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Former investment bankers riding high on cupcake wave

Behold, the cupcake.

Its moist, decadent center and rich, sugary frosting are enough to make any sweet tooth's mouth water while conjuring up childhood memories of mom baking in the kitchen.

First baked in the early 1800s, these miniature cakes have hardly changed — main ingredients still require sugar, butter, eggs and flour. But two centuries later, cupcakes are more popular than ever.

Not only have they become an accepted wedding cake alternative, they're also exchanged as gifts and considered equally delectable to both adult and child — not to mention entrepreneur.

In the past decade, dozens of cupcake shops have opened in metropolitan cities across the country, including New York and Los Angeles, following the direction of Manhattan's Magnolia Bakery, often credited for starting the so-called "cupcake craze" in the 1990s.

Among the cupcake bakers are former investment bankers, Charles Nelson, 38, from Oklahoma City, and his wife, Candace Nelson, 33, who founded Los Angeles-based Sprinkles Cupcakes.

During visits to Candace Nelson's sister in New York, the couple had gone to Magnolia Bakery for its cupcakes, which became infamous in the '90s — thanks to media buzz and a cameo in an episode of HBO's Sex & The City. The cupcake craze had taken off in New York, but in other parts of the country, it was virtually untapped.

"We had been there and seen it all happen," Charles Nelson said. "We were like, OK, I totally get it. I get the cupcake thing; cupcakes are awesome. But we were like, 'the cupcakes aren't that great. They could be so much better and really could taste a lot better."'

That's when their mission to bake a better cupcake began.

Do one thing, and do it well. It's a simple philosophy — the source of many success stories for entrepreneurs — and it's the one the Nelsons chose to follow.

Obviously, they knew they had to be the best to survive, so the Nelsons spent the next two years developing more than 20 cupcake recipes, ranging from classic vanilla and chocolate to red velvet, ginger lemon, banana and pumpkin.

"We used to sit around with like eight different vanilla cakes and try them," he said.

These cupcakes weren't the ones grandma used to make. They were going to be an indulgence — and $3.25 a pop.

They also hired an architect from Vienna to create a unique store design — forget Grandma's doilies and typical bakery decor — and a former Martha Stewart employee to design the logo and packaging.

Everything was sleek, minimalist and modern.

"Most bakeries are second — or third — generation kind of affairs," Charles Nelson said. "We want to try to say 'Hey, bakeries can be cool and hip and have the best ingredients — no trans fats, imported chocolate, real chocolate sprinkles, great flavors with natural zest."'

On April 13, 2005, they opened their first Sprinkles store in a 600-foot space on Little Santa Monica Boulevard, just a block and a half off Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills.

From there, the rest is pretty much history.

On their opening day, Sprinkles sold out of its cupcakes in three hours and had angry customers literally banging on the windows when they ran out, Charles Nelson said. The next day, after the Nelsons stayed up almost the entire night to prepare, it happened again.

It was exciting, overwhelming and scary.

"We were like, 'Oh my gosh, everything we hoped and dreamed for is happening, and we can't handle it,"' Charles Nelson said.

Like most new business kinks, they worked through that initial problem and stuck to their original long-term plan: continue to make the best cupcakes possible.

Sprinkles Cupcakes opened a second location in Newport Beach in August 2006, opting for a second California location to appease the people who were driving almost 60 miles to come to their Beverly Hills store.

After similar success there — not to mention celebrity endorsements by Katie Holmes, an appearance on the Oprah show that boosted their already booming sales by 50 percent and a request by Williams-Sonoma to sell their Sprinkles cupcake mix in stores — the Nelsons finally decided it was time to open a location outside of California.

"We were like, let's go out to the middle of the country and see what happens," Charles Nelson said.

The result was nothing short of success.

In March, Sprinkles opened its third store in Dallas to similar long lines and interest among the media. Now the company's next stop is in Scottsdale, Ariz., followed by 15 other locations, including London and Tokyo.