"Cupcakes keep the lights on" — that's the motto of Don Donneruno’s two-month-old Huntington shop, Cake Don Cupcakes. Donneruno has been creating some of Long Island’s most spectacular custom cakes for more than a decade, but when the pandemic threatened to decimate his business, he made a sweet pivot.
When Donneruno went to bed on March 12, 2020, he had orders for 33 cakes to be delivered that weekend. The next day, all but three orders were canceled. He had no idea when large gatherings might return, but he knew he couldn’t wait and see.
A week later, he posted a photo of some simply decorated cupcakes on social media and offered free delivery from Whitestone to Northport. His phone blew up almost immediately. "Nobody wanted to leave their homes," he recalled. " Cupcakes were the perfect treat because everyone could have their own, no one had to touch anyone else’s. "
As large gatherings — and their attendant large cakes — resumed, cupcakes kept going strong and eventually led to the new storefront. Unlike his cakes — which might depict a Mister Softee Truck or a box of Cuban cigars — the cupcakes are modest (including in price, ranging from $3.50 to $5). Flavors don’t stray too far from chocolate, vanilla and red velvet; most are topped with buttercream or fudge frosting, perhaps a toasted marshmallow or homemade "Samoa"-style cookie.
"Cupcakes are all about nostalgia," Donneruno said, as is the shop he built to sell them. "Whatever I liked in my childhood, it’s here." The back wall is spot-on replica of the 7 Train that the young Don would take from Queens into Manhattan to see a movie in Times Square or buy records on Canal Street. You can get a sense of the teenager’s musical tastes by the black-and-white photographs of cassette tapes that march around the shop’s frieze: Beastie Boys’ "Licensed to Ill," Kiss’ "Alive," Prince & the Revolution's "Purple Rain." An enthusiastic graffiti artist, graffiti also figures prominently in the décor.
Whether graffiti or painting or sculpture, art was always a part of Donneruno’s life, but he never pursued it as a career. At age 42, he was working for Stuart Weitzman shoes in an emphatically noncreative capacity. Then, in 2010, his family’s nanny asked him to help her decorate a King Tut cake she was making. He posted the photo on Facebook and, he recalled, "90 seconds later, one of my friends messaged me. He wrote ‘You’re the Cake Don.’"
From the start, he could barely keep up with orders and, one year later, he quit his job. It wasn’t that the money he was making from custom cakes equaled the salary he gave up. Rather, "I knew once I started earning money from being creative, I could not turn back."
Donneruno had the creative chops and the custom-cake market was hot, with "The Cake Boss" Buddy Valastro and "The Ace of Cakes" Duff Goldman on TV. "The only problem was that I had no idea how to run a bakery business," he said. So he apprenticed himself to Mario’s Bakery in Oceanside and appeared on Valastro’s TLC show "Next Great Baker."
In 2014, The Cake Don opened a studio next door to Cardinale Bakery in Carle Place, which supplies the raw materials (cake, icing, etc.) for the custom cakes that Donneruno or one of his five artists decorate. The cupcakes, however, are baked by the Cake Don because he wants total control over the process.
"The custom-cake business will always be limited by the fact that everything is done by hand," he said. "But I can scale up the cupcakes, open a few shops. Who knows, the future may be cupcakes."
The Cake Don Cupcakes is at 605 W Jericho Tpke., Huntington, 631-377-5477, cakedoncupcakes.com