Hot Cakes Are Actually Not Selling Well at All

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Many, many things are purportedly selling “like hot cakes” these days: modern art, the new Taylor Swift albumprescription drugs, Dodge’s Challenger HellcatXboxes—even, according to CBS, plush Ebola toys. What’s not selling like hot cakes? Hot cakes.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, a hot cake is essentially a pancake. The term was born in the mid-1800s when the church bake sale was as popular as today’s farmer’s market; people bought the treats quickly, because they were afraid they would get cold. At the time, the world did not yet have cars, penicillin, or Doritos. Today, the humble hot cake survives in the New York Times recipe file as a kind of old-timey cornmeal pancake.

Whatever hot cakes are, sales of them are—wait for it—flat at best. In the past five years, pancake mix sales in 2014 dollars declined 1.5 percent, according to market research data from Nielsen. Cornmeal fared even worse, dropping 6 percent in that period. These days, Americans spend, on average, just $1.16 on pancake mix in the course of a year—enough to buy a box of Bisquick every three years or so.

The term itself isn’t even that hot anymore. According to Google data, searches for “hot cakes” are have been neck and neck with “flapjacks”—whatever those are. In Seattle, a dessert restaurant called Hot Cakes doesn’t serve anything close to a pancake. Its specialty is “molten” chocolate cake baked in a glass jar. “Honestly, I didn’t even think about it when I chose the name,” said 30-something Hot Cakes founder Autumn Martin. “People my age say it all the time and then look at each other and laugh.”

Maybe it’s time for an update on the hot cakes metaphor. Martin said toast cafes are all the rage in the Northwest. And then there are the crowds lining up for the foods du jour—the hipster cronut, the crafty beer. According to a Google trend analysis, almost any snack would be a better choice than hot cakes.

“Selling like quinoa” would be the clear choice. But let’s be honest, that’s kind of annoying, not to mention difficult to say and spell. “Kale” would also work, but we need two syllables. Let’s go with “ramen.” Basquiat paintings and T. Swift’s latest—they’re selling like ramen. Trust me.

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