Graduation season is the peak time for computer generated decorating images. Research and plan now for photo cakes
that sell year-round.
Computer decorating systems have quickly transformed cake decorating. Computer generated cakes make up about 50 percent of Torrance Bakery's decorated cake sales, up from 30 percent two years ago. Photo cakes account for 10 to 15 percent of sales at Cake Palace, with the percentage spiking to 30 during graduation season. Both Kirk Rossberg, owner of Torrance Bakery in Torrance, Calif. and Randy Roshto, owner of Cake Palace in Baton Rouge, La., were guinea pigs for their respective computerized cake decorating systems. The systems have since greatly improved.
“We had the first machine that came out in Louisiana,” Roshto says. “The first machine was about $40,000. The next one was like $20,000. Now, they are down to a very reasonable price.”
Rossberg also has experienced improvements over the years. “In the early days, the red was orange, which made the faces look a little weird. But with any new product, you have growing pains,” he says. “We as bakers learn as well as the manufacturers. Things have evolved so much, and the systems are a lot better now. So, if somebody hasn't tried it for about five years, I'd suggest doing it again because it's a lot better than it used to be.”
Several imaging systems are available, and only research will indicate what system works for your bakery. Some print directly on the cake while others use confectionery paper that you peel and place. “It's all personal preference, but it makes sense to review the two different systems to see which one would work better for your application,” says Hillary Souza, owner of Veronica's Treats, Middleboro, Mass.
John Walsh, owner of Bethel Bakery in Pittsburgh, Pa., suggests you take into account who will be running the machine. If your cake decorators are going to be running the unit, choose a unit that is as user-friendly as possible, he says. High school employees, who tend to be more computer-savvy, generally print out Bethel Bakery images.
Differences in systems
Roshto chose a system that prints directly on the cake, or in his case, directly on rolled fondant sheets that he rolls out himself. “I don't like the edible sheets. They are rice paper or something, and they don't taste very good,” he says. He feels the rolled fondant is more edible, and customers can remove the image from the cake and save it, which many of his customers enjoy. “We also do cookies, but we print directly on the cookies; an edible sheet wouldn't be the same,” Roshto says.
Souza, who ships 10,000 imaged products a week, such as cookies, cakes, brownies and crispy rice treats, prefers to use the icing sheets. “The direct print to icing doesn't allow high resolution,” she says. “I wanted to go with something that had really good replication of the original image. The icing sheets have a much higher resolution.”
The key is to get the best printer you can because that is what is going to give you the best image, says Robert Zirelli, vice president of Veniero's Pastry in New York City.
No matter the system you choose, all bakers agree you need more than one printer. “We have four printers, and we rotate them,” Rossberg says. “We find we can't go sheet after sheet, non-stop all day. So, they are hooked up to one computer, and we just rotate which printer the sheets print on.” For multiple printers, Rossberg suggests at least one be capable of printing the larger, half-sheet size images.
He also encourages investing in good photo imaging software, such as Adobe Photoshop. It allows you to add something special to your designs, he says, because you can remove backgrounds or use clip-art to add elements to the image to fit the theme, and most importantly, color correct the image.
Souza agrees art software is necessary, if only for color correction. “Printing with food coloring is different than printing in regular, standard ink, and not a lot of people account for that. If you print something and you see that something is coming out orange and you know it's supposed to be red, then you have to take out some blue. Basically, it's just practice and finding out what works.”
Walsh doesn't want to get into too much photo manipulation; what the customer provides for a photo is what the customer gets on the cake. However, when he does run into problems, he uses a company that only prints edible sheets. “Sometimes we have to outsource our imaging needs because we can't get a really good red or a really good black. We email him the image; he has better food coloring than we do. His black is always black and his red is always red. There is a difference out there.”
Walsh recently began researching a new imaging system that promises to produce true blacks and true reds. “That would be huge for us,” he adds.
Effects of icing
The icing on the cake also affects the results. Zirelli is unique in that he uses the edible sheets on whipped cream icing, which is mostly water. “Buttercream works better, but we use mostly whipped cream in our store. Our whipped cream has some topping in it, and the topping breaks down most of the water. It makes it more stable, so the images don't bleed too badly.” He also has a disclaimer that he is not responsible for color bleeding on whipped cream cakes with photo images.
When using edible sheets, you have to rub the image into the icing slightly, Rossberg says. “Don't just lay it on top of the cake,” he says. “Make sure all of the air is out, so it doesn't have bubbles or cracks in it. Rub it so it becomes a part of the icing as opposed to sitting on top of the icing.”
Bethel Bakery's Walsh, (who had the second machine in Pittsburg) remembers the worry computer decorating machines caused when they first came on the market. “I can remember one of my decorators worrying that decorators would lose their jobs; that computers would take over, but hardly. All they did was create more work.”