In the Biz: The King of King Cakes

More than 50 varieties in one convenient spot? King Cake Hub is the place to be this Carnival season.
ILLUSTRATION BY TONY HEALEY

How big is the king cake business in New Orleans? Considering this unique seasonal pastry is traditionally available only between January 6 and Mardi Gras Day, how big could that business really be?

Ask Will Samuels and his answer will make your head spin. His “only in New Orleans” style concept, King Cake Hub, was born from happy coincidence joined with marketing genius.

Back in 2011, Samuels’ wife, Jennifer, developed her own “McKenzie’s style” king cake — which pays homage to the legendary New Orleans bakery — for the couple’s own Metairie Road bakery and gelato shop La Dolce NOLA. Jennifer’s king cake was so well received there that the couple began to offer them at Pizza NOLA, their Lakeview restaurant, selling about 50 per day. When La Dolce NOLA folded in 2014, Jennifer continued to provide her popular king cakes for Pizza NOLA during Carnival.

On Lundi Gras 2014, Will and Jennifer had sold out of their own king cakes. Too tired to bake more, instead they took an excursion to Dong Phuong Bakery in New Orleans East, having heard the buzz about their version. With one bite, Will Samuels became obsessed with the idea of marketing Dong Phuong’s king cake in lieu of baking their own. After several months of conversations, a deal was struck. During the 2015 Carnival season, Pizza NOLA became the first spot to offer Dong Phuong king cakes off-site. That’s when the relentless marketer Will Samuels decided to turn his king cake business into a three-ring circus.

On January 6, 2016, Pizza NOLA hosted its first Carnival kickoff. In true New Orleans style, Benny Grunch and the Bunch entertained the crowds as the Dong Phuong van, with full police escort, arrived to deliver the first king cakes of the season. The marketing scheme worked, and by Ash Wednesday, Pizza NOLA had sold over 4,100 Dong Phuong king cakes, a number that doubled in 2017.

Will Samuels had big plans for 2018, projecting sales of up to 1,000 king cakes per day. That volume had changed the profile of Pizza NOLA’s profitability and represented almost one-third of the company’s annual business.

Then, everything changed.

Shortly after Pizza NOLA’s Carnival kickoff, Dong Phuong received national recognition, winning a James Beard American Classics award. News of the award resulted in insanely long lines at the company’s New Orleans East bakery and limited quantities for Will Samuels. Eventually, his supply was cut off completely, and by March, Samuels had to close the doors at Pizza NOLA.

That’s when Vincent Scelfo called from Gambino’s Bakery offering Samuels distribution of his company’s king cake, previously only available from Gambino’s. At that moment, Samuels had an epiphany of his own. He wondered “Can I do what I did for the Dong Phuong king cake with any cake that exists or doesn’t exist yet in this city?” Together, Scelfo and Will developed the Epiphany Cake — a classic brioche dough cake with a mix of cream cheese and buttercream icing. It was the first exclusive for Samuels’ new brainchild, King Cake Hub, a new king cake distribution concept that began as just an idea and a website.

“We didn’t have a location and the first Epiphany Cake had not yet been baked when our website popped up in November 2018,” said Samuels. Yet, within a few hours, king cake crazy New Orleanians ordered the new king cake “with no idea of what it would taste like,” he said. It quickly became 2019’s top seller.

Emboldened by that success, Samuels approached several dozen bakeries, eventually offering 35 varieties from places as far away as Cannata’s in Houma. He secured an unlikely location at a former funeral home turned haunted house on Canal Street, where he set up shop in the outdoor porte-cochere. The new King Cake Hub kicked off Carnival 2019 with a second-line led by the Panorama Brass Band and ended with insatiable crowds that kept up through Lundi Gras.

In 2020, 50 king cake varieties will be available daily at King Cake Hub, including a new, limited edition “Dong Phuong style” Dragon Claw from Caluda’s.

Ringling Brothers roll over! There’s a new circus in town and New Orleans’ king cake king, Will Samuels, is the ringmaster.

//

A native New Orleanian, Poppy Tooker has spent her life devoted to the cultural essence that food brings to Louisiana, a topic she explores weekly on her NPR-affiliated radio show, Louisiana Eats! From farmers markets to the homes and restaurants where our culinary traditions are revered and renewed, Poppy lends the voice of an insider to interested readers everywhere.

Catch Poppy Tooker on her radio show, “Louisiana Eats!” Saturdays at 3 p.m. and Mondays at 8 p.m. on WWNO 89.9 FM.

Comments