What have you always wondered about the economy? Tell Us
Robots Ate My Job

The future of… cupcakes?

Tess Vigeland Mar 30, 2012

Tess Vigeland: Movies like “I, Robot” and “Terminator” demonize our mechanical helpers. But there are plenty of robots out there to LOVE. And if you don’t love this next one.. .well, I don’t know what’s wrong with you. I mean, who doesn’t want access to cupcakes 24-7?

Vigeland: In case you’ve never seen one, there is such a thing as a cupcake ATM. Of course, I think they should have called it an ACM: automated cupcake machine. You’ll find it at a busy intersection in Beverly Hills at a store called Sprinkles. And at most times of the day, there will probably be a line.

We found a group of tourists in from Kansas when we visited earlier this week. They were ordering from the cupcake ATM to avoid the crowd inside the tiny storefront. Four bucks for the treat and the experience.

Bakery co-founder Charles Nelson had a very basic reason for installing the nation’s first-ever cupcake ATM: excess demand for his product at times of the day when the store isn’t even open.

Charles Nelson: The turnout’s been amazing. We’ve had people 50 or 60 deep between 9 p.m. and 2 or 3 a.m. Friday and Saturday nights.

Tess: I guess that would be the weekend munchies.

We spoke with Nelson inside an empty storefront that’s going to expand the Sprinkles empire into ice cream. Meantime, the machine — the cupcake robot — is a hit.

Nelson: We’ve been selling out the maching — 600 cupcakes — nearly twice a day. And not only that, it’s increased traffic to our store for the sheer novelty of it.

Tess: So, as people are eating these cupcakes overnight, is that machine eating anybody’s job?

Nelson: I would say no. The hours the machine is working were hours that we never had an employee working, except in our kitchen baking cupcakes. It has taken no jobs from people who would be working in its place.

Tess: If you made the decision to do so, could you run this business purely with the machine?

Nelson: Definitely not. There are so many things of what we do in the business my wife and I created that are about human decision making and judgment that we could never rely on just a computer or robot to do what we do.

We headed back outside so I could fulfill an order from the home office. Our senior producer Paddy Hirsch had requested red velvet, and who were we to deny?

I bought Paddy his cupcake, but I didn’t get to see it before ordering it, so Nelson took me inside to pick out mine.

Inside… well, let’s just say it smelled a whole lot better than Santa Monica Boulevard. Sugar, sugar, and more sugar. And having those cupcakes right there in front of us — way better than punching it up on a screen. But we did have to wait in line.

Adam Walton was behind the counter taking my order for a dozen tasty treats, so I asked whether he felt at all threatened by, you know, a cupcake machine.

Adam Walton: No, I think it’s just a good extension. We’ve just had such a great demand in the store, and there’s so many people we have to turn away sometimes, it’s a shame. So I think it’s a good thing that we have it available.

Tess: And you don’t have to work in the middle of the night.

Walton: That’s true.

And really, I mean, it’s cupcakes, right?

Even if our robot overlords do end up running things, surely we can ply them with eggs, sugar, flour and chocolate. And maybe a few… sprinkles.

News and information you need, from a source you trust.

In a world where it’s easier to find disinformation than real information, trustworthy journalism is critical to our democracy and our everyday lives. And you rely on Marketplace to be that objective, credible source, each and every day.

This vital work isn’t possible without you. Marketplace is sustained by our community of Investors—listeners, readers, and donors like you who believe that a free press is essential – and worth supporting.

Stand up for independent news—become a Marketplace Investor today with a donation in any amount.