Monday, April 28, 2014

Gripe, complain,:Learn! "cakin' aint easy"

Well, once again, I find myself driven to make another blog post.  When I started this blog and my former one too I fully intended it to be a fun and dare I say it even educational blog.  How to make something, or what product I think is awesome, but it’s been derailed and I find that I get more value out of tackling the real issues that we all deal with in private.  The ones that we are sometimes afraid to admit because we feel it makes us look bad.  I think we all as artist want to be recognized for our skill and talents.  I know I do, but the problem is many people think that because you’re skilled and talented, the easy connection is making money and endless happiness!  I’m sure many of you reading this know, it’s soo not so simple!. 

I got pulled into another discussion this week on Facebook.  I wasn’t intending to be, but someone mentioned me in a post about being asked to do something, that for the money was by any measure ridiculous!   It turns out 5 minutes before the mention online, I had received an inquiry from a lady who was stressed out beyond any reasonable amount because she, after being dumped by her original decorator,  had been trying in vain to find someone willing to do the cake for her, and found that most wanted a whopping 10X what she had originally been asked to pay.  (It’s worth noting here that the 10X amount was, even if a little high, still much more realistic for the cake type she wanted)  Additionally she found that many of the people were rude to her as they became offended by the very fact that she could ask for something of such a magnitude and then hope to buy it on the cheap!  I talked to her for a few and she seemed to be very thankful that I even took the time to talk to her.  I quoted her a price, that I felt was very fair and she explained, politely that she was still going to look around, as she just couldn’t spend that much.  ( the design was for her son’s first birthday and followed a certain theme associated with her father, who had passed away on Christmas and had given the boy his nickname “ Bulldog”.  It was a very emotional thing for her to discuss which made it even harder for her to deal with the attitudes she had received from some of the shops she had talked to.  It‘s worth noting too, that I WAS THE CHEAPEST QUOTE SHE HAD RECEIVED!)  The post made online in reference to the client was short, and intended only to make the point of how frustrating it was to get asked for things that take worlds of talent and know-how, and for next to nothing, but the responses grew ugly and multiplied and when I spoke up in defense of the client, who was and is unaware of the post, it turned into a discussion about me being to sensitive!  So sensitive it seems that I got to pick at the scab and write about it today! 

As I read the comments, and so many of the same type and nature so often before, I was reminded that just as I mentioned in previous blogs, this is tough industry!    I’ve written blogs about trying to focus on yourself and your marketing.  I’ve offered alternatives to taking everything personally even, but in light of this past event, I thought I’d focus even more on this one issue…  Maybe I’m hardened to it?  I deal with unrealistic request every single day.  Many clients, simply never return your email or tell you they’re going to “ think about it”, while some take offense to the unbelievable nerve I must have to want to charge what I must, for a cake!  It’s a extremely common issue, but one we as cake people take very personally.  My point in previous blogs was the same as my point was on the face book comment.  Getting yourself so worked up every time that a client doesn’t get it is just flat out bad business!  That’s not to say I never complain, and I’ve even made a post before when a client asked me about my sexual orientation in regards to their cake order.  I still find myself  deciding in my head on the proper value of a cake, only to state one aloud to the client much cheaper in hopes that they’ll accept it, but also out of fear they‘ll reject it.  I don’t like getting my feelings hurt any more than anyone else does, and when I know the quality of my work and a would be client can’t see it, I have to remind myself not to take it personally!  My point is that we all have enough drama and stress in our lives that taking offense to each and every client that doesn’t get it, is added stress we just don’t need! 

With today’s digital attachments we all have new and faster ways to compare ourselves with people from not just down the block, but around the globe…  My phone is constantly attached to face book and other sites and sometimes, something will show up that another decorator has done and instantly I’m comparing myself to them.  XXX person, just went to some exotic local to teach a class and YYY person just did an awesome cake for a really cool client.  The fact is so many people out there are really good and when we forget that the majority of people only post their best work along with carefully planned statements often equating to propaganda,   the standard to which we have to compare ourselves becomes even more impossibly high! 
As cake people we often fail to realize that our clients aren’t following all the same cake people we are!  They don’t see all the great cakes each of my friends do every week, and they don’t read the discussions on price, undercutting and inequity.   They decided, often last minute and on a whim that they “want” a cake…  They went online and they did a search for “bulldog cakes”  and were quickly bombarded with some amazing work done by people from all over the world for an unknown cost, and decided…  “I want that one!”  The very next thing they did is contact a baker,  and with nothing more than a idea, tried to place an order.    We as decorators, forget that this is probably the first and likely the last bull dog cake they’ve ever needed or ordered, so the fact that they have no concept of the cost, shouldn’t be such a surprise, and it sure as hell shouldn’t be something that gets us stressed out, but it does. 

It takes focus and a stern constitution:

Our focus should be on our work.  Dealing with client inquiries is step one of our process.  For myself, I deal with a lot of “potentials” and I’ve had to learn that there is only so much time and stress that I can allow any of those to have.  When a new client calls or contacts me, I try to be very nice, but short and to the point.  I can’t afford to invest too much time in them at first contact.  Usually I inquire as to serving size and honestly from a strictly business point of view, I will focus harder on the bigger jobs.  I have a minimum size of 30 ( which is still to small to make real money on…)  I can equate this to a large restaurant at dinner time on Friday.    The last thing a restaurant owner wants is to have a party of 6 come in, be seated and realize they’re just here for chips n salsa and water!   It’s a business and to make money as I MUST, I have to have real money orders.  If a client tells me they need a cake for 10, I promptly ( and politely) tell them I have a 30 serving minimum which averages $200.00.  Most often, they’ll be on their way, and for others, they get to have leftover cake! 

My initial questions are (In order)  1. How many guest,  2.budget  3.When,  4.Where,  5. theme…  The questions are a sort of triage for me to sort out who needs more attention and who to spend the most time on!  ( to all my client forgive me!)   It’s not that I don’t want them to feel like they’re my only client, but if you intend to have a life (which I don’t) you’ve got to streamline!    If the cake is little and the budget non existent, I may find  that question  #3 gives me my out.  “ you need a cake for 300 and your budget is $75.00?  Ooh, I’m so busy that day, I just can’t take any more orders…  very sorry!”    I’m not trying to explain why I need to charge them $1800 for the cake they budgeted $75 for, and best of all I’m not going to let them piss me off because I quote them a price that’s 24 times their budget and they react by insulting me!   I get to go on to the next email, or call and my sanity is at least somewhat intact!   

Without them knowing I’ve just subjected my client to three test.  If they fail any of my three test, I toss them into the gorge of eternal peril ( if you get my Monty Python reference)  and move on.  If it’s reasonably  possible that I can land the order and make some money off the deal, then I ask my further questions.  Where:  …  Where is huge for me as I get request from people across the country at times who once again, only looked up something online, saw my work and decided to “call that dude” without regards to where I’m at!  I may consider a long haul, but it’s not going to be on my dime!    And finally my last question is their theme…  This is where I have fun and guide the client.  I already know what their concept is and even if their stated budget doesn’t support it, I may offer suggestions above and beyond what they told me.  If they don’t go for it, I “design” something that fits their budget best…  I try not to nail down to many details to firmly, as I want to be allowed to improvise if I need to!  I will always go above and beyond for a client, but almost NEVER do I do a sketch, or describe in to much detail what I’m going to do for them.  It serves two purposes…  For one, you’re not going to pay me for the detailed color drawing I can do for you, and it takes me a fair amount of time to do…  I wouldn’t do your cake for free so why would I do another piece of art for nothing…  My son would rather me build something with him with Legos! 

Finally (and usually in my first contact) I ask for a deposit.  I can’t even begin to explain how many potential clients will go along with me and pretend to place an order, knowing that they can’t afford it, or just don’t want to, Often they're afraid of offending me by saying "No Thanks", so they go along with it...  Asking for a deposit is the final test they have to pass before I consider a cake booked!  Until I get a deposit I will try to keep my emails and conversations short and focused.  Once we’ve booked, I’m more than happy to talk more in depth about the design and ways to up the coolness…    I use PayPal almost entirely for my deposits.  I can write up an invoice with company logo and give a brief description of the cake, list date and time, and even send a message to clients about details needed and terms.  (One of which is final payment is due week of the event)  Rarely do I accept payment from a client upon delivery, and only if I know them.  This is especially true of large events and weddings as the last thing I want to do (or have had any luck at!) is chase down a bride for her final payment!    I’ve found that about 60% of the time, if I’m not paid week of or day of at the latest, I don’t get paid.    It’s not like we have much recourse for a cake that’s been consumed.  Our job is tough enough as it is, to not get paid for it, that’s unbearable.

I’m not telling you not to be offended, and I’m sure not telling anyone not to vent when they need to.( we all need to sometimes!)  I do however think we aught first think about the energy we’re spending and the power we’re giving our clients if we don’t take the reigns and allow them to stress us to the point of posting it online!.  My initial contact with clients is a test.  It allows me to decide if it’s worth the time I have to take away from my kids ( which nothing really is) while taking up as little time as possible!  By taking control and asking questions without letting the client tell me what to do, I take much of the stress and honestly pain, out of the equation.  They can’t offend me, because for one, I won’t let them and two, I don’t give them that opportunity.  This isn’t to say it doesn’t happen, as every situation varies, but I try to stick to my plan.  One of the greatest mistakes I feel decorators make, is allowing the client to manage the situation…  As we discussed, they know nothing more about the cake they “want” then they learned online in a quick search.  Only you know how hard it is to make, what it will cost you in terms of materials and time, and what your capabilities are!  Looking at their cake request and saying, “yes I can make that cake” is a bad idea!  I always say, “yes I can do something “LIKE” that, but we never copy…”  This allows you to vary from the design either due to your preferences or even your skill level or due to time constraints!  We’ve all seen cakes online, next to the “Other” cake and a caption “ this is what they asked for--- this is what they got” !  don’t let yourself get drawn into that!  My Girlfriend/ partner Carey does cakes of a completely different style than I do.  She sends me clients she can’t fit in at times and I can assure you I can’t “match” one of her designs.  And honestly, I don’t want to try! 

Welp…  as life does, I just got a call from my son’s school and he’s got a tooth ache!  I’m off, but I hope that we can all work together to make caking more fun and less work.  There’s enough stress and drama in the world, why take on more of it then we have to?
Peace n Love

Monday, April 21, 2014

You make cakes? You must be CRAZY! (Keeping your sanity while being a caker... )

An interesting week or so it’s been since I wrote my last blog…  If you read it, hopefully you understood the point I was making, or perhaps you were one of those people who read the first paragraph and got so pissed off you were compelled to send me an angry email making sure I understood just how big an over inflated, arrogant, self centered jerk I was… Either way, I got a lot of feedback, and good or bad it got me to thinking about both the blog and also why people are so damned sensitive about this line of work!  My intention has never been to please everyone, nor have I ever found it easy to sit by and watch and listen as people who are so self involved with their own little nitch that anyone outside of it is a threat or worse to blame for their difficulties.  So… just in case you’re already compelled to send me an email its (, otherwise I hope you’ll read on.

Cake is a creative venture.(there’s a bombshell!!)   Few people, and even fewer great artist ever started out with a complete lack of talent or aptitude for the work.  Within the cake world, the individual backgrounds of our industry’s best known  and most respected artist are  vast and unexplained , artist, Lawyers, doctors and auto mechanics,  there seems to be no rhyme or reason to just what type of person has “the right stuff” and no pedigree seems to exist.  It’s true you can go to school, learn the skills and become great,  you can simply acquire it by some magical means, or raw talent may propel you to some elevated status, but one constant seems to exist amongst all of us.  We’re creative people with a tendency to invest  a massive amount of emotion and self esteem in our work.  For me, this means that I’m often compelled to drive myself harder and strive to create things of a certain level of quality, even if it isn‘t financially sound or time worthy.  It also means as we touched on in the last blog that I invest way to much of my self worth into my work.  It’s hard to be a good business minded person, if your driven more by the number of friends you have on face book and the number of little blue “thumbs up” you receive for your work or the compliments than the financial and more logical demands for your time.  The response I got from the previous post really drove the point home for me. Cake people are so passionate about their craft that sometimes they don’t stop and see the harsh realities in it…  Sometimes they’re so caught up in the bullshit FB post, the TV show hype and their local competition that they cant see the basic truths.  I think it’s time we examined the drive many of us have and why it creates a problem for so many( myself included), and how to keep from burning out…


Most of the cake people I know got their start with a single cake.  What ever the reason was  you created a cake and it turned out great, or you simply liked the task so much you wanted to repeat it.  After a few more, friends and family started asking for them…  Maybe you found that you had a knack for it, and more often then not, somebody said, “you should open your own bakery!…  You’d be rich!”  Maybe this isn’t your story but how ever the means to the end, you ended up doing them more and more until it became something that you grew to identify yourself with.  I’m an artist.  I’ve worked with anything from metal and stone to wood to cake, and I can tell you as an artist, that we’re different kind of people!  You don’t have to be on the level of Michelangelo to understand this.  We are passionate, driven and often willing to make sacrifices for our craft that other people just can’t grasp.    It also means that we are needy!  YES NEEDY! (again, my email is above) We need to receive recognition for our work and we thrive on it!  Ask any cake person you know what their favorite thing is and the majority will answer “ the smiles on the faces of the people who receive our cake”. We need that reinforcement and if your anything like me, your worst fear is an unhappy customer.  Being confronted with a un-flattered client is bad enough, but a client that’s flat out mad, or doesn’t like the work you tried so hard to create for them, is a shot to the heart.  As such we may find we live in a perpetual state of fear of failure.  A fear of rejection and a need to be accepted.

Cake is a tough thing… (Bombshell #2) It’s especially true if your cake is a center piece as in a wedding or big event.  There’s a huge reception hall, the carpets a little stained,  but everyone will go on and still enjoy the evening.  The caterers over cooked the steaks.  Guest may grumble and complain a bit but usually, they eat it and get on with the celebrations.  The lead singer of the band is awful, but it makes for a laugh and the band is good, so everyone still dances.  The flowers are a completely different shade of blue than the table cloths but no one says a thing…  In comes you and your cake; it’s under scrutiny from the moment you show up in the parking lot.  It’s a hot day and extremely humid so it’s sagged a bit since you left the shop, (you’re the only one that knows this but you imagine everyone is gawking at the small bulge in the side)  The bows you made don’t quite match the colors of the venue.  The table it’s supposed to sit on is in the center of the room and you created a cake that has a front and a back instead of a 360 design...   In short, you’re focused on all the “failures” you see and you figure that‘s all anyone else sees too.   Now repeat this on a weekly basis, do it many times a week and the stress is awful!  It’s no wonder when we like something we did the first thing we do is post it on FB so all our cake friends can lift us back out of the slump!  Is there any wonder we’re all so stressed out?  How could we not be?
The very fact that we are  as an industry (for the most part)  so sensitive about our work sets each of us up for some tough times!  I work crazy hours and lately feel like I’ve not had a break (or any fun) in forever!  Even when I’m not working I’m worried about work, I’m worried I forgot something, or need to be talking to a client.    I need the money and as such, I take on as much work as I can.  More work means more stress  not just because my schedule is so full, but each order also means that I have to deal with another client, another cake and another potential for failure!  Especially as the busier I am the less time I physically have to make each cake.  I pride myself with making clients happy, but it’s always in my head that someone might not end up that way! 

I talked about home bakers in the last blog and the damage they supposedly do and I even offered some insights as to ways we can all better ourselves rather than blaming someone else for our troubles…  It’s a genuine fact that most of the cake makers I know are technically home based, myself included!  I’m a believer that for most people, it’s the way to go!  For me, I’m a single dad of 3 and I just can’t do what I need to do with my kids if I were away at a storefront trying to pay the added expenses.   but how do we with or without the added stress of a physical shop manage the stress inherent in the system?  How do we keep from burning out?     The last blog got me to thinking and if you made it this far maybe we can gain something together by sharing some of the following things I’m willing to bet we have in common, and consider ways to reduce more of the stress!

Don’t Judge!
I once wrote about how many cake decorators “fake it ‘til you make it”. ( see link below)  I was guilty of it, sometimes I still do it, and the fact is so many of “US” feel like we have to put on a front to protect the image of our brand.  They range from Facebook post like: “ Oh My!  How am I going to manage all these awesome and high paying cake orders this week?”  to simple post showing really cool cakes done for some awesome client, that we all assume made the decorator in question a pile of cash and gained them tons of attention.  Some may even be looking to me thinking the same thing:  “Mike’s really doing well!  He does cool cakes and travels to awesome places to work, he’s got it made”   I look at my own page and hell, I feel the same way, but the brutal reality is, I’m underpaid, scared to death of failing and often wonder where my next paycheck is coming from.  I work stupid hours and am guilty of selling my work for less than I should all the time!  “Why?”, because often if I didn’t, I wouldn’t have the cool cake to post, the awesome trip pictures and the “image” of success I seem to convey now.  My dream isn’t to do another awesome cake, but to have a Saturday to spend doing nothing…  to be able to sit and have a drink with my girlfriend,  hang out with my kids and not feel like I should be checking my email, or starting on a cake due in a few days.  I can assure you, no matter what level of decorator, we all look at our peers and judge ourselves by their “Image of success”…  I’ve warned about it many times before that  judging yourself on the inside by the way you perceive someone to be on the outside, is a sure way to end up feeling like failure!
  It’s very hard not to beat yourself up but we can all try to remember, just because someone looks so successful, doesn’t mean their not starving just like you!  Most of all, be careful how much you judge yourself by their standard.  So many people these days are willing to step forward and declare they know the way, or have it all figured out.  My hunch is we’re all still looking for the answers, in cake techniques and in life.

Get some help!
Doing something artistic and trying to make money doing it can be a very lonely thing!   In addition to always being our own toughest critic we have to face the constant problems of competition, and clients that “don’t get it” coupled with an economy that places little value on something that is “just cake”…    Additionally as I said earlier, we’re different people!   We need to feel that sense of accomplishment.  For many, being artistic usually means you’re also pretty competitive and you need to prove your abilities and let’s be honest “Show off” a bit too…    Doing it by yourself can be the biggest challenge!  Even if you’re not single, it can be extremely tough if your partner is one of those that “doesn’t get it”.   Some people will never understand the drive and sheer level of crazy you have to have to do cakes. It will always be a mystery to them, but it’s true of artist in general.  One of my favorite painters, Pierre Renoir once said “  You have to be a bit mad to paint…  Van Gogh was, and I am and as for Cezzanne….  It’s the straight Jacket!”…    When it’s 4am. And I’m working on some kids 3rd birthday cake, this point becomes EXTREMELY obvious.    So, my point is find someone who shares your passion, a friend, a fellow cake person and get them to help carry some of the load!.  We all have our troubles and working together is always a benefit to everyone.  One thing I’ve learned about us crazy people, is we understand our kind!  I’ve been to cake clubs and even national events (I’m not naming names! LOL)  where the tension between groups is insane!  New ideas are shunned and anyone not part of the power clique are considered lowly!  It seems to me that if one rises a bit, we all follow!  Lets focus on that and leave the politics and rules to the people with day jobs!

Get a real job?

I dream of this a lot, but my own fears keep me from it.  I don’t mean to sound boastful, but I feel I am pretty good at what I do…  I can, without much thought, sculpt or make just about anything, and I’m lucky that it comes very naturally for me.  I look at guys in khaki pants on their way to the office to sit in a cubicle and do their allotted amount of daily task and wonder, if they’re not much wiser than I…  I know many of them that without actually creating anything, without laboring or sweating, driving a nail or shaping a single stone, make a very healthy living.   It makes you wonder!  This hit home the other day as Sprint has it’s headquarters here in Kansas city.  One of the senior executives of the massive corporation, physically creates nothing…  He doesn’t come up with the technology or build the phones or erect towers, or manage customers.  But brings home millions for his “work”  all while telling a local cake guy his cake was too expensive.  (this may have happened to me).  The sculpted cake that looked like his private jet wasn’t worth the $300.00 asked.  My initial reaction was to lower my price. It definitely makes you question your career choices and it’s a question I’m still on the fence about.  At any rate, I thought it’d be a great place to “get exposure” but what it really does is make it even harder for me to do any of the things I want to do, like pay my electric bill or feed my kids!   This brings me to my next point:

Free is expensive!

We all get this…  “Do a cake for this event for me and I’ll get you sooo much exposure!”  I get asked all the time for donations and more often even I get “Offers” from people who think they can single handedly offer some magical amount of publicity to me in exchange for a free cake!  Sometimes if I like the event or group I’ll do it, but I can tell you that NONE of the event’s I’ve done on my own dime gain me an order in the future!!  I’ve done huge events like the KC chiefs stadium cake to charity events and as many know I’ve done lots of TV stuff too, and rarely does it equate to someone ordering a cake!  I remember when the Chiefs told me that Duff had agreed to do a 3 foot square cake for them  but had become unable to do so and in turn  they wanted me to do an even bigger one!    I eventually agreed to a 6’x7’ replica complete with working score boards to be served during the pre-game show on ESPN.  The deal was I’d receive payment only for my “cost” and in return get a suite at the game for me and my staff as well as a mention during the pre-game show and also at the stadium during halftime on the jumbotron.  Essentially I was getting HUGE exposure not just by serving 2000 fans but also on ESPN and during the game.  In short, the pregame got cancelled due to a game going longer than planned before, the “Mention” during the game was a great video about how the Chiefs had treated fans to an awesome cake (no mention of who made it)  and the only people allowed in the suite were myself and a couple friends while my staff sat outside in the freezing cold rain!    I still can’t count a single order in response to the nearly $5000.00 I spent making the cake, the three vans that delivered it and related expenses.  I worked for 48 hours straight to create it and at great expense. (I found out later that Duff had allegedly asked $25,000.00 for the cake with an additional $25,000.00 plus a custom jersey for his appearance….  Hence the reason he‘s not hurting for cash)
My advice, don’t give too much of your work away for free… Your kids can’t eat the publicity! 

Don’t fear Change!
I talk about my “fears” a lot…  for me, as another “NEEDY” cake guy, I worry that if I quit I’d easily be forgotten…  I like making cakes and I know I’m pretty good at it, but everyday as I struggle to do the things I want to do, I consider finding a “normal” job.  I see the fear of change everywhere within the cake world too.  Big groups are pushing to “bring back the old ways”  Bring back the lost art of butter cream!”  and other bullshit and every time all I see is people who like me, worry that their old ways, the things they were best known for and did most are gone, and forgotten.   I get it!  Really I do, we’re all worried someone will come along and do it better, that a client wont like our work, or we’ll not make it.  But, when I start to fear things I try to remember that everything changes.  There’s no stopping it and rather than try to hold on to the old I  TRY to be open to the changes.   I tried in my past blog to promote a change in all the bitching and moaning about home bakers and the damage they do to others by offering an alternative:  Stop bitching and start doing…  Focus on yourself and the things you can control…    Fear is one of the most powerful things, sometimes it’s for the best, as it keeps you from jumping off bridges and climbing in cages with grizzlies, but it also creates one of the most powerful and worst statements in the human realm.  “If Only”…  I’ve Not done so many things because I was afraid of the result…  afraid of failing, but after 40 years of failures and success, I can honestly say nearly all of the really great things in my life have come when I looked past that fear.  I’m still afraid, but I look forward to ways of getting past that as I know life still has many great rewards for us all if we take that leap.  In defiance of fear is when we are most alive; Welcome new ways and ideas without fear.  Say yes!  Keep your mind and heart open without instantly judging and going on the defensive!  And most of all, love fearlessly! 

It’s been a long blog… believe me too that I understand that writing things like this "could damage" my image and even piss people off, but they call me the Black Sheep for a reason, well, many really, and I figure an honest look at our combined struggles can't hurt!   Thanks for reading and as always feel free to share if you liked it.
Peace n Love

Fake it til you make it blog from 2012)

Thursday, April 3, 2014

STOP STEALING MY BUSINESS! an alternative look at home bakers.

" These damn bargain bakers are killing our industry!!" they say... I’ve heard it from a multitude of sources lately, discussions ranging from minor comments to raging rants about how much small time bakers are hurting our industry and how so many people are loosing orders because someone was willing to do it cheaper…   The general idea is that a client called in regards to a cake order and because of budget concerns, or a simple lack of understanding of what good is, ended up going with some home baker or hobbyist because they were willing to do it for next to nothing.  The consensus being that these people lessen the value of what we professionals and high quality artist do.  In a sense they keep us from being able to charge what we need to charge because they offer such a drastically cheaper alternative for what the client perceives as a fulfillment of their needs.  I.E. they sell stuff so cheap we can’t make any money on our quality product!

The fact is the market is saturated with all levels of baker from low end beginners ( who probably shouldn’t be charging any more than they are for what is essentially their education)  to professional shops like Wal-mart, Costco and grocery stores, to high end craftspeople like myself and so many of the people shouting out in protest against the bargain basement baker!   “ I lost another order to some crazy baker willing to work for $.75 a serving!!” they shout... I have to wonder, is it really true?  Sometimes perception can cloud reality so badly that instead of focusing on ways we can better market  and improve ourselves, we get bogged down in looking outward and blaming the environment for our troubles.   Maybe the answer isn’t as much in creating concentration camps to confine these crazy. well meaning but hurtful folks, but rather to stop and look at what we’re doing, and focus on our marketing and accepting that not everyone is going to see the value in our work!

As I am by self proclamation one of the “high end”  cake designers in my area it serves to reason that someone is going to be cheaper than me…  Even if you don’t consider yourself one of the elite in your area, you still must come to terms with your own level of quality and learning to market yourself.  For me this means setting a standard below which I try not to fall ( not that I never do) and also setting a base price for which I can charge for a minimum and still make something (notice I said something).  Both of these things by design will, whether I mean it to or not, exclude some people from ordering cakes from me!  Just as it is for me ( I am far from the most expensive shop in my area!) it is for you as well.  Your prices, no matter how reasonable you may think them to be, will just not work for some people, the sooner you accept that, the sooner you can move on to more productive ends!

There are so many  challenges to our craft…  We have to practice, learn and master the skills required to make the cakes we sell,  and by doing so gain an appreciation of the degree of work, skill, talent and creativity it requires.  It’s unfortunate and very frustrating however that our clients for the most part wont ever get that!  In a perfect world our clients would care that we were up all night stressing about their cake and working til we could barely stand…  In a perfect world the degree of stress related to our work and the toll it takes on body and mind would have a fair monetary value…  And likewise, in a perfect world those willing to do that work for nothing would come to their senses and charge what it is actually worth, or just quit!   But a perfect world it is NOT.  Times are tough, and although people may respect quality to a degree, for a vast percentage of our population it’s all about the bottom line.   It’s a culture that is becoming more and more the norm as we all try to get a good deal and save as much of our cash as possible.  It's a problem that affects us all, from professionals to beginners.  The challenge is being smart enough to figure out ways to convince enough clients that although Walmart only charges 1/3 the price and Betty down the street will attempt to do it in her kitchen even cheaper, that our product is worth the money.  It all comes down to marketing yourself and sending a message to would-be clients that drives home the message as to why you’re worth it!  And that’s a challenge grand!

One of our biggest obstacles is that unlike shopping for jeans or tennis shoes or even eating out, where a restaurant can list what each meal is, cake is very challenging in that we can’t really show the client what it is that we’re trying to talk them into ordering, because it doesn’t exist yet…  I can’t begin to tell you how many times, despite how many pictures of past cakes they’ve seen, I’ve delivered a cake and had a client literally in shock at what was delivered.  While it’s great to have a happily stunned client, it underscores the point that while they agreed to a price and placed an order, they really had no genuine concept of what they were getting for their money!  So then it begs to question how can we impress upon them what to expect and how can we get them to justify the cost if they don’t really get what their ordering?  Again it comes down to marketing and finding ways to create value, and add reasonable expectations to your work.
The solutions:

First off let me say that each of us is different…  we all have different strengths and we all know our market better than someone on the outside.  That being said I do have some words of caution, gained from experience, both in success but largely in failure! 

First:  Be careful over specializing…  This may sound odd but just because you’re really good at one thing doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still work to keep your “less desirable” work.  This one was huge for me, as I had come from a shop where I worked with my mother and we stayed busy primarily with wedding cakes, which, lets face it are the bread and butter of our work.  They pay great and can be pretty steady if you market yourself for them!  When my mother and I split, I focused more on what I was known for and what I enjoyed doing the most, sculpture cakes.  I spent all my time making them and allowed my wedding business to slack off as I was bored with tiered white cakes with bows and dots on them.  They didn’t present as much of a challenge to me and I at first didn’t miss them.  As time progressed the economy would dip, I got fewer corporate orders, fewer people were willing to spend the money for sculpted stuff and I found that many people, even though they loved the look of a previous cake, found it such a challenge to cut and serve a 3D design that they went else where for their next cake, which usually meant a simple round or tiered cake… ( and they didn’t think I did those… money lost)   I had clients that wrote letters to me thanking me for the wonderful and yummy cake, not return because they ended up stressed out by having to figure out how to chop up an odd shaped cake, or made to such of a mess and ended up with a pile of cake covered structure!  Several years ago a dear friend who no longer owns her bakery blew my mind one day as she explained to me what her biggest money maker was.  She did beautiful cakes, and my perception was that she was a cake shop and one of very high quality, magazines, TV and newspapers covered her all the time.  As we talked one day her staff was opening large boxes of Dawn foods frozen cookies and placing them in the ovens.  She explained that she made more money off of pre-made dawn cookies than off of her cake business…  The cake business occupied the vast majority of her time and caused the stress that we all know and understand, but these simple cookies, that they bought frozen as dough and baked, paid the bills…I only wish I would have listened to her more!

Second:  Accept that you’re not going to get every order that comes your way.  People shop around…  It’s frustrating for us cake people as we are largely creative people as we take it as some kind of personal attack when someone goes with another caker..  For me this means I let too much of my emotions get in the way of my business.  All it does is stress me out and cost me money.  Neither of those are good!  I’ve come to realize that I do have to have a standard that I can work for.  If someone is outraged by my cost, so be it…  I have to remember that even for me, a couple hundred bucks for a cake, IS a LOT of money!  To Joe Public, who doesn’t understand the cost and talent required to create something simple like cake, it’s doubly so.  My advice is don’t take it personally! You will rarely find someone who understands how much work it is but you will find people willing to pay for good work.  Not everyone buys a Cadillac, for some an 89 Buick is all they can afford, but Cadillac doesn’t loose the sale of their new CTS-V because some guy has his Chevette for sale down the street!  Stick to your standard, market yourself as best and as aggressively as you can and leave Betty Homebaker to do her own thing.  She’s not hurting you as much as you might think!

Third:  I’ve referred to marketing yourself many times.  This doesn’t really mean that you have to out do anyone or take business away from anyone, as there is more than you think out there.  The idea is to find new ways to add value to your work, get your name in front of as many would-be clients as possible and keep it there.  If you don’t have a big promotional budget, focus on your word of mouth,  website, or online marketing.  Send a flyer with clients when they pick up cakes with info, offers and things they may not have thought of.  If you have the time, keep a calendar of clients orders with birthdays and anniversaries.  Email them cake offers just to remind them to order from you again.  You can’t always rely on them remembering to do so!
The main thing is to look at yourself, focus on what works for you and forget about what you think someone else did or what walmart charges for their stuff.  Focus your energy on being open and receptive to new potential clients even if they start the dialogue by making it obvious they don’t understand the ins and outs of the cake world.  Don’t take it personally if a client calls and has no concept of what a cake cost, or if they are shocked with your prices.  Likewise don’t try to explain that sugar cost X amount and fondant cost Y and then delivery cost Z, as it’s really not their job to care about any of that.  When you run to walmart, and gripe about the cost of eggs or milk or the DVD you want, no one explains that transportation cost have increased and that a plastic plant in Vietnam shut down causing the cost of DVD blanks to rise!  Instead think of it as a chance to market yourself to the client.  I handle the situation by explaining that I am a custom cake shop and my job is to create amazing, one of a kind original cakes for their event.  Just as they’ve seen on TV, my job is to give them that special moment, the special yummy cake that becomes a part of their memory of the event.  Not only is it my job to provide the tangible cake, but also to serve them with the best and most polite and professional service I can give them.  This means arriving in a clean delivery vehicle, wearing appropriate attire and looking as best I can!  Clients love a delivery van, even more so they love a cheerful person in a crisp chef shirt carrying their cake in.

More times than I care to count, I will give a client a price only to hear that it’s “way more” than they were expecting.  Again, don’t take it personally, and remember it’s often hard for someone to admit their financial constraints.   Usually when this happens I will ask the client if they had a budget in mind, sometimes it will be extremely un-realistic and other times it may be close, and you’ll be able to compromise.  I always tell clients that we are happy to try to work within their budget, and though sometimes it’s just not possible, many other times you can make it work for them and potentially gain a lifelong client.  If you took their balking at your price as rude and reacted in kind, you can count on them taking their business elsewhere!  YOUR JOB is not just to create the cake they ask for but also to figure out how to meet the clients needs while still making enough money to be worth the time.  This means that if their request is unrealistic, you NEED to offer alternatives.  It’s important to remember that looking like your cutting corners is a bad deal for everyone, instead of saying “ we can do it, but smaller, with less stuff“, simply explain that you’ll be happy to design a custom cake for them in the same theme/ Colors/ Style, but that fits their size and budget.  Make the compromise seem like a good thing instead of like their having to settle for less!  In short there’s only one expert in the conversation…  You be that expert!

Finally in a related subject…  Never copy!  Not even your own stuff….  This can be a challenge when it comes to some designs.  It’s pretty hard to smooth ice a round tiered cake with dots on it differently every time, so obviously try to understand where I’m going with this…  Most cake inquiries begin with a picture exchange.  The client sends a pic and says “I want this cake.”  Most likely they found it online and liked it so much they figured they’d order it.  My first reply is always that we never copy a cake as we pride ourselves in creating one of a kind cakes that are special to each client.  Sometimes they haven’t even began to think about the cost or serving size of the cake they like, just that they liked it!  I’ve had people send pics of extremely detailed (Styrofoam) show cakes, and ask if I can do it.  Many times they need it for 20 people but the cake they sent is 7 tiers, or took the original decorator 3 weeks to create.  I try to explain again that we never copy but that we are happy to design a cake for them in a similar fashion.  Trying to copy someone else’s cakes opens you up for attack by the cake community as an idea thief, and it can also create pitfalls for you if your work  which you had to do in a day, doesn’t quite meet the level of detail the original which came from some magazine article and took hundreds of hours to make.  Again, it becomes a marketing concept in which you must explain that your job is to create something they will love, but is theirs and only theirs!  Not a copy of “someone else’s cake”

I guess what I’m trying to say can be summed up in much fewer words.  Stay positive.  Focus on yourself and that includes Not judging yourself by what you perceive someone else’s standard to be.  It’s very easy to blame others, and maybe in some cases it can be so, but hey, it happens…  Focus on being positive and think of ways to shape your future dialogues with potential clients.  Come up with a standard phrase or marketing pitch.  When someone wants something unrealistic, be prepared to manage the situation.  Think of it as a planned response and deliver it knowing that it may not ALWAYS work.    You’ll find you can spend more time working on cakes and less time frustrated by client request.
Peace n love
please be sure to share the love and this blog!