How To Make it in the Cake Decorating World
This post is adapted from Chris Eliopoulos’ “Staying In” article for comic book artists. The article was forwarded to me by my husband who is an artist and this rung true with him. I read the article and realized that a lot of these points really stand out in the cake decorating community as well.
I’ve been a cake decorator now for 5 years but I’ve been an artist my whole life. At this point in my life I can watch newbies coming into the industry and spot areas that need improvement fairly easily because well, I was there a few years ago. I’m sure in another five, ten or hopefully 20 years, I will look back at this time in my life and spot even more flaws in my career outlook. For now, these are some that might help you if you are a caking noob.
Learn to Bake – This might seem really really silly to people outside of the caking community but trust me, this is sound advice. If you’re looking to sell your cakes to the public then PLEASE learn to actually bake a proper cake (fillings, buttercreams, cookies etc) that tastes good before you go charging someone for it. When you sell bad cake, it gives the whole caking community a bad name and trust me, people talk. Soon you’ll be known as that horrible baker who can’t bake and your business will dry up and your name will be ruined. Whether it’s scratch or out of the box, be truthful in your advertising and make damn sure it tastes good. PS- the better your ingredients are, the better your product will taste.
The Great Schooling Debate – Self taught or pastry school? The never ending question. The answer is really up to you. There is no right answer here. You can be the most famous decorator in the world and be self-taught or you could be the worst baker in the world and hail from the world’s best pastry school. There are no guarantees in life. You get out what you put in. What I CAN tell you is that no pastry school is going to teach you how to be a creative cake decorator. They will teach you how to make a good cake, buttercream, cookies and pies and how to keep a clean work space. You will learn how to read a recipe and the science behind creating your own but the creativity is up to you. So if you want to learn how to bake, then yes, school could be the option for you but if you’ve been baking since you could hold a spatula, don’t sweat it. All you need is the motivation to google any technique and give it a try or the imagination to invent something you’ve never seen.
Be Good at Your Job – Again, this sounds like a no-brainer but it’s true. Practice new techniques before you have to do the real deal on a client’s cake. Spend the time to make every cake look great and taste great, especially if you are a newbie. Every cake that goes out the door is a chance for someone to take notice. Cake a little crooked? Fix it. Botched the cake recipe and it’s a little dry? Re-bake it. Don’t settle for anything but the best you can do and people will take notice.
Don’t be a Know-it-all Jerk – Yes, you may have been in the industry for years and years or maybe you went to that fancy pastry school but that does not make you any more talented or knowledgeable than someone who didn’t. At any rate, it will just isolate you from the caking community and they will avoid you like the plague. Be humble, share your secrets willingly, be NICE and you’ll be amazed at how far that alone will take you. 50% of your success is defined by your peers so don’t treat them like dirt. Oh and if someone doesn’t take your advice, it’s not the end of the world.
Don’t Lie, Cheat or Steal – So you’ve just decided you want to bake cakes for a living five minutes ago. You’ve created a Facebook page and decided on a business name. You’ve sketched up a logo and you’re already hitting up your friends for orders. Your first step is get that cake portfolio up right? Well maybe you’ve only created 3 cakes and they didn’t look that great or they where blurry blah blah blah. So you think, why don’t I just “borrow” some photos from my fellow cake decorators showing my potential? NO! Just stop right there! Nothing pisses the caking community off more than having their photos stolen. There is absolutely NO excuse for this and you WILL be found out in no time. Cakers look out for each other and report these offenses immediately and will flush you out and bury your page in rage comments before the week is out. This website is entirely dedicated to finding cake photo thieves. Need good photos of cakes for your website? Make some, take a photo, post them. There are no short cuts.
Figure it Out – Looking to try a new technique that you saw on your favorite cake decorators facebook page? Avoid asking them directly how they did it (unless you know they are open to this type of inquiry). Someday you may be lucky enough to be one of those decorators that is constantly bombarded by beginner questions like “how do you cover a cake in fondant” or “how did you make it that shape”. This can really really rub decorators the wrong way and it’s a fast way to get on their bad side. Some decorators just straight up don’t want to share their secrets and will be highly offended if you ask them to reveal them. Seek out cake communities and groups (like Shop Bakers Nook) that openly share their knowledge, tips and techniques. You can also try google and youtube. There are a plethora of free tutorials out there, you only have to look.
Be a Professional - If you want to be treated like a professional, act like a professional. Professionals have their stuff together. They don’t drop the ball on quotes, forget orders or cuss out clients (at least not publicly). License your bakery properly, get business insurance, do your dang taxes honestly and for the love of God, get a contract figured out ahead of time covering your butt and your clients butt. Other professionals do not want to be associated with unreliable drama queens.
Don’t Believe Everything You Hear – And for goodness sake don’t repeat it! Cakers and people in general are horrible gossips and what goes around comes around. (Even I have been guilty of this) If you don’t want to be the subject of busy bodies, then don’t give them any ammo. The fastest way for a secret to spread is prefacing it with “don’t tell anyone but…” No one in the caking community wants to work with someone who can’t be trusted. Don’t talk bad about other bakeries on social networks and don’t spread rumors. Just do your best to avoid it all together, stay true to yourself and MAYBE you’ll be safe.
Never Stop Learning – No one knows it all and no one is the master of every technique. Absorb everything you see. Devour cake magazines, articles, blogs, everything you can find. Be constantly learning and expanding your knowledge. Be a leader not a follower. No one was ever made famous by being the best at copying other people’s designs. Try out your own techniques. Try, fail, try again. Repeat.
Stop Comparing Yourself - We all do it. We compare our own cakes to our favorite cake decorators and then feel horrible. This can be healthy but it can also stop you from improving because you feel like you’ll never be as good as “so-and-so”. We all have our own journey to travel. Everyone started from somewhere and no one was born with un-matchable talent. Keep doing what you’re doing and you’ll get there. Decorating is 1% inspiration and 99% hours and hours of hard work. On the flip side, be willing to grow. Don’t assume you are the best and have no where to improve. You’re only holding yourself back.
Remember Where you Came From – After years and years of clients complaining or asking mundane questions, your patience can run a little thin. Remember that for most clients, this is their first time ordering a cake and you could make it the best or the worst experience of their life. Treat every client like they are your first one. Remember how excited you where? Remember how much you wanted them to be happy? Try and keep a little bit of that alive in you with every email. Create pre-made emails that you can easily send to frequently asked questions like what is your pricing and how do I order a cake. This will save you time and sanity. Unless they are crazy… then just ignore, delete and move on.
Promote your work - In this day and age, it is easier than ever to let the world know who you are and what you do no matter what remote region of the planet you live on thanks to the internet. The only catch is you have to actually put yourself out there to be noticed. Get a facebook page, link it to your twitter and try and post something every day. It doesn’t have to be your content, it can be cakes you admire, articles (like this one *hint hint) tutorials or just your cake related thoughts. Don’t forget to watermark your photos! It’s actually GOOD when blogs steal your photos and link back to you. Make friends, start up conversations. Be involved and you’ll be amazed at who notices. 99% of my BEST connections have been made because of images someone found on google, flickr, facebook, pinterest or my website.
Caker Social Media Must-Haves:
Facebook fan page
The Vendor Community – Don’t be afraid to participate in bridal shows or other cake events. However, understand the audience of the show you are participating in and how many people attend. Me being a one woman bakery, I don’t want 5000 potential customers knocking at my door just so I can turn them away because I can only do so many cakes per week. I also don’t want to deal with the heavy price tag of the booth for such an event. Seek out wedding communities in your area and reach out to them. Find out what shows are great for smaller bakeries and what shows they are participating in. Also, offer to provide cakes for professional photoshoots for free. This is a great way to make connections with other vendors, get nice photos of your cakes in a styled setting and hopefully, large blogs or magazines will take notice of the photos and you’ll get some great exposure! I cannot stress enough how important it is to network with other vendors in your community.
You Don’t Have to be Everything to Everyone – Figure out what you love to do and stick to it. Like to make 3D cakes? Specialize in that and make yours the best in the city. Same goes for dessert tables or old school piped cakes. Don’t worry about what other bakeries are doing, worry about the quality and the uniqueness of your own. I happily send all requests for buttercream cakes to another bakery. Those are not my strong point and I know it. I’d rather have a happy customer who got their cake from someone who knows what they are doing than an unhappy, bad review posting, angry client who got a less than steller product with my name on it.
Don’t Wait for an Order – Been dying to try out a new technique or have a great idea for a kick-ass cake rambling around in your head? Don’t wait for someone to order it, make it for yourself and post it to your website, facebook, twitter! Again, be a trend-setter, not a trend follower. Don’t be afraid to do something really unique. People take notice of unique cakes and in turn, you.
You can Say No – Understand we all have a problem with this. Saying no to an order is also in a way, saying no to money. But keep in mind, it may not be worth your time. By the time you deal with all the back and forth emails, asking for more but not paying for more and the sheer stress of it all, you will be in the hole financially and emotionally. Be wary of phrases like “we need something as cheap as possible”, “I don’t need anything fancy”, or “If you make it smaller will it be cheaper?”. Politely decline and ignore any future emails from these types of clients. They will ask for the world and pay you as little as possible and sometimes even try guilting you into taking on these nightmare orders due to their own lack of planning etc. Figure out what your costs are, price your cakes accordingly and stick to it. You’re not in competition with the local grocery store’s prices. You are selling hand-made art and have the right to charge accordingly.
Invest in Your Business – In the first two years of opening my own business, I made absolutely NO money. It’s not because I was a bad business woman, it’s not from lack of orders, it WAS partially due to the fact I was under-charging but mostly, it was because I spent every dime I made on my business. I used my income to buy better tools, more mixers, advertising, business cards and classes. If you’re expecting to get rich off your home-based bakery, it isn’t going to happen (at least not overnight). After my first two years, I had basically all the pans, bowls and mixers I would ever need as a one-woman bakery and now I am able to take home more income than ever. You have to spend money to make money.
Do You Enjoy 80 Hour Work Weeks? – There is a wide mis-conception that quitting your day job to bake and decorate cakes for a living is going to be packed with fun, freedom and MONEY! Whoever made up that horrible lie should be shot. Cake decorating is HARD WORK. You have to wear many hats that don’t have anything to do with decorating. Things like accounting, office work, quotes, deliveries, shopping, dish washing and endless phone calls and emails. Every now and then you might get to decorate a cake. If you are the type who can’t motivate themselves to get things done, don’t have the “head” for business or bookkeeping or you think you might take up cake decorating for the “fun” of it, this is not the job for you. Don’t get me wrong, making cakes for people is extremely rewarding but requires more hard work than you have ever put into any 9-5 job.
I could go on and on but I’ll stop there. Hopefully you have gleaned some helpful information from this article and you will share it with your fellow cake noobs. If you have any suggestions for things to add, just post it in the comments!
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