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)


  1. I so needed this today. Thank you for sharing. I don't feel so alone in my icing filled funk:)

  2. Love you and your words. I related to each and every one of them. Thanks soooo much for putting my every day thoughts into writing. Again, I feel so not alone!

  3. Thank you loved reading this! Great job!

  4. Thank you - for BOTH this and the previous post!! I thought I had completely mistaken your point last time (very relieved to learn otherwise) but your insights are bang on!