Want cupcakes? Well, you won’t find any at Johnny Cupcakes, the new store that opened last Saturday on Circuit avenue in Oak Bluffs.
The store may smell like frosting, and the dÃ©cor may include a giant whisk and a stack of cupcake tins, but the pastry display cases aren’t refrigerated because they contain non-perishable items: limited edition T-shirts.
“We trick a lot of hungry people,” said Johnny Earle, founder and CEO of Johnny Cupcakes.
But the 100 people waiting in line last Saturday weren’t confused. They came to Oak Bluffs with the hope of becoming the first proud owners of a Johnny Cupcakes Martha’s Vineyard T-shirt.
Vicki Tabbeo and Josh Quakenbush were among the handful of fans who spent Friday night on Circuit avenue, waiting for the grand opening on Saturday.
“The cops said ‘no public sleeping,’ so we didn’t sleep and they let us stay,” Mr. Quakenbush said. He met his girlfriend Ms. Tabbeo at a Johnny Cupcakes-sponsored dodge ball game near Boston about a year ago.
Ms. Tabbeo encountered the brand about ten years ago. “My friend would come into art class and say, ‘There’s this guy who sells T-shirts in the back of his car. It’s so cool. It’s really going to take off.’ I was skeptical. But it’s true. Johnny really has his finger on the pulse of what’s going to be big.” Now, she and her boyfriend identify themselves as ‘Cupcakers’ and try to attend every Cupcake event.
Saturday marked Johnny Earle’s fifth store opening after Hull, Mass., Boston, Los Angeles and London. Oak Bluffs is a homecoming for Mr. Earle, age 29, who grew up visiting relatives on the Island.
“I even think that in the back of John’s head, the store is an excuse to spend time together as a family on the Vineyard,” said Lorraine Earle, Johnny’s mother. “He’s always thinking of not just himself.”
Mrs. Earle, formerly Lorraine Bergeron, is chief financial officer of the company. She is also known as “Mama Cupcakes.”
Mrs. Earle graduated from MVRHS in 1974. “When I was a little girl, my grandmother owned a paper store just two doors up from John’s store,” she recalled. “She also owned the apartment upstairs, so we would sit up there and watch everything that happened on the street.” Mama Cupcakes joined Johnny’s full-time after a 23-year career managing a Boston law firm.
Mr. Earle’s 50-person staff includes other family members and close friends as well. Johnny’s father, Mike, handles store construction, and sister, Linsay, manages human resources.
“The fact that it’s family-owned makes it a lot of fun,” said Lennard Macaranas, the Oak Bluffs’ store manager. “There’s none of that corporate stuff.”
Johnny Cupcakes is definitely not your average T-shirt brand. When the shop opened up in Los Angeles in 2008, avid Cupcake fans camped out on the sidewalk for two weeks beforehand. Last year, some Los Angeles fans traveled to Edgartown and slept in the Bank of America ATM lobby during the Johnny Cupcakes pop-up shop held at the Dock Street diner.
And last week, Jessi Boyd, who had never been on a plane nor even been to the beach before, flew from Dayton, Ohio to Martha’s Vineyard with her boyfriend and daughter to attend this latest grand opening.
Ms. Boyd’s boyfriend, Jerren Parker, discovered Johnny Cupcakes through a random search on Google. Now he owns more than 250 Cupcakes shirts, and manages an online Cupcakes forum. “I have two closets dedicated to Johnny Cupcakes,” he said. Their daughter, Anna, who is ten months old, already has a T-shirt, even though it doesn’t yet fit. “A Johnny Cupcakes T-shirt was the first gift [Mr. Parker] bought me,” Ms. Boyd said.
One of the things that keep customers coming back are the secret messages Johnny prints on the bottom inside hem of each T-shirt, said Mr. Macaranas. Once Mr. Earle even slipped a battery into someone’s order. “Now whenever they see a battery, they’ll think of us.”
The company produces a limited amount of shirts with each design. “It gives the brand more longevity,” Mr. Earle said.
Martha’s Vineyard T-shirts can only be purchased on the Island. One design has a whale fishing with a bubble pipe, while others incorporate lighthouses and Jaws iconography. “We don’t want to beat people over the head with stuff they’ve seen all over the Island,” said designer Clark Orr, just up from Florida for the weekend.
Two winters ago, Mr. Earle came to the Island to give a lecture at the Regional High School about entrepreneurship. “I told the kids how I chose to spend my money on business, [not on alcohol or drugs],” he said. “I sold candy in school and soda on the beach.”
“He would say, ‘Dad, take me to Costco,’” his father, Mike Earle, recalled. “And then he’d come back [from the beach] with an empty cooler.”
“I was always coming up with ways to try to work for myself and to someday support my family and my friends,” Mr. Earle said. While traveling with a band, Johnny started a line of T-shirts poking fun at pop culture.
“He’s been an inspiration to me. He started from nothing and now he has this great brand,” said Max Pastan, 14, who came to the Island with $160 — money he made himself. Mr. Pastan said he lives by the mantra printed inside the tag on the front of his Cupcakes T-shirt. “Do what makes you happy,” it reads.
Mr. Earle chose Oak Bluffs as the site of his latest store, as opposed to other Island possibilities, because of its proximity to the Steamship Authority, and because of his fond memories shopping as a kid on Circuit avenue.
“My favorite store was called Take It Easy, Baby, and it had a flying saucer hanging in the window . . . . It seems like the most fitting place to be. It’s going to bring a lot of business to the Island.”
Although many Islanders were excited for the opening, some expressed skepticism. “A couple of people are quick to say, ‘Another T-shirt shop? We don’t need that here,’” Mr. Earle said. “But it’s not your typical T-shirt shop.”
The store’s grand opening was not your typical opening either. It began at 11 a.m. with a scavenger hunt through downtown Oak Bluffs. Clues brought Cupcakers to Inkwell Beach, Ocean Park, The Campground and Mocha Motts. The store finally opened at 2 p.m.
“We always like to open later,” Mr. Earle explained. “It all builds up the suspense.”