Here's one way to survive business-choking light-rail construction in front of your bakery/cafe: Win a contest on a nationally televised reality series.

At least that's the formula that has helped Cupcake (3338 University Av. SE., Mpls., weather the economic storm. In mid-July, owner Kevin VanDeraa took top honors on the Food Network's "Cupcake Champions," beating out three other all-star bakers from the network's popular "Cupcake Wars" series, and generating a priceless amount of publicity in the process.

"Our business was higher this summer than last summer, and I can only say that that's due to the national exposure," said VanDeraa.

In the annals of road construction -- the bane of restaurateurs everywhere -- that has to be a first.

"We have been very fortunate that all of our stars aligned," said VanDeraa. "We've been very lucky. I certainly don't want to discredit any of our loyal regular customers, because a lot of them came every day, through the traffic, and the orange cones, and the no-parking zones. But we definitely added a lot of new customers because of 'Cupcake Wars.'"

VanDeraa gives the construction project's crew a lot of credit. "They did a really great job to make it as convenient as possible," he said. "It could have been a whole lot worse, but they did a great job with signage, they never closed University Avenue, and traffic moved on it all day. That's pretty amazing, considering that they're putting a light-rail line down the middle of the road."

Construction will resume next summer. "But from what I understand, it's going to be more about testing, putting trains on the tracks, working with the electronics, that kind of thing," said VanDeraa. "The end is near, and that's so exciting. I mean, we have a sidewalk now, and trees. It looks like we made it through."

To reflect the neighborhood's growing transit-biking-walking emphasis -- and pending city approval -- VanDeraa is installing bike racks, some done up in the outline of a cupcake, others in the form of a witty and eye-catching 8-foot-tall whisk, all manufactured down the street at Dero Bike Rack Co.

"In 10 years, this neighborhood is going to be the place to live, to shop and to dine," said VanDeraa. "I thought, 'Let's set the tone and make something like you would see in a cool neighborhood in a big city.'"

Casting a different ballot

The James Beard Foundation needs you. Well, your opinion anyway.

Winners of the foundation's annual restaurant and chef awards won't be announced until the evening of May 6, 2013, from the stage of Avery Fisher Hall in New York City. But now's the time to tell the foundation which restaurants and chefs should be up for consideration in 21 categories, including Outstanding Bar Program, Best New Restaurant, Rising Star Chef of the Year, Outstanding Pastry Chef and Best Chef: Midwest.

Voice your opinions at Registration is easy, requiring a name, ZIP code and e-mail address. It's fast, and it's free. Deadline is Dec. 31.

The cookie vote

While Minnesotans are busy voting next Tuesday, the bakers at Wilde Roast Cafe (65 SE. Main St., Mpls., will be busy baking cookies. Lots of them -- chocolate chip, peanut butter and oatmeal -- in support of the cafe's Election Day free cookie program.

"It's our way of saying, 'Thank you for voting,'" said co-owner Dean Schlaak. "We do it to build awareness that we all need to do our civic duty."

The giveaway has been a delicious and generous nonpartisan tradition since the cafe's doors opened in 2004.

The rules? No purchase necessary, and no "I Voted" sticker, either. "You just show up, and get a free cookie," said Dean Schlaak. But please, one cookie per person.

Upcoming events

Speaking of freebies, Jack Riebel of the Butcher & the Boar (1121 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls., is the guest at tonight's Chef-in-Residence program at Gather (1750 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls., www. from 5 to 9 p.m. Meet-and-greet with Riebel, and get a taste of jerked pork rib with a mango-ginger glaze and wild boar head-cheese on toast with a yellow mustard vinaigrette. From 5 to 7 p.m., the kitchen and bar also turn out a number of $5 small plates and cocktails. Can't make it? Riebel's dishes will remain on Gather's Thursday evening menus throughout November.

Sample 13 gluten-free holiday desserts -- prepared by BitterSweet Bakery, Birchwood Cafe, French Meadow Bakery & Cafe, Crazy Puppy Gourmet Workshop, Good Earth and others -- at a taste-off competition from 2 to 4 p.m. Nov. 10 at Chowgirls Killer Catering Parlor (1222 NE. 2nd St., Mpls.). Reservations are $10; go to