" 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.
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
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