Carrie Bradshaw may be a fictional TV character, but to the “Sex and the City” fans who continue to visit Magnolia Bakery two decades after the show premiered on the small screen, she’s still very real.
Byron St. Cyr, former general manager of the original Bleecker Street location where HBO captured Carrie and her friend Miranda chowing down on cupcakes while discussing their love lives in season 3, remembers the first time an international tourist asked him where the sex columnist played by Sarah Jessica Parker lived.
“The way they said it, they didn’t mention ‘Sex and the City,’” recalled St. Cyr, 37, who started working for Magnolia as a counter person in 2004 (after the series ended) and now manages the Penn Station bakery. “So it took me a minute: ‘Oh, Carrie Bradshaw!’ That was the first time I realized, this is really, really huge.”
Magnolia’s tiny West Village shop has since earned itself a reputation — definitively characterized in a 2014 episode of Comedy Central’s “Broad City” — as “the last place tourists go before leaving New York City.” The sightseer’s playbook is this: Buy the exact cupcake that Carrie eats while confessing her crush on Aidan (vanilla cake with pink vanilla buttercream frosting); stroll over to the brownstone on Prince Street where exterior shots of her apartment building were taken; snap your new Facebook profile photo, with cupcake as accessory, on the stoop. For “Sex and the City” fans who can’t afford a pair of Manolo Blahniks, “the Magnolia bakery cupcake [is] that affordable experience that Miranda and Carrie had,” company Chief Baking Officer Bobbie Lloyd said.
But the impact of the bakery’s brief “Sex and the City” cameo extends far beyond the popularity of its downtown Manhattan store. Catch up on what’s happened since Magnolia’s 15 seconds on the small screen below:
What was once a neighborhood store has grown into an international company
The original Magnolia Bakery at 401 Bleecker St. opened its doors in 1996, selling classic American baked goods in a homey setting. The business began its expansion after co-founder Allysa Torey sold it to Steve and Tyra Abrams in 2007. With help from their chief baking officer, the Abrams launched a second Manhattan location a few month before the first “Sex and the City” film hit theaters in May 2008, and that’s when things really took off.
“It was craziness for two years,” Lloyd, now 60, recalled. “I had the experience of being able to travel when we opened our store in Dubai in February of 2010. … The first two women to enter screamed, ‘Oh my god! It’s Magnolia Bakery from ‘Sex and the City.’” (While the show aired on HBO from 1998 to 2004, it remains in syndication in the U.S. and across Europe, and it’s accessible via satellite TV in the United Arab Emirates.)
“I think it’s amazing how a TV show can create such a frenzy,” St. Cyr said, describing the series as a “springboard” responsible for transforming a small neighborhood bakery into an “international presence.
“I’ve gotten to meet people from all over the world. … who may know very little English, but they know how to say ‘Sex and the City’ and Carrie Bradshaw,” St. Cyr added. “Now with us opening franchises” — Magnolia has nine stores in the U.S. plus locations in South Korea, Mexico and several Middle Eastern countries — “we’re going to them as well, so they can get that little bite of New York elsewhere.”
The bakery has made other film and TV appearances
Besides that “Broad City” episode (in which Abbi recovers her lost phone from the hands of a drunken girl at the bakery and chugs a large serving of its signature banana pudding on her way to a supremely disappointing date), Magnolia has enjoyed plenty of moments in the limelight. It takes a star turn in the “Saturday Night Live” digital short “Lazy Sunday,” starring cast members Andy Samberg and Chris Parnell ready to “mack on some cupcakes” before their afternoon screening of “The Chronicles of Narnia.”
“That was a surprise thing,” St. Cyr recalled of the filming process. “It was really shot on the fly and we didn’t even know what was happening until afterwards.”
Magnolia also was featured in the romantic comedy “Prime,” featuring Uma Thurman and Meryl Streep.
Magnolia’s environs developed a reputation as a hip shopping district
Designer Marc Jacobs opened the first of several neighborhood shops right around the time “Sex and the City” fans started visiting the West Village in pursuit of cupcakes and photo opportunities, said Lou Matthews, 30, who works as a guide for “‘Sex and the City’ on Location” bus tours.
Soon, “other designer stores wanted to move in,” Matthews explained. It “apparently changed that whole complexion of that part of town.”
By 2005, the influx of high fashion had commentators calling Bleecker Street “the new mini-Madison Avenue, focusing on a younger crowd.”
Cupcakes became the trendy dessert
Although the craze has since died down a bit in the U.S., the trend had its moment as a worldwide phenomenon in the aughts, and many assign the credit to Magnolia. Its brief appearance on “Sex and the City” not only sparked lines around the bakery, but competing cupcake bakeries around New York and the globe, Matthews said. “Guests on the tour have told me that they now have cupcake shops wherever they’re from, and they don’t even have a word for ‘cupcake.’
“It’s not like cupcakes didn’t exist before ‘Sex and the City,’ but they became a thing for adults because of ‘Sex and the City,’” said Matthews, who appreciates Carrie’s healthy appetite on the show.
Magnolia has slightly tweaked its cupcake recipe
The bakery’s original recipe was based on a pound cake, and some customers thought its tight texture made it taste dry.
“People wanted something fluffier, lighter,” she said, so that’s exactly the change Lloyd and her team made. The flavor itself remains the same and it’s still baked with “plenty of butter… that’s what makes it good.”
Sarah Jessica Parker has returned to Magnolia as an actual customer
Parker, who currently lives with husband Matthew Broderick in a town house on West 11th Street, has made a few purchases at the original bakery as a real, paying customer, St. Cyr said.
“When I first worked there, I do remember meeting her, and I was completely starstruck,” St. Cyr recalled. Her order that day: chocolate pudding pie. The fan promised to hold one for her the following day. “It was over 10 years ago, but I will remember that day because she was the nicest person.”
Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) is now running for governor of New York
Nixon, a longtime New Yorker and activist, announced her campaign to challenge Gov. Andrew Cuomo in March.
Lloyd, whose daughter attended Nixon’s son’s bar mitzvah and who has sat on the same school committees as the actress and political candidate, said she has no idea what might happen during the September primaries, but she wishes her the best.