The mention of wedding cake conjures a specific image — a tiered cake, usually white and covered in fondant. But Tami Cabrera has been winning converts from the traditional with her Muddy Paws Cheesecake, a wholesale bakery specializing in cheesecakes prepared for weddings.
“The challenge was creating the idea that cheesecakes were acceptable for weddings. For the first few years, we had a lot of mad moms who really wanted their daughters to have the tall, white cake,” Cabrera says. “They even called us the rebel bakers, but since then, people have really come around to the idea of cheesecake as a wedding cake. Once people see how pretty they are, and how gourmet they are, there's no reason to doubt.”
An immediate obstacle to the concept was consumers' perception of cheesecake as a shrink-wrapped block fished out of a freezer chest. Cabrera and office manager/wedding coordinator Amy McMonigal combat that image with meetings and tastings. An extensive photo album of their work depicts their cheesecakes at other weddings, helping to normalize the concept. And seeing the products in person, complete with elegant cake stands, fresh fruit garnishes and floral accents, is often the tipping point in making a wedding sale.
“Once in a great while, I'll have a bride walk in with a clipped-out picture of a cake with frosting, fondant or pastel flowers, and I'll just have to stop her and tell her, ‘That's a pretty cake, but it's not what we do,’” Cabrera says. “The last thing I want to do is cover up something as pretty as our cheesecake with frosting and try to make it something other than it is. We don't want to dilute our brand.”
Potential customers often cite cheesecake as a contentious item. Cabrera will compromise by offering a second option, usually a small traditional cake round or a cookie and crispy bar dessert display, but she bristles at the idea that cheesecake is somehow controversial. “We find there are more people who don't like regular cake than don't like cheesecake,” she says. “A large percentage of people who say they don't like cheesecake have just had really bad cheesecake or something hasn't worked for them flavor-wise. Not to mention, the majority of people who like cheesecake really love it and get excited by it in a way they don't for regular cake.”
Cabrera also positions cheesecake as a point of differentiation for her customers. Weddings can be formulaic, so brides often try to find small touches to make their day distinctive. Offering cheesecake in place of a traditional wedding cake is one way to do so. Cabrera tells her customers that cake is common at birthday parties, graduation parties and office get-togethers. Cheesecake, she says, can make a wedding celebration stand out from other special occasions.
“We're still on the upslope of popularity, and we're still growing, especially since we're no longer considered to be alternative. We are mainstream,” Cabrera says. “It's fun to be the first ones. And now that we have this experience behind us, we are considered the wedding cheesecake experts.”
Despite being the only wedding cheesecake game in town, she also is able to sell on price. Muddy Paws' cheesecakes run about $2.75 to $3 per slice. This is on par with an understated buttercream cake, and far below the $5 to $8 per slice for an elaborate fondant cake. Without decorating labor, cheesecakes are affordable as luxury items go. Also, they aren't as difficult to transport as intricately decorated cakes.
But Cabrera tries not to be over-competitive when it comes to other cake bakers, because brides are going to have what they like — no amount of salesmanship can sway them from the picture in their mind's eye. There are more than enough weddings to go around, and several very good traditional cake options are available locally. “I know when they walk in the door, if they know who we are, they already want cheesecake — most of the sale is already done,” she says. “All I have to do is seal the deal — give them some slices, show them the photo album. We have a 98 percent booking rate for brides who walk through the door; the hard work is getting them there.”
Cabrera started Muddy Paws Cheesecake in 1992, experimenting out of the back of her house after leaving a career in advertising. She chose the name “Muddy Paws” because of a passion for pets, but was concerned with confusing people. “At first, as I was really taking off, I was worried that the name might be confusing, and that people would think I was baking cheesecakes for dogs,” she says. “But I'm a sensitive and overly passionate person, so the name had to be something really personal to me. I almost changed it, but decided to stick with it.”
She rented her initial kitchen for only $5 per hour, but it was her first taste of the enormous costs of overhead. She didn't have much money, but her former career taught her the value of promotion. She had to carve out a niche for herself. With the last $1,500 to her name, she took out an advertisement in Wedding Pages magazine, the print predecessor to popular national bridal publication The Knot. It was a big risk, but it worked. Orders began trickling in, and the idea of wedding cheesecake took off. And because cheesecakes are shippable, she was able to serve wedding cheesecake customers across the country.
In 2003, Muddy Paws made a foray into foodservice with a 5,000-sq.-ft. retail location and production facility that employed more than 30 people in the heart of Minneapolis' uptown area. Cabrera now calls the location her “$12 million branding machine,” because when it was all said and done, that's how much it cost. The central location got the brand a lot of exposure; she received lots of positive reviews, won awards and even was featured on the Food Network.
But the foodservice location precipitated a new menu, which spelled potential for the company losing its focus. “It was very hard for me to have so many options — to tell the staff, even though we have wonderful salads and wonderful cookies, the cheesecake is the focus. Customers have to know who we are and what they can come to us for,” she says. “We're not just pretty good at lots of things; we're really good cheesecake makers who just happen to have these other things. I wanted people to know who we were and what they could count on us for. “
In the end, the large retail location was fiscally untenable. In 2007, Cabrera took her two key employees, McMonigal and head baker Christine McGlynn, and moved to their current industrial park location in suburban St. Louis Park, Minn. The new 2,000-sq.-ft. facility contains 1,200 sq. ft. of production space and houses a retail space for selling individual cakes at retail or meeting with brides and grooms. With the lesson learned at the uptown location, Muddy Paws returned to its strictly cheesecake roots — and that's the way Cabrera prefers it.
She isn't averse to seeking more retail dollars in the future, though, via retail outlet storefronts supplied by their current bakery. “If the right spot with the right rent and the right demographic were to open up, we definitely would place ourselves in a cool little niche area that appreciates good food,” she says. “The licensing, fire and zoning would be so much easier because it wouldn't be a production bakery.”
Wedding cheesecakes represent the lion's share of business at Muddy Paws. About 80 percent of sales are wholesale, and of the wholesale segment, 60 percent of the business comes from wedding cheesecakes. The remaining 40 percent comes from local hotels, restaurants, delis and cafés.
Restaurants represent real growth potential for the bakery. The Minneapolis metropolitan area has about 4,000 restaurants, and many need good cheesecake. Muddy Paws is currently in about 20 of those restaurants and plans to grow that segment of the business. Restaurant business tends to be constant, unlike the feast and famine of summer and winter weddings. The primary obstacle is convincing restaurateurs that quality makes a difference.
Muddy Paws Cheesecake prides itself on being wholesome and producing “whole food” that hasn't been processed. Cabrera uses as many local ingredients as she can, still hand-cracks the eggs and uses real cream cheese.
“Some people still subscribe to the ‘bigger is better’ theory about cheesecake, and I think too much bad cheesecake leaves a customer with a bad experience. They won't order the cheesecake again, and maybe won't return again at all if the finish isn't representative of the meal. Educating and explaining that to restaurants is the biggest obstacle,” Cabrera says. “Minneapolis is a granola city. It's a whole-food city, and so are we.”
Restaurants that already have talented pastry chefs also are a tough sell for Cabrera, but she counters dismissive attitudes by pointing out how notorious cheesecake is for tying up ovens and holding up production. She is able to provide a better product while freeing up restaurant oven space for other pastries. And having a local brand also is important. Muddy Paws has a strong local following, and she uses local suppliers, which reaffirms solidarity between chefs, local bakers and restaurant owners.
Mail order is another market Cabrera plans to grow. She hopes to attract wedding planners throughout the upper Midwest to keep Muddy Paws as an option, and find brides nationwide. She is currently in negotiations with a drop shipping company that could double her business to 50,000 cakes.
The difficulty is finding an audience. In order to tease out potential customers on the web, Muddy Paws has done a lot with search engine optimization for its website. This ensures that when a customer searches Google for cheesecake, Muddy Paws' name comes up. “If you put in the words ‘wedding’ and ‘cheesecake,’ we're first on the Google list. If you enter ‘cheesecake’ and ‘shipping,’ we're in the top five to 10,” Cabrera says. “My designer has been brilliant about that side of things, tagging, meta data and keywords. Next up is a website redesign.”
Muddy Paws Cheesecake also uses social media websites Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Cabrera spends a good portion of her day on social media, with her Facebook account feeding her Twitter account, and her Twitter account feeding her LinkedIn account. “Just when I think I might be wasting my time, someone will post that they love my tweets, or that they enjoy my status updates,” she says. “They say that it makes them hungry, and that's always been the goal: to make it fun and make people hungry for our product.”
A large portion of young bridal customers finds Muddy Paws via Facebook. The website is a network that tends to link similar people of similar interests and similar ages, so when one 20-something young woman posts a picture of her wedding cake, a lot of other people in that demographic are likely to see it. Likewise, Cabrera posts images of her cakes the Monday after every wedding she does. She also posts about which flavor is coming out of the oven, and which new flavors she is trying. And equipped with a smartphone, Cabrera is able to make these updates while on the go. It can be time-consuming, but it's free, relatively easy and produces results.
Single product variety
Muddy Paws features an astonishing 222 cheesecake flavors, putting Baskin Robbins to shame. About 36 flavors are available on a daily basis, and the mix shifts with availability of seasonal ingredients and berries. Inspiration for new flavors generally comes from customer demand, and if a request happens to be a hit, it earns a spot on the roster.
“We had a soldier who was returning from overseas, and his family was having a homecoming party. His favorite candy was the '80s classic Nerdz, so they had us do a Nerdz cake,” says office and wedding manager McMonigal. “It actually looked great, like confetti in the cream. The candy melted into the batter during baking, so it was a real hit.”
Cabrera also credits the bakery's appearance on the Food Network for exposing it to a national audience, with many viewers finding Muddy Paws and suggesting flavors via Facebook, Twitter or e-mail. And sometimes, a new variety doesn't come from inspiration at all. Rather, a happy accident in the bakery that turns out a great flavor.
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The options don't end at flavor varieties. To appeal to Minneapolis' granola spirit and people with dietary concerns, Muddy Paws Cheesecake includes specialty lines, such as vegan, gluten-free, lactose-free, sugar-free, low carbohydrate and reduced-fat cheesecake. Miniature cheesecakes also have gained popularity, partially fueled by the trend of smaller serving sizes. These are popular accents or accompaniments to single, larger tiered wedding cheesecakes, and come in a petite (1.75-in.) size and a 3-in. cupcake size that fills a metallic cupcake wrapper.
To manage all the variety and keep the product consistently up to her standards, Cabrera retains a few core values. All cakes are handmade in small batches and hand cut. The idea is to skirt the line between luxury and comfort food. As much of a luxury as cheesecake can be, she plans to retain simple, high-quality, but not-so-polished production.
Muddy Paws at a glance
Location: St. Louis Park, Minn.
Market served: Minneapolis metropolitan area
Founded: 1992, incorporated 1999
Annual sales: $462,000
Management: Tami Cabrera Weinmann, owner/pastry chef; Amy McMonigal, office manager and wedding coordinator; Christine McGlynn, head baker
Store size: 2,000 sq. ft.; 1,200-sq.-ft. production space, 800-sq.-ft. retail space
Product line: 222 flavors of cheesecake, mini cheesecake, wedding cheesecake, vegan/gluten-free/sugar-free cheesecake
Production method: 100% scratch
Ingredients as a percentage of sales: 29%
Labor as a percentage of sales: 31%
Sales breakdown: retail, 20%; wholesale, 80%, with 60% of total wholesale being wedding cake business
Major equipment: Convection ovens, mixers, refrigeration and freezers
Bakery supply distributors: Reinhardt Foods, Falk Paper, Uline, Restaurant Depot
Muddy Paws a sampling of prices
|• 9-in. retail||$32|
|• 9-in. wholesale||$26|
|• 9-in. retail||$39|
|• 9-in. wholesale||$32|
|• 9-in. retail||$39|
|• 9-in. wholesale||$32|
|• 9-in. retail||$39|
|• 9-in. wholesale||$32|
|• 1.75-in. petite mini||$2|
|• 3-in. cupcake mini||$2.25|
|• 1.75-in. petite mini||$1.75|
|• 3-in. cupcake mini||$2|