The reality of running a celebration cake business
Feb 22 in General
Customers often comment on how lucky I am, to be able to spend all day doing what I love, being creative. They tell me, with a wistful look in their eye, how they would love to be able to do the same. I am very lucky to be able to spend my time “playing” with cake designs and baking and decorating cakes. Running a celebration cake business sounds like a dream job for a creative person and a lot of people “dip their toes in the water” by doing it from home for a little while before deciding that it isn’t for them.
That is pretty much how I started out several decades ago, when my sons were very small. I started cake decorating as a hobby and made cakes for friends and family, working for “pin money”. Back then it was all very forgiving, I wasn’t a professional and it was understood that I would only do my best, so if the cakes I produced were less than perfect, (and they often were a lot less than perfect!), no one minded and that was how I cut my cake decorating teeth.
That reminds me of the first time I made a birthday cake for my mum. Back then it was all rich fruit cakes and royal icing. When you ice a cake with royal icing you need to add a small amount of glycerine to stop the icing from setting too hard, but way back then, in my amateur, uneducated state I didn’t know that I needed to do that. When mum tried to cut her cake she nearly broke the knife! Luckily it wasn’t her teeth!
Fast forward a few decades and I was still making cakes from home, but doing a much more professional job now and getting lots of orders. I had been to college in the interim to study cake decoration and gained more practical knowledge from so many years of just doing it. So now my hobby had somehow morphed into a real business. The only trouble was that it had started to take over my house. I would mix up cakes in my domestic kitchen, and then take them upstairs to bake in a spare bedroom where I had installed a commercial oven. I also had shelving racks up there that were positively groaning under the weight of boxes and boxes of sugar paste and another one that held cake boards and cake boxes. Another spare bedroom had been turned into a cake decorating room and had a sink and a fridge as well as shelving and work surfaces. When I had a lot of cake orders I struggled to have enough space to put them all and it was becoming a real problem. Every cupboard in my house contained something or other to do with my business. Because I was working from home, customers assumed that it was alright to pop round or ring me at all times of the day and night so it was not unusual for me to answer the phone at 10.30pm and find it was a customer wanting to discuss a cake order! I was never away from work and my home didn’t seem to be my own. I like my home to be my refuge, a place where I can relax and I didn’t like opening my front door to customers in my dressing gown! When I had a delivery for the business, there would be all the cardboard boxes piled up in my hallway, waiting for me to check through the contents and put it all away. I have a family sized home, and it just wasn’t big enough to cope with the demands of the business!
So a few years ago I came to the point of having to decide whether to give it all up altogether or move the business out into commercial premises. I couldn’t imagine my life without cake decorating. I knew it would be impossible to just cut down on the amount of cakes that I did and still work from home because the whole business was just snowballing and anyway, I wanted my house back! I am generally quite a risk averse person, so the thought of taking on commercial premises was really scary! I deliberated over this for a while but in the end I decided that I had to go for it.
So I found a small industrial unit to work from that wasn’t too far away from home. I didn’t want a shop as I didn’t want the tie of having to be there to open the shop at set times and anyway, the costs would be a lot higher and setting up this business was already going to use up all of our savings. I wrote a business plan and applied for a bank loan as the new place would need kitting out. Taking on the responsibility of the rent, rates, service charge, electricity bill, water rates, phone bill, business insurance, broadband, plus the bank loan repayments, all this was very, very scary indeed! Signing the lease on the premises was an even more scary moment as that was the point at which it all became a reality and there was no backing out once I had signed that document. But sign it I did and suddenly I had somewhere to work from.
It took about six weeks to get the new place fixed up and kitted out and ready for business. I had previously been turning orders away due to lack of space, so now the idea was to take on more orders so I didn’t have to disappoint anyone, but also there was a need to take on more work because of my increased costs.
The idea of taking on more orders didn’t seem like an unreasonable idea? I would be doing the same job that I did at home, just a bit more of it, right?… WRONG! What I had failed to take into account is that, taking on more orders, uses up more of my stock, more ingredients, more cake boards and boxes, more ribbon, etc, etc. So I needed to order in supplies more frequently, and in larger amounts. This takes more working capital and more of my time. If I forget to order something that I need, I could be left in the position of not being able to complete a cake order! Taking on more work generates more customer inquiries by phone and by email, although now I am too busy baking and decorating cakes to find the time to respond as promptly as I used to, but if I don’t respond within a reasonable time, the orders will go elsewhere. All the extra work generates more cleaning that needs to be done, the large floor to mop, rubbish to take out, etc, etc. So now I am trying to be not just a baker and cake decorator, but an administrator, a customer services person, a stock controller, accounts dept, marketing manager,bookkeeper and cleaner! Whilst juggling all these different job roles, I still need to keep in mind the need to price my cakes fairly for the customer. I regularly don’t leave work until at least 7pm and even then I will go home without having done some of the jobs on my list. Although I thought I knew before I started, that working for myself would be really hard, I had no idea just how hard it would be. It is, without a doubt, the hardest thing I have ever done in my entire life! I feel like I am wrestling with a lion most days!
Within the first few weeks of working at the new place I started to discover a few drawbacks. Whereas I had previously been used to working in a centrally heated house, I was now working in what really amounted to a metal box with a painted concrete floor. The place got very cold overnight and the atmosphere damp, which affected my sugarpaste and cakes which had been fine when I left them the night before, would be sticky by the time I came in to work in the morning. In the summer months the unit got far too hot as it had a metal roof which became like a giant radiator over my head and temperatures sometimes soared to 31 degrees Centigrade, too hot to do chocolate work and very uncomfortable to work in generally. However, I had signed a three year lease so I had to get on with it.
Then there is the problem of staffing. I have had a few part time staff over the last few years and most of them have been very good, but there is one major drawback which might not be obvious to a casual observer. What happens when staff let me down? When they or their children are sick and they can’t come into work? The cakes still need to be produced; there is always a deadline, a birthday, a wedding, or some other important occasion. I can’t just ring the customer and say I can’t make their cake, so then I have to work late, sometimes very late, like midnight! It is not in my nature to let a customer down, so I will always do the work, somehow! These are some of the problems I have experienced in running my cake business.
So you can see that there is a bit more involved in running a celebration cake business than just having fun “playing “ with sugar all day, but then I am sure you knew that really. Wrestling with that lion on a daily basis has sharpened up my muscles a bit and I have learned a lot along the way.
I am pleased to report that I have recently signed a lease on new premises, more suited to the needs of my business. The new place is bright, warm and cosy and seems a million miles from the previous one, except that it isn’t, it is just next door! The whole feel of the place is so much better and I feel very content and happy working in the new place.
I still get to do what I love doing every single day, baking and decorating cakes. I get to meet a lot of really nice people and a lot of my customers who come back to me time and again have become more like friends. There is no nicer feeling than being included in the secret when the cake is for a surprise birthday party that the birthday boy or girl knows nothing about, with all the arrangements for a very special cake made in secret and often delivering the cake at a pre-arranged time so the secret is maintained. I am privy to the wedding plans of my wedding couples just starting out on their adventure together and it is lovely when they then come back to me for a Christening cake or a birthday cake when their first child is born. I think that is the thing that I enjoy most about running this business, it is getting to know my customers and enjoying helping them celebrate the various milestones in their lives.