Sunday, June 3, 2012

Fake it til you make it

I've been trying to write a blog about cake, but I can hardly stomach the idea of it today.  I don't know if it holds true for everyone who does cake, but for myself and from the people I know, cake is a very bad career choice.  I am not writing this blog to try to discourage anyone from the industry, but only trying to give an honest open account of my experiences. ( MY EXPERIENCES)  I get asked all the time by people and often from parents with interested children about how to "get into cake".  and there is no correct answer for that as there are as varied an amount of ways as there are people in the field!   There is a perception that since I've done some TV and I do get to do some cool cakes and travel, that it translates into cash in pocket and, well...  It's just not that way.

         We've all heard of starving artist.  Common is the idea that artist struggle to persue their craft in the light of debt, health and time constraints.  For many years now I have tried to put together a business that is rewarding both from a financial and personal standpoint.  I'm begining to think it's just not possible!

      It is possible (though difficult!) to run a bakery in which you make money.  It's very hard to run a bakery in which you make money and yet have time to enjoy life as well.  The problem is as we all know the industry is very deadline driven.  Very few clients would be ok with the fact that you didn't do their cake because it was five o'clock on friday and you wanted to go hang out with the kids ( like normal people do)...  Instead, in an attempt to get enough work to pay the bills, I fill up my calendar (when I can) which in turn means my Thursday, Friday and Saturdays are extremely busy.  The rest of my week is usually spent cleaning, planning, answering emails and basically trying to get more work. The deadlines and time constraints involved with working in a perishable medium like cake means we don't really have much control over when we get to work, unless we don't mind serving old cake of course. 

    This last friday was the first time I can remember being done with cake while the sun was still up.  I spent some time with my son flying model airplanes and it really felt weird.  I had to check and double check to be sure I hadn't forgotten something.    The free time was great but comes at a cost; I spent more money last week than I earned.    I was still in the bakery everyday from morning til night, but no money was made...  this is a problem.

     There is a ton of "fake it til you make it" in our industry.  So many of us are in the same boat, yet many feel a need to inflate ( or invent completely) their success and I think it builds up a false idea of what's possible, and what's really the norm.  This industry is very tough!  It demands a ton of skill, knowledge and even more time.  I've worked in many jobs from CPR instructor to auto mechanic , race car driver to roofing, and I can tell you all of them are tough, but none of them are as all consuming as cake can be and most of them pay far better too! ( btw: that's another place many people inflate their success... price. it's never enough)   As I mentioned before there's always the problem of rock hard deadlines, but it's also true that to most people, anything over a hundred bucks, is a lot for a cake!  We all know how much goes into our cake, and how much time we spend planning, creating not to mention stressing out about them.  In addition to the time is the actual cost.  Our cost aren't just the materials, but the time and fuel to go get them, the utilities required to bake them and the tools needed to finish the job.  Add to that time and money spent training and learning as well as time for emailing, answering the phone and having consults, the cost add up very quickly!    I don't mind admitting that last week I brought in only about $500.00 total.  I worked easily 60 hours spent about $80.00 on gas and another $30-$50 in food while delivering and getting supplies.  I spent $130.00 on fondant, and another $100 on other supplies.  This leaves a profit of  $140.00.  That means my per hour labor cost is about $2.30...  Yet I had to try and explain to customers why their Firemans helmet Grooms Cake was $250.00...  I had to worry about problems and failures with the cakes during delivery, and as we all know, we have to worry about whether the customer will be satisfied.  We all worry about that!  Some of the cakes I've been proudest of and often gave the client the greatest deal on are the ones that get the complaints.   In my case it's often that they don't think it's big enough, or even worse when they complain about silly petty things!  I once did a last minute cake for a client who's original baker cancelled a 4 foot long cruise ship cake 3 days before the party ( she had booked it a year before)  I stayed up all night doing it, and I was tickled to death with it.  I found out days later that she wanted money back because she felt the color I had airbrushed the water around the ship clashed with the blue of her party.  Really??  ( she even wanted me to pay for a flourist she hired to cover the water with flower petals!)

This is one of those cases where I feel like I need to offer the answer to some of these problems, but I honestly just don't know.  I try every week to find more time in each day.  I struggle to do what I'd like to do and balance that with what I can do, and very often I end up only doing what I must.

All I can say is you must find a way to make it worth while and in my case I have the truely great people I have met because of cake and the ones yet to come.  I love the friends I have now and I don't mean that in a general sense.  I LOVE them as they have given me strength and courage to continue to press on in spite of the difficulties associated with our industry.  If it weren't for them (you) I'd be working on something , well,  something else?

next blog...  How I make millions doing party cakes that cost more than your car! ( oh wait, that was a dream I had once)

Peace N Love

(update 8-2-2012)

This blog really struck a nerve and I'm actually proud of that!  Truth is I really do feel like so many people blur the line between good marketing and flat out mis-reputation!  It's one thing to want to appear as a valuable and effective business, but when it comes to our piers, the denial of the truth and the flat out fabrication and act performed by some folks really worries me.  We are all part of a very small industry.  I believe that what's good for one is usually good for us all and to deny the problematic issues in our industry builds a false image of the succes possible for people considering it as a career.  I love cake people, but as an industry there are many people painting an unreal image of it.  I admit that even I myself was guilty.  In part because I felt my own actual success depended upon how people percieved my success, but perhaps mostly because I didn't want people to know that I can barely survive on the work I invest so much time in.  I hate fear more than any other emotion and admitting that I have great (often impossible) difficulty making it within this industry was a real accomplishment for me.  I really hope with all my heart that my story will shed some truth upon the industry and even more so I hope that it atleast helps those struggling and looking for the cure to feel like they are not alone!  You are not alone!  and we're in this boat together!

peace N love ! 


  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I make cakes after my "real job", which is full time, and people don't understand why I can't squeeze in one more, last minute, when I already have 5 or so to do. So I decided no new orders for summer, just stick to the ones that were scheduled. I even posted that~yet they still ask. I miss my family even though I'm not 20 feet away... Thanks Mike, for letting others feel like they are not alone with this time constraint.

  2. Wow, that was refreshing. Like Jackie above, I make cakes after my "real" job. I have been going round and round in my head how I can continue to do it. My "real" job is freelance and I am getting a ton of work. Good for the bottom line, but bad for taking cake orders and being able to fulfill them without killing myself. Just this morning I had an email from a friend wanting a LARGE cake order and I really felt I had to turn it down once I looked at my schedule for my "real" job. I HATE to turn down orders as cakes are my passion, but I have to be realistic. If I want to do cakes I am proud of AND keep my sanity, I can't do them last minute, under extreme pressure and in the middle of the night.

    When you find the answer, PLEASE email me and share! ;-)

  3. Thanks for sharing, Mike. It is a surprise for me who is a newbie, that someone like you is also struggling with pricing. I wish you all the best and look forward to see more of your creations & blog. Cheers from Down Under.

  4. Thank you for such an honest, real post that hits very close to home! I quit my corporate job three years ago (after playing a dual life of corporate/cakes for five years), to build out a commercial kitchen/cake studio and it's been a roller coaster of a ride. I love being able to work with cake as art as a career, and I have (mostly) awesome clients, but I have yet to write a paycheck to myself. I consider myself lucky that my shop pays for itself to run, and I can very, very, very slowly pay back the money it took to build out (any financial planner would have told me I was crazy to blow our savings and spend the amount I did). I sometimes long for the "slow" days in my corporate marketing life before cakes where I'd still get to collect a nice hefty paycheck for just sitting around, going to meetings and writing emails 90% of the time. Sure, I was bored & miserable 90% of the time too, but it was reassuring to see money deposited into my account every two weeks like clockwork - even paid vacation time! Ah, what a luxury. Now no work = no money, so all I long for is to book as much time as possible. I can only imagine how hard it must be with kids. I don't know how I could be in this biz with lil' ones. At least you can take to heart that your son sees you doing what you love, and working through it as tough as it is. Stick-to-it-ness - a lot of people don't have it in them.

    I hear you completely on price - it's a constant battle. I'm in the NYC metro area, and while my prices are below NYC bakers, they are higher than most people in the 'burbs are used to. I have no issue with asking for budgets right upfront now, to save myself the time of a consultation (free), designing (also free), and a zillion back and forth emails just to get to the point where they tell me I'm beyond their budget.

    Thanks so much for keeping it real, inspiring us with your awesome work ... and letting others in the industry know we're not alone!

  5. Dear Mike,
    Your blog is spot on. In 2007, I found the nerve and an incredible sense of naivety about running my own business. I quit my job (decorating cakes in a chain store), went to "the bank of Mom", bought an oven and opened my own shop. It's been 5 years and I'm still in business. I do have some help now which is great but another added expense. Everything has grown. I'm in a larger (rented) space, more parking, more customers and more and more bills. Yes, I believe we are the hamsters in a big wheel. "Normal" people look forward to the weekends. I dread them. So many cakes (happy for that because they pay the bills), so many sleepless nights.........

    Pros and cons..........

    I will say, I miss the fact that when I punched out, that was it until my next day. With your own business, you NEVER punch out.

    I wish you much luck and success with your cakes and I will think of you and many of my other caker friends when I'm working late Friday nights and my stress level is maxed out. :)

    Pam Hyduke :)

  6. Thanks Mike!

    You did an excellent job explaining the industry. I have been in the industry 32 years and totally understand your feelings and your blog.

    I have taught since I began in 1980; owned a bakery, cake and candy supply store. I fell asleep going home one night after pulling a 24/7 shift; thankfully I woke up when I hit a curb. At that point, I made some life changing decisions and gave up the bakery. I went back to my main passion of teaching.

    A person truly hasto love the industry; because most people end up not making a whole lot in the end, due to the hours of prep, supplies and everything else you mentioned.

    I feel the same from being in the industry and have made incredible friends over the years and feel very blessed to call you a friend as well.

    See you at the next show!

    Kathleen Lange

  7. Thank you for the post, so true, I dream of a 9-5 job with a regular pay check most days.... And am exhausted to hear how lucky I am to "Set my own schedule" That has to be one of my favorite ridiculous comments I hear as a small business owner.

  8. It's funny how we trick ourselves into thinking that everyone else has it figured out. Nice to read your honest perspective and realize that we all share the same struggles when it comes to finding a balance (and striving to carve out a bit of normal now and then!) Your cakes are inspiring, thanks for the post!

  9. I have been feeling this way for weeks now, and it's so comforting to see this in writing by you and other cake artists. I'm not alone! I am a single mom, running my cake business from home (which is technically illegal in my state). I do have a separate workroom off the back of my home, so it's not like I'm rolling fondant around my kitchen table while my family brushes around me. But I could get in trouble if someone ever reported me.

    I struggle with the desire to open a real shop. My time constraints are painful now! My son has t-ball games or soccer games on Saturdays during peak cake delivery hours, and I'm a one-person shop. I bake, design, fill, decorate, deliver and set up, completely alone. I cannot afford to pay anyone to help me, whatever $ I earn from cakes pays all of my normal bills, plus has to purchase all the needed supplies for the cakes. My son has practices during the week, sometimes he has to miss them because it's Thursday evening, and I have to work on a cake for the weekend. Shopping for all the supplies eats up time in traveling to the right store (we don't shop at Shop Rite for 50lb bags of sugar or 11 lb blocks of chocolate). Then it's be home in time to pick him up from school. Thankfully my mom helps me with my son's schedule as much as she can or I'd be stuck.

    Summer weekends are tough - there are bar-b-ques, beach times, water parks, many activities that I'm missing while his dad takes him out because I have to deliver or work on a cake.

    Unfortunately, like Mike says, you're not earning $1000s (or even $100s?) of dollars a month to make it worthwhile. I used to work in the 9-5 office world, had a very large paycheck, paid healthcare, paid vacations, etc. But I got burned out and decided to pursue my passion of baking. If I wasn't passionate about it, I wouldn't do it because you don't do all of this for the money. You do it for the love of cake and art and making people happy when they see and eat your cake. And even that love gets tested at 3:00am when you're still working and you wonder "Why am I doing this?"

    If I had the money, would I open a shop? I don't know. My parents had a shop for over 40 years (photography studio). They were married to it. No vacations, no weekends off. Do I want that? No, I don't. But is it possible to run a shop so that you can get some time back? I just don't know.

    So for the meantime, I just keep going and designing the next best cake I can!

  10. Thanks Mike you always think all this stuff but you never really wanna admit it to anyone really. I thought of a biz , then did all the figuring like you, just about the same hourly wage. I am now going back to school to get a secure, insurance, 401kin job. And , sadly, do cakes on the side again. Cake art is true love but just doesn't pay the bills.

  11. thank you so much for such an honest review of what our lives are like. I appreciate the honestly, and knowing I'm not the only one.