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Scandalous success

Cohasset bakery savors buzz after TSA seizes cupcake

Wicked Good Cupcakes co-owner Tracey Noonan frosts a travel version of “National (Security) Velvet.’’ Wicked Good Cupcakes co-owner Tracey Noonan frosts a travel version of “National (Security) Velvet.’’ (Photos by Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)
By Johanna Seltz
Globe Correspondent / January 12, 2012
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COHASSET - Turns out the punning possibilities are practically endless for cupcakes banned from airplane travel as a terrorist threat. Think cupcake wars ad infinitum - which has turned out just swell for Wicked Good Cupcakes, a tiny bakery in Cohasset.

Late last month, agents for the federal Transportation Security Administration at Las Vegas-McCarran International Airport confiscated one of the bakery’s “National Velvet’’ cupcakes that a Boston-bound passenger had packed for her family’s lunch. The hummus sandwiches and bag of cherry tomatoes passed muster, but the red velvet cupcake packed in a Mason jar for easy traveling was deemed a security risk.

“I think they thought it was a bomb,’’ said Tracey Noonan, who opened the bakery on Route 3A with her daughter in October.

What could have been a public relations disaster - what business wants its sweet offerings placed in the same category as box cutters and explosives? - has turned into a marketing coup.

Business is booming, Noonan said, both for the bakery’s cupcakes and for T-shirts proclaiming “The TSA Stole My Wicked Good Cupcake,’’ with orders coming from as far away as Hawaii. The “Wicked Good to Go’’ cupcakes - layers of cake and filling topped with the frosting that set off TSA alarms because it resembled potentially explosive gel, packaged in a glass jar - are particularly popular, she said. The nine travel varieties are designed to be eaten with a spoon.

The company website has gone from about 100 hits a day to more than 3,000 since the TSA declared war on the newly renamed “National (Security) Velvet’’ pastry, Noonan added. Store manager Brian Vilagie declined to provide actual sales numbers, but said they probably have doubled.

Noonan credits the sweet turn of events to the cupcake carrier, 35-year-old Rebecca Hains, who not only is media savvy - she teaches advertising and media studies at Salem State University - but also has a wicked sense of humor.

When the TSA took her cupcake, Hains took revenge with a pun-laden entry on the blog site BoingBoing. That was followed quickly by a Facebook page, “Rebecca and the Threatening Cupcake,’’ and a YouTube video featuring the catchy tune “Code Red Velvet - Cupcakes of Mass Destruction.’’

But even Hains was surprised by the explosive, and overwhelmingly positive, response to her story. Everyone, it seemed, had a story to tell about their awful experience with airport security. And almost everyone, she realized, wanted to know where to get the delicious-looking cupcake she was writing about.

Hains was curious, too. A former student had given her the jar-packed cupcakes as a present, and she had to use a magnifying glass to read the label in the pictures she’d taken of the confiscated one to find Wicked Good Cupcakes. Hains said she called the bakery to report the online buzz, and someone there called the local press.

Before she knew it, Hains was telling her story via satellite to the national “Fox & Friends’’ television show, and reading and viewing accounts about her ordeal from across the country.

Slate.com tackled the burning question of whether it was scientifically possible to turn frosting into an explosive (concluding that any cupcake bomb would pack a pretty nonthreatening punch).

The online magazine’s story also pointed out that this was the second terrorism-related cupcake story of 2011; British intelligence agents hacked into an Al Qaeda website last spring, replacing bomb-making instructions with cupcake recipes.

Hains said she’s hoping Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert will call; she has visions of chasing him around his New York City studio with a cupcake. Perhaps Martha Stewart could teach her how to bake cupcakes while they discussed airport security, she mused.

“Or I could go on Ellen DeGeneres, and since we don’t bake - my husband is the baker in our house - we could get store-bought cupcakes and smush them into jars,’’ Hains said. “As you can see, I’ve definitely had way too much fun with this.

“I’ve had ridiculous experiences with TSA before,’’ including one that involved agents acting inappropriately with breast milk she was bringing home for her son, she added, “but this one takes the cake.’’

Hains is quick to point out, though, that her real interest is a discussion about the balance between security and civil liberties. “I am so not a diva trying to get 15 minutes of fun. But if it will make people think critically of what TSA is doing, then I’m happy to have started the conversation, because that’s an important conversation to have.’’

Hains, who has a book coming out this month titled “Growing Up With Girl Power,’’ said she plans to use the cupcake caper in her Salem State classroom, as an example of how to use social media to promote a business.

Gerard Corbett, head of the Public Relations Society of America, said the story is a classic example of “turning a negative into a positive. They were in a strong position anyway because they make a good product, and they were savvy enough to say to themselves, ‘How do we make something out of this?’ ’’

The Cohasset bakery’s good fortune also reinforced the findings of a 2010 study by economists at Stanford University and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School that found negative publicity tends to help small businesses because the public remembers the publicity, but not the cause. For larger, well-known companies, however, bad news is bad for business, according to the study.

For her part, Noonan said she is happy that the cupcake confiscation has been helping her business, but she “actually felt bad for the TSA agents’’ who took the treat.

“I’m a nervous flier, and they were just doing their job,’’ she said. “I’d rather they err on the side of caution when they’re dealing with people’s lives.’’

In a TSA blog posting Monday, the federal agency defended the decision to confiscate the frosting-covered cupcake, noting that terrrorists may seek to evade detection by using explosives made of gel, according to an Associated Press report. And while cakes, cupcakes, and pies are allowed on flights, the agency said, travelers carrying them through security should expect they might get additional screening.

Noonan wants to assure everyone that Wicked Good Cupcakes pose no threat, except maybe to diets.

The moral of the story? “Eat dessert before you fly,’’ she said.

Johanna Seltz can be reached at seltzjohanna@gmail.com.

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Noonan and her partner in Wicked Good Cupcakes, daughter Danielle Desroches (below right), have seen a spike in business thanks to a traveler’s tongue-in-cheek complaints after an airport security guard confiscated her frosting- laden cupcake in a jar.