The pink truck was parked just south of the Grape Pavilion and stocked with 1,400 delicate cupcakes in plastic covered trays.

They were baked that morning, starting at 5 a.m., in a commissary kitchen in Turlock. It took hours to decorate each batch as they emerged from the rotating oven.

Then Steve Fraga, husband of the Cupcake Lady, loaded up the trays and drove them out to Lodi. The cakes stayed cool in custom shelves chilled with dry ice fans. Between those fans and the RV style air conditioner, the product would last throughout the festival afternoon.

“We’re learning here. We don’t really know what to expect,” Steve Fraga said.

There were 16 flavors ready to sell, including favorites like Southern red velvet, snickerdoodle and pink champagne. Health inspectors swung by for a cursory glance, since no food is actually made in the truck. But that brief stop was a nearly $500 fee.

In addition, the Fragas would have to pay the festival management 22 percent of sales for the right to use the spot. Normally, business owners let the truck park in their lots for free, because it brings people in. Would those extra costs cut into profits? The crowds and sales would answer that question in a few hours.

Friday, 3:14 p.m.

The crew was in the middle of what would be their busiest day, with a few dozen cakes sold each hour. Compared to a normal day on the route, it’s nothing.

“We’re kind of spoiled,” said Troyce Fraga. “We have such a great following and amazing stops, so we couldn’t figure it out at the festival.”

The customers they did bring in were mostly folks who had seen or heard of the truck before. The Cupcake Lady is used to customers following them online to their next stop, but some regulars didn’t want to pay the festival entrance fee just to buy cupcakes.

The team brainstormed: Different flavors next year? Maybe bring out the deep fried cupcake? Or perhaps the festival scene isn’t the right outlet.

But the truck was certainly eye-catching, with the rows of treats in the window.

“I don’t know how many times I heard, ‘There’s bacon on that cupcake!’” said Troyce Fraga.

Saturday, 3:25 p.m.

A line of seven women waited outside the pastel truck, wallets in hand, peering through the glass window at the treats lined up in rows.

Amelia Franco took in cash from a screened window, relaying orders to her two helpers.

Her daughter Danielle Franco, 13, pulled maple bacon, red velvet and gummy worm cupcakes from plastic trays, while her niece Priscilla Banuelos, 15, lined clamshell boxes with napkins and placed the cakes inside.

Five minutes later, the line was gone, and the women had a moment to breathe.

“We’ve had some spurts of busyness, but it hasn’t been overwhelming,” Franco said, wiping down the counter with a white towel.

Banuelos had just come in from a tour of the festival wearing a cupcake mascot suit, trying to drum up business.

Some customers offered up flavor ideas, like pumpkin or apple. The Cupcake Lady already makes those, but didn’t have them for the festival.

The gluten-free lemon coconut variety had sold out, but the rest were still in abundance.

“I thought, ‘What’s the deal? Why aren’t you flocking to us?’” Troyce Fraga said.

Sunday, midnight

Closing time came on the final day. As the crowds filed out, the crew closed their doors and made ready for the drive back to Turlock.

There were still plenty of cupcakes on the shelf. These would be donated to shelters around the commissary kitchen.

During the whole weekend, they sold about 1,000 cupcakes.At $3 per cake, four days of work brought in less than $3,000.

On a recent Friday, they sold that many in a single hour.

“This was slower for us. I think it’s because we didn’t dip it in batter and deep fry it,” Troyce Fraga said. “People want something they can’t get any other time.”

But over the next week, Fraga got calls from folks who saw them at the festival. She has booked several parties and a wedding, and fielded requests to make a few regular stops in Lodi.

“We’re really blessed that we’ve been as successful as we have been,” she said. “It’s good to get to a new place and new exposure.”

For Fraga, it’s not always about the sales at the festivals. It’s about spreading the word.

“You can’t really put a price on the jobs that come after,” she said.

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