Bakery owners react to the proliferation of food-focused shows and discuss their impact on the industry.
An ever-growing number of bakers and decorators are becoming national celebrities by participating in competitions and/or having their products featured on the Food Network, TLC and other television networks. Even industry pros who have not labored under the hot studio lights believe this national exposure has, in general, been a boon for bakeries everywhere. But it also has brought with it a new set of challenges and concerns.
Kirk Rossberg, owner of Torrance Bakery, Torrance, Calif., who has been featured on TLC network’s “Fabulous Cakes,” thinks the exposure has inspired many bakers and decorators to not only raise the bar, but to keep pushing it higher. It also has educated consumers as to what bakeries can do and given them more of an appreciation for the artistry and skills involved in creating specialty cakes.
The heightened consumer interest and awareness also energizes Torrance Bakery’s staff. The potential to achieve rock star status and increased opportunities to express their creativity also are inspiring young people to take a look at baking and decorating as first-choice instead of default careers, Rossberg says.
The bonuses of TV exposure
Connie McDonald, co-owner of Levain Bakery with three locations in New York, describes the experience and aftermath of having her company’s cookies and other products featured on several Food Network shows, including “The Best Thing I Ever Ate” and “Throwdown With Bobby Flay,” as really great. But she admits to having mixed feelings about the profusion of bakery-oriented TV shows.
The good part, she says, is that people get really excited about coming in to the bakeries and buying the products they have seen on television. And it gets the staff excited when these customers say that the products are as good as they had expected.
“When you have been on TV, you’re your own toughest act to follow,” McDonald notes. “And that’s not a bad thing.”
Rossberg agrees, saying “Customers’ higher expectations remind us that there is a lot of good stuff out there, so we had better tuck our egos into our back pockets, look beyond our own little market kingdoms and keep striving to get better and better.”
A cake decorator since 1976, Annie Hall, owner of Annie’s Culinary Creations, Murphy, Texas, says it was only after the craft was highlighted on television that consumers could understand “the awesomeness” of what can be achieved when icing, sugar and artistry come together. She points out that consumers are now more aware of such artistic options as hand painting, airbrushing, modeling and sculpting.
Marc Serrao, owner of Oakmont Bakery, Oakmont, Pa., hires students from a local art institute to work on sculpting and airbrushing to keep up with the number of specialty cake orders the bakery receives every week. Ashley Vicos, owner of Sweet Ashley’s, Atlanta, also brings in professionals from other disciplines to help her with the architecture, movement, lighting and other special effects.
Charlie Tola, owner of Lulu’s Bakery, Fresh Meadows, N.Y., on the other hand, turns down orders that involve carpentry or welding. “I don’t have a machine shop in my bakery,” he says.
Flavor still king
A cake created by Duff Goldman or Buddy Valastro may catch a customer’s eye on TV, but it is the local bakery that gets the sale, Hall says. Customers come to her shop to ask if she can replicate the designs they saw on TV or, in a number of cases, dream up something even more fabulous.
However, Rossberg cautions, the avalanche of publicity can be a double-edged sword. After seeing the edible cake extravaganzas that are constructed on these shows, some customers are more concerned about the spectacle of the cake rather than how it will taste.
Hall reminds customers that some of the outsized, special effects cakes have to be supplemented by rice cereal treats to support the weight.
“While we will use rice cereal treats when we have to, we let our clients know that. If they are looking for an all-cake showpiece, they might have to tone down some of the over-the-top elements,” she says.
Vicos, a multi-time winner of TLC’s “Ultimate Cake-Off” who also had her own Food Network series, “Have Cake, Will Travel,” emphasizes that customers need to know that no matter how much effort or how many hours decorators spend on a cake, taste is as important–or even more important–than the bells and whistles.
“How much they enjoyed eating the cake is what they’ll remember the most and what will bring new customers who have experienced your cakes at parties to come to you for theirs,” she says.
Some customers also have no understanding of how much these masterpieces cost, and often have champagne dreams and beer budgets, Rossberg says.
Instead of viewing this initial pricing disconnect as a major problem, Vicos sees it as an opportunity to show customers the exciting cakes that can be produced within their budgets. For example, instead of the 5-ft. cake the customer may originally have wanted, she suggests a sculpted 2-ft. cake that is still sure to impress guests. Vicos also gives her customers three price point options–low, medium and high–so everyone knows what is feasible.
“It’s up to us to take control of the appointment and turn what could have been a disappointing consultation into a sale that makes clients very happy,” Vicos says.
Oakmont Bakery’s customers usually understand why a three-dimensional car or dinosaur cake costs so much more than two-dimensional versions, Serrao says. They are generally thrilled that they can afford more than a sheet cake with a picture piped on it.
These days, cakes are much more than desserts; they’re accessories or even the entertainment, according to both Tola and Vicos. Hall echoes these assessments, noting “it just isn’t cool to have a single layer cake for a special occasion.”
Elaborately decorated, tiered cakes have become the centerpieces of an increasing number of children’s birthday parties, weddings and baby showers, anniversaries and other special occasions. More than 90 percent of the special occasion cakes Hall sells at Annie’s Culinary Creations are tiered, and most have some kind of fondant element.
Serrao adds that Oakmont used to get orders for two or three sculpted cakes a month and now the bakery is decorating three to four every week.
More baking, less drama
While the plus side to many of the bakery shows is making more consumers aware of the baking industry, a minus is that like any reality genre, the older it gets, the more outrageous it becomes. Levain Bakery’s McDonald wishes the programs would feature more cake and less drama.
While the entertainment component keeps viewers tuning in, the pressure of competition brings out some not-so-pleasant human behaviors. Couple that with some creative editing and viewers may get the impression that the competitors are back-stabbers.
On some of the shows, the entertainment factor goes too far, making the competitions seem more like “Survivor” or sitcoms than food programs, Hall adds.
“Some are getting crazy, moving away from actual art and getting into silly stuff, such as stunts that require the contestants to wade through a fountain to get their ingredients,” she says.
Hall has shied away from applying for programs such as “Cupcake Wars” because they often challenge bakers with ingredients that no one would really want to find in a cupcake. The resulting chaos might be fun to watch, but does not really compel customers visit their local bakeries for these kinds of products.
Reviving the industry
Although Tola is “too chicken” to take part in the televised competitions, he thanks others who have shone the light on the industry. “From a dying trade, the bakery industry has been revitalized,” he says.
Veteran bakers also are taking more continuing education classes to keep up with the newest trends and tools that consumers see during these televised baking/decorating competitions.
“They’re realizing that it takes only a few hours here and there to enhance their skills and make their bakeries even more profitable,” Vicos says.
Although Rossberg admits to being hooked on these shows himself, he fears that the flood of bakery-oriented program may eventually lead to viewer burnout.
“We want to be out there giving more and more ideas to customers, but don’t want to have so many programs out there that viewers will get bored with them and start looking for the next new thing,” he says. “We don’t want to look at this as another fad that died from overexposure.”