When Bartolo (Buddy) Valastro Jr. began working in the cake decorating department of his family’s bakery in Hoboken, N.J., he was simply filling in where he was needed. Turns out he was good at it.
“I just started pushing the envelope to what I do today,” Valastro says. “I’ve always felt that if you do something, do it with heart.”
His unique fondant cake designs moved his bakery to the forefront of Manhattan’s upscale party scene, and he is featured regularly in national bridal magazines and decorating contests on the Food Network.
Valastro began decorating when he was 13, and as a fourth-generation baker, he has baking in his blood. His grandfather owned a bread bakery in Sicily, and Valastro’s father, who immigrated to the United States when he was 13, worked in Carlo’s Bakery in Hoboken. In 1964, Valastro’s parents purchased the bakery, which had been a Hoboken institution since 1910. The bakery moved from its original residential neighborhood location on Adams Street to its current uptown building on Hoboken’s main drag, Washington Street, near a commuter train station in 1989.
“Changing locations was key,” Valastro says. “We kept the name when we made the move; this building has had a bakery in it since 1880.”
|Carlo's Bakery: at a glance|
|Location: Hoboken, N.J. |
Bakery management: Bartolo (Buddy) Valastro Jr., Mary Valastro, Grace Faugno, Maddalena Castano, Mary Sciarrone and Lisa Valastro
Bakery size: 7,500 sq. ft. (2/3 devoted to production)
No. of employees: 30 total, 20 production, 20 full-time
Market served: New York metro area
Sales by product category: birthday cakes, 40%; wedding cakes, 30%; pastries, 30%
Product line: Italian pastries, American pastries and cakes
Production method: scratch
Major bakery equipment: two revolving tray ovens, three 80-qt. mixers, proofer, depositor, sheeter, fondant sheeter, pan/rack washer, walk-in freezer
Bakery suppliers: Dawn, Oliveri & Sons, Sysco
Plans: focus more on cakes and move away from Danish and donuts, set up a cake studio, install a database that emails reminders to customers to purchase birthday cakes, working on TV show with the Food Network
The Valastros also had to keep up with the changing demographics of the one-square-mile town. In the 1960s, the bakery served a family-oriented, Italian demographic where entire families would pile into the bakery after church and buy dozens of pastries. Now, Hoboken is home to a younger, more urban community. “It’s like a party town, and kids don’t even get up until 10 or 11 o’clock. People don’t buy in bulk; now they buy one or two pastries and want more custom, fancier items,” Valastro says.
After the death of Buddy Valastro Sr. in 1994, Valastro now runs the bakery with his mother, Mary; four sisters, Grace, Maddalena, Mary and Lisa; and two brothers-in-law, Mauro Castano and Joe Faugno.
Although Valastro’s grandfather was a bread baker, his father never offered bread in his own bakery. He remained focused on Italian pastries and cakes. After moving to the current location, he added more products, such as donuts and Danish. One thing that hasn’t changed is the bakery’s scratch production. Italian pastries are still made the Old World way, and the only frozen products the bakery uses are croissants.
“We still make our own cannoli shells. But, if you’re going to do it, you have to get the money for it,” Valastro cautions. The bakery charges $3 for a large filled chocolate cannoli. Pastries now only account for 30 percent of sales.
“We have a phenomenal birthday cake business, and that’s actually increased in this location from the old location,” Valastro says. The bakery handles 300 to 500 birthday cakes a week.
Forty percent of sales now come from birthday cakes, and an additional 30 percent is wedding cakes. “We don’t make any breads at all. Bread is a tough business to make money on,” Valastro says.
Big business in cakes
In 1998, Valastro remodeled the upstairs, so it is dedicated solely to cake decorating. Valastro and his staff of eight can churn out as many as 35 wedding cakes in a week as well as birthday and special occasion cakes.
Wedding cakes have become big business for Carlo’s, and Valastro has managed to find a niche for himself in a region that boasts some well-known cake designers. He can create both fondant and buttercream designs, which many cake designers don’t offer, he says. He really began to focus on rolled fondant about eight years ago; now, rolled fondant accounts for about 80 percent of Carlo’s wedding cake business.
“I think it’s great to be able to do both; one complements the other. You can put fondant on a cake, then do some piping work, and it looks phenomenal. My niche is that I’m a baker that does work like a sugar artist,” he adds.
When Valastro was learning cake decorating from his father, he dreamed of making cakes like the ones he saw in magazines. Now, his cakes are the ones in magazines. Valastro estimates that he has been featured in about 150 publications in the last seven years, resulting in a three-week wait for a wedding cake appointment for brides. He sets aside weekends for 25 to 30 wedding cake consultations, which he handles personally.
The personal link is very important, he says, because with the personal connection you gain a better understanding of the bride and what she wants. During the consultations, he and the bride come up with the design, then talk about price and do a tasting. He uses a laptop computer to showcase his cakes instead of the traditional photo album, just another detail to let the bride know she is purchasing a high-quality cake.
| Carlo's Bakery, |
a sampling of prices
Crumb cake, $7.50
The media attention Valastro has received also allows him to charge more for his cakes across the board. Wedding cakes are priced at $6 to $7 per slice for buttercream and $15 to $20 for for fondant.
Carlo’s Bakery used to make 50 to 60 wedding cakes a week because it serviced several catering halls. All the cakes were decorated with buttercream. “I had all these cakes, but where was the money?” Valastro notes. He began to focus more on fondant designs, which also helped ease his carpal tunnel symptoms. He gradually began pushing the envelope on conventional designs, and garnered attention as a result. “Now, I do less, but I make 10 times the money.”
Brides used to come in and ask him to copy designs. If the original cake in the magazine was $2,000, he could only charge $1,000. “Now it’s the other way around, and people are copying what I do. Sometimes people bring in pictures from magazines, and I’m more expensive than the cake featured in the magazine,” he says.
While Carlo’s customers may be paying top dollar for their cakes, Valastro also works to ensure that they are purchasing high quality cakes. All of the bakery’s cakes are made from Old World formulas and high-quality ingredients. For example, he won’t use strawberry preserves in his fillings; instead, he uses fresh strawberries. “Put fresh fruit inside your cake because you’re going for a more elegant look. You don’t want to cheapen yourself by using certain ingredients,” Valastro says.
Wedding cakes make a perfect entrée into providing cakes for other occasions, such as christenings and birthdays, as the family grows, Valastro says. “Some want a pocketbook or a poker table; we do a mix of everything,” he adds.
The bakery recently introduced a line of what Valastro terms “middle of the road” cake designs. The bakery had the high end covered with its wedding and specialty cakes as well as the less expensive, every day cakes. Valastro was looking to fill the empty slot he felt the bakery had for customers who wanted something nicer for their celebration than a cake out of the showcase, but didn’t want to spend thousands on a specialty cake. He introduced 6-in. round and quarter sheet cakes decorated with fondant that customers can customize.
Even for the middle tier cakes, Valastro ensures that he makes a profit. A regular, undecorated half sheet cake costs $70, but he charges an additional $150 for the simple fondant decorations. Another example is a round cake. A regular fudge layer is $16.95, but the fondant covered and decorated 6-in. round cake sells for $40.
Another bonus with the new cake line is that Valastro can rely on his staff to decorate them. He purposely created designs that he knew his staff could handle, which frees up his time to devote to the wedding and specialty cakes.
When he introduces new designs, Valastro creates a cake display to let customers know they are available. The bakery does no advertising and relies on word of mouth and its sales staff to direct customers to the new products.
“Even if it takes an extra five minutes to get it right, I will do it because I want customers to say they can’t get this cake anywhere else,” Valastro says. “There’s nothing more satisfying than hearing a customer say ‘wow.’”