How to Create Wow-Worthy Celebration Cakes That Boost Business

 

Cakes don’t just satisfy a sweet tooth: They can also soothe the soul. That’s what Jill Reilly discovered when she opened Cute Cakes Bakery & Café in Escondido, California, in 2010.

A customer came in requesting two birthday cakes: one for her daughter and one for her niece, both turning 2. “They were doing a dual party,” Reilly says. “The woman asked for cakes that were identical in size and shape but inverse in color, so that the top of one cake matched the bottom of the other.”

When the customer picked up her cakes, she burst into tears of gratitude. She had grown up in foster care and had never had her own birthday party, Reilly says. “She wanted nothing more than to give [these] children the things she never had.”

Therein lies the power of celebration cakes; they make milestone moments sweeter in every sense of the word. Whether it’s blowing out the candles at a birthday party or cutting the cake at a wedding, the dessert commands a certain amount of ceremony, marking the peak of these events with a memorable, delicious treat.

And in recent years, thanks to the rise of food TV and social media, celebration cakes have reached new design heights. So much so that consumers today want celebration cakes to be not only dessert, but also decor, says Christine Kropp, owner of Whimsical Bakery in Huntsville, Ontario, Canada.

“Customers expect the cake to be a true centerpiece, just like flowers,” she says. They also want to be able to customize every aspect of the dessert, from shape to colors to flavors. “They want to know the cake was made for them.”

Dawn Food's Orchid Cake with golden yellow and magenta frosting, deep magenta and light pink orchids and a purple sugar shard on top.

Dawn Food's Orchid Cake with golden yellow and magenta frosting, and dark and light pink orchids.

 

While bakeries across North America produce beautiful, unique sheet and tier cakes every day, some businesses are going beyond those traditional formats. Ady Miriello, owner of Ady Cakes in West Reading, Pennsylvania, has made cakes that resemble record players, mermaids and “Despicable Me” minions; Kropp has created ones that look like dump trucks, golf balls and cats; and Reilly’s cakes have taken the shapes of stadiums, snowmen and seas.

“We work really hard here to make sure our cake looks as great on the outside as it tastes on the inside,” says Kristen McKenna, co-owner of Confectionately Yours Bakery in Quincy, Massachusetts, whose custom cake creations have ranged from the sophisticated (think tiered flowery wedding cakes) to the zany (like an Amazon box-shaped cake complete with packing peanuts and a “Fragile” label). A custom cake completes the celebration “with something sweet that gets people asking where this cake came from,” McKenna says. “Customers are able to see our work, try it themselves and—more often than not—place their future orders with us.”

However, beautiful design and delicious taste aren’t the only must-haves for custom cake success. The ingredient, time and labor requirements mean that celebration cakes can be costly to make. By approaching them strategically, bakers can produce desserts that are both poignant and profitable.

Clearly Communicate Offerings

A baker’s first area of focus should be the customer consult.

“Communication is honestly the biggest part of creating unique cake designs,” explains McKenna, who says thoroughly interviewing customers helps bakers price cakes correctly while avoiding miscommunications that could lead to waste and loss. “Someone can come into the shop and say, ‘I want a cake that is giraffe-themed,’ and that one sentence can go a million different ways. Are you looking for a cake with a flat giraffe on it? … Something 3-D sculpted? Realistic-looking like it’s for a zoo, or cutesy and cartoony like it’s for a baby shower?”

Because themes can be interpreted so differently, McKenna always asks for inspiration photos or sketches. “This helps us in two major ways,” she continues. “One, it gives us visually an idea of where their head is at. Two, it makes sure that we are both on the same page in terms of what their end goal is.”

Optimize Your Bakery’s Resources

“Success in business is all about making a profit and livable wage,” Miriello says. “It doesn’t matter how talented you are; if your business doesn’t make a profit, it’s not going to last. You have to calculate the cost of everything it takes to make a cake—electricity, water, rent—and price your cakes appropriately.”

It’s also important to factor in the amount of time and skill it takes to make each cake. “The biggest cost in celebration cakes is labor,” Reilly says. She used to hire cake decorators exclusively to handle intricate accent pieces, but she now explores other ways to get the same result for lower costs. “I’ve started advertising at the local art school for sculptors, painters and illustrators, because that talent pool is much more diverse and affordable,” she says. “As long as they have an eye for design, I can teach them to work with fondant instead of clay.” Reilly also factors the cost of specialized labor into cake prices, charging a certain amount per hour of intricate design work.

Miriello focuses on cost-effectively dividing work among her bakery team. She has three employees, two of whom are newer to the business. She often assigns that pair routine tasks. “The third employee, who I pay more, only decorates cakes. I pay her to do the things I can charge more money for,” she says.

Keeping a close eye on labor and process expenses can help bakers not only ensure profitability, but also identify potential time-savers. And these efficiencies can translate to even greater profitability if they allow bakers to lower costs while maintaining cake prices. For example, using premade bakery ingredients like cake mixes, fillings and icings eliminates time-consuming manual processes, giving staff more time to focus on design efforts.

engagement ring cake

Dawn Foods Ring Cakewith macarons and strawberries is shaped like... a ring! Perfect for popping the question. Check out the recipe.

 

Diversify Your Menu

Beyond labor, another way to maximize profitability is by offering custom cakes that meet different customer budgets, ensuring you can capture a greater variety of business. Researching what competitors charge can help bakers identify ideal pricing ranges, which vary from market to market.

Miriello, Kropp and Reilly have all recently launched collections of standardized celebration cakes as an alternative to custom creations. They’re decorated with smooth or textured buttercreme instead of fondant—with optional accents like flowers and drips—so they’re easier, cheaper and faster to produce.

“Because they’re simple cakes that we make frequently, we know exactly how long they’re going to take us and exactly how much they’re going to cost,” Miriello says. “There are no surprises.”

Except, of course, for the happy surprise when the celebrated individual sees their cake for the first time. Whatever the creation—standard or custom, simple or sculptural—that’s the one happy surprise every baker counts on. To achieve it profitably, all it takes is guarding your cakes’ costs as closely as you guard their quality.

Sweet Sources of Cake Inspiration

Every successful celebration cake starts with an amazing idea. Here are three places to seek inspiration for your creations:

Baking Shows: TV shows like the Food Network’s “Ace of Cakes” started the custom cake craze more than a decade ago. Today, TV remains a wellspring for cake-decorating inspiration. Check out the Cooking Channel’s “Cake Hunters,” Food Network’s “Ridiculous Cakes” and Netflix’s “The Curious Creations of Christine McConnell.”

Social Media: Tune in to cake artists like Yolanda Gampp and Gemma Stafford on YouTube, and follow Katherine Sabbath, Jenna Rae Cakes and Ron Ben-Israel on Instagram. On Pinterest, check out The Cake Mamas and Ashlee Marie.

Industry Events: See creations up close and learn from fellow bakers at the International Baking Industry Exposition (in Las Vegas in September), the Baking Association of Canada’s Bakery Showcase (typically in early summer in either Montreal or Toronto) and the Sweets & Snacks Expo (annually in May in Chicago). Bakery suppliers’ regional events are another great place to find ideas and learn new techniques.