Can you make an entire meal out of king cake and king cake-flavored items? We asked two locals and two out-of-town guests to give it their best shot.
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Will Samuels wasn’t sure what to expect this year at the King Cake Hub, his three-year-old seasonal shop offering the Mardi Gras confection from 15 New Orleans bakeries. So far, business has been brisk. He has been selling nearly 1,000 king cakes a day.
“It’s fantastic. Surpassing the numbers that I expected,” Samuels said.
This year, the coronavirus has canceled Mardi Gras parades. The seasonal parades were heavily criticized in 2020 after New Orleans became one of America’s first and worst hot spots. Mardi Gras balls, both elegant and boisterous, are not happening. Parties and lunches have been postponed. But people can still eat cake.
More: New Orleans cancels Mardi Gras parades for 2021
What is king cake?
A king cake in Louisiana used to be a simple dessert: a ring of brioche topped with purple, green and gold, the colors of Carnival. In recent years, it has mutated into ever dizzying variations, such as cakes filled with cream cheese, stuffed with berries or smeared with praline goo. The King Cake Hub sells more than 60 varieties.
A king cake from Hi-Do Bakery located outside New Orleans. (Photo: Todd A. Price/The American South)
The one constant among king cakes is that buried inside is a trinket, normally a plastic baby. Whoever gets the slice with the prize at a party, parade gathering or the office break room must buy the next cake.
Between Jan. 6, the start of Carnival, and the Tuesday of Mardi Gras, this year Feb. 16, a high percentage of a New Orleanian’s daily calorie intake comes from king cakes.
With offices mostly empty and every party a potential super spreader event, Samuels does see more people buying medium and individual-sized cakes than large ones.
Bywater Bakery, owned by baker Chaya Conrad, was prepared for a lackluster king cake season. That could mean trouble for her small cafe and bakery, which relies on the annual sales boost. So far, however, the season has been booming.
King Cake Hub, a seasonal shop selling the Mardi Gras cakes from 15 local bakeries, has taken over the lobby of the Broad Theater, a local movie theater currently closed due to COVID-19. (Photo: Courtesy King Cake Hub)
“It’s madness. It’s through the roof,” she said. “Thank God for king cake season.”
For the first time, Conrad is shipping her king cakes, which come in flavors like apple, cheesecake and even crawfish. On Monday, she shipped out 200 cakes and sold more than 300 from the store. Last year, she averaged 250 to 300 cakes per day.
“People can’t travel to New Orleans. This is the one thing people can do for carnival,” Conrad said.
The third generation Haydel’s Bakery typically relies on king cakes for half of its annual sales. With wedding cake sales down this year 65% to 75% due to the pandemic, the bakery was girding for more bad news during Carnival season. So far, their king sales have been solid but below a regular season and more of the orders have come from out of town.
“We thought it would be a lot worse,” said Ryan Haydel.
More: Should King cake be eaten before Three Kings’ Day? Survey says…
Most years, Haydel’s hires 50 to 60 temporary workers for the Mardi Gras season. This year, only eight have been added, but all of the full-time staff has remained employed.
In New Orleans this new year, Carnival is not the only reason to celebrate. The beloved Saints are in the playoffs. Haydel said his sales get a 25% boost after a victory. If the Saints go all the way to the Super Bowl, his business could have a very good king cake season after all.
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