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An echo of cumbia music travels through Mariachi Plaza on a Friday afternoon as a woman with pink hair emerges from her van and begins setting up for the Boyle Heights Farmer’s Market. Within 10 minutes, she sets up her tables, spreads brightly colored tablecloths and opens her booth.
Karina Jiménez opens dozens of white boxes, revealing her collection of uniquely decorated cupcakes, which she spreads out on a striped, colorful cloth next to a sign that reads Viva Los Cupcakes. Some have a sugary topping that resembles a concha, while others have a whipped brown frosting sprinkled with sesame seeds. Jamaica flowers decorate the pink swirled glaze tops of some.
Jiménez can be found selling her cupcakes at the Farmer’s Market in Boyle Heights’ Mariachi Plaza nearly every Friday. She has many repeat customers, some of whom follow her to other public events, where she serves other food as well.
“Someone I like to call my ‘number one fan’ sees me at every event and sometimes brings her own Tupperware,” said Jiménez.
The popularity of the cupcakes has led to invitations to events like Latin Music festivals and art walks. In September, Jiménez completely sold out her cupcakes at La Feria del Mole. Her tamale con mole and Margarita cupcakes won awards at the 2014 Inland Empire Cupcake Fair last May.
Many storefronts on Boyle Heights’ corners house traditional Mexican bakeries, but cupcakes, which originated in Europe, are not typically popular on the Eastside of Los Angeles. But Jiménez has been able to bring her unique Mexican flair to the cupcake craze, adding familiar tastes to a not-so-familiar dessert in the neighborhood.
Jiménez says one of the best sellers, tamale con mole, is also one of her favorites. She uses mole, a sauce made with chili pepper and chocolate, to flavor the whipped frosting of the cornbread-based cupcake.
Ysamur Flores, 61, tried the mole cupcake for the first time at the Farmer’s Market this fall.
“The mix of traditional flavors is innovative,” says Flores. “It’s addicting. I like it a lot. It’s very original.”
Other cupcakes include coffee; lima, made with limes from Jiménez’ own trees; and the Margarita, made with tequila.
Jiménez says her creative spin on the cupcakes has a lot to do with who she is — her Mexican background as well as her study of art. Jimenez emigrated from Tijuana 20 years ago and went to California State University Los Angeles to become an art teacher. After college, she took a job working in the apparel industry and soon learned she didn’t want to spend eight hours a day in an office cubicle.
“I felt the need to do something creative,” says Jimenez. Her family owned restaurants in Mexico, Jiménez says, “so I guess the food industry has always run through my blood.”
While baking cupcakes began as a hobby, Jiménez decided if she was going to invest so much time doing it, she should try to make money at it. Incorporating traditional Mexican flavors seemed a natural way to set her cupcakes apart from others.
Boyle Heights native Marisol Sánchez says the cupcakes bring back memories of her childhood and culture. “You know, mole like the one Grandma used to make, and now you have it as a cupcake, as a dessert.”
Potential for growth
The cupcake craze began in the early 2000s, and some say it’s over. Jiménez says she’s not worried because unlike West L.A., the Eastside has a lot of new cupcake activity.
Jiménez says Viva Los Cupcakes sells between eight and 30 dozen cupcakes on any given weekend. Her cupcakes sell for an average of $3 each and, she says, after expenses, her weekly profit is between $400 and $1,500. She also caters parties during the week.
She runs Viva Los Cupcakes with the help of friends and family. Through social media, Jiménez’s boyfriend, Enrique Núñez, helps inform customers and fans about upcoming events and catering services. Núñez’ mother and sister help Jiménez bake the cupcakes in a commercial kitchen.
Núñez attributes much of the success to Jiménez’s personality. “She is a warm and welcoming person,” he says, and “she takes extra care to build a relationship with her customers.”
Viva Los Cupcakes can also be found at farmer’s markets in Downtown Los Angeles and Eagle Rock. The cupcakes are also sold at Forking Good Cafe in Whittier and will be in the soon-to-be-open Dinosaur Café in Silver Lake.
Jiménez is looking for an investor to help her open a cupcake shop. “I’d love to do it in Boyle Heights, “ she says, “because I’d love to be in between East L.A. and downtown. I do very well there.”