I'm hoping for some constructive input from all sorts of legal cakers out there! In a nutshell, I'm a cake decorating hobbyist looking to make it into a business, but intimidated by what may be my competition.
I've spoken with my local Health Department and Dept. of Agriculture, and am in the process of trying to secure a commercial kitchen to rent. Inspired by a particularly well-written business plan I ran across, I began scrutinizing my potential competition.
So... My first dilemma is that one of my potential competitors advertises on her website that she operates out of her fully-licensed home kitchen - something my Health Dept. person stated is absolutely impossible in our county. I'd like to know if she truly is, and if so, HOW (I'm jealous!). This is more of an irritation to me than anything. If I were to call her to find out, I'm not sure she'd be so willing to help me, and I couldn't be sure her information was accurate anyway. On the other hand, I'm not crazy about the idea of bringing her name up directly with the Health Dept. either, because I wouldn't want to "rat her out" indirectly. (I've done a lot of looking into this, and I can understand how she may THINK she's legal if she only spoke with the Dept. of Ag. But then again, I might be wrong; she may have dealt with someone at the local Health Dept. who interpreted the regulations differently than the person I've been dealing with.) The whole issue of home baking is about as clear as mud in my area. Has anyone else had such an issue?
My bigger concern is being intimidated by my competition. Not so much their work, but how they present themselves. Most of them boast glamorous backgrounds and CIA certifications and such. I, on the other hand, am completely self-taught. My nearest competition boasts being CIA grads, yet their work seems messy to me. Seriously. I was quite literally shaking as I approached their window to see their display cakes, expecting to be humbled and possibly even cured of my hopes to become legal. But for neatness, my stuff blows theirs away. I walked away wondering why they would showcase something so sloppy. But then I wondered if I'm just being too critical about neatness.
...Which got me wondering about culinary degree vs. natural talent. What do people really look for when they're ordering a cake for a special occasion? I'd like to think I have some natural talent, since that would be my only selling point over these cakers with great backgrounds. I would hope that my cakes spoke for themselves. But in your experience, what is it that really sells your cakes? And if you don't have official qualifications, how do you market yourselves outside of word-of-mouth?
And yet one more thing: I have yet to find any scratch cake recipes that I would feel confident using - so this is another area of insecurity for me. It certainly makes me feel inferior to CIA grads, because I'm relatively sure they're strictly scratch bakers. So I either need to find a good scratch recipe, or find a way to reconcile my feelings about using doctored mixes somehow. Does anyone have any suggestions?
I have every intention of moving forward toward becoming legal; I'd just like to be able to do so with as much information (and confidence in my decision) as possible. And I've seen so much excellent, savvy, and brutally honest advice here on CC - I'm hoping some of it can be directed my way.
Sorry so long, but thanks in advance!
I just looked at your creations and I think you are an AWESOME decorator. You are already on your way to compete with the "big leagues". Like you, I have learned everything on my own. I am a highly educated woman (Masters degree)...just not in culinary affairs. People tell me that I have a knack for designing and decorating and they LOVE my cake recipes. That's all I needed to push forward with my passion. DO NOT let nobody intimidate you. It might be the "so called experts" who may be thinking..."wow, this gal has talent. No way she has no formal training."
If your nearest competition is legal she has probably done so through the Dept of Ag. Which if that is the case it is really easy to get legal, although i do know one of the stipulations through them is no advertising and only wholesale selling allowed, unless selling at a farmers market and things like that.
Don't let the degrees intimidate you, if they are boasting certificates it could be just a class here or there. They could have a full blown degree but there are alot of classes that run anywhere from a day to a couple of weeks.
As far as the sloppiness of their work, I'm sorry but it never ceases to amaze me what joe q public will fine acceptable.
As far as the scratch vs box, well make the best cake you know how and your product will stand for itself.
Good luck with the legal thing, you may want to consider the dept of ag as a starting place rather then a store front type business, as there is little cash out put to go the route of the dept of ag.
Congrats on doing some good research as you begin this exciting new endeavor!
CIA vs. self taught: It's all in the marketing. If I were you, I'd promote myself on the basis of that 'homemade taste, just like you remember from gramma' or something like that. Self taught or culinary school really doesn't matter .... it's all in the marketing and how you present it. If you have it in your mind that a CIA baker is "automatically better", you need to get over that. Yes, they have learned some things that you don't know, and they have a level of expertise that you may not have, and yes, many of them can blow you away in a baking bake-off, but there's no 'automatic' in either method.
No bride, in my 30 years, EVER asked me about my "degree" in baking.
Scratch vs. Mix: This is a long and hot debate on here, but I think no matter what side of the line you're on, most agree that you need to use what works best for you. Some of the biggest and best bakeries bake from scratch; some make their cakes from 50lb bags of cake mix where you just add water; some use traditional cake mixes like you buy at the grocery. If you currently use mixes and that's what has built your customer base, I say stick with that while you experiment with some scratch recipes to find some that you are willing to put your name on.
THe one who works out of her home may be a hard one. *IF* it's legal to work out of your home, then you want the same advantage as she has. One option may be to ask your inspector again. If he says it's not, ask "how is this person doing it?" But that's a personal decision on which direction to go on that one.
forget about the competition and focus on your self! if you dont believe 110% in your self and your product, how will you be able to get the hard sell? get to grips with why you are better (and yes, the tiny things like using an eco box will sway someone) and use that to get the sale over your competitors.
you need to know who is out there and what they offer - what you found is 'qualified' people, with an inferior product. some people will care more about the certificate than the finish, thats why you focus on the people who care more about the quality. if you cant re-educate the certificate lovers, then they just arent meant to be your customers. (although, if the funds are there, theres nothing stopping you doing some classes and getting your own certificates)
what does the customer look for? depends on the customer. some want celeb chef cakes, some want true home baked goodies, some want cheap some want quality, some will choose looks over taste, while some want both. you want to cover all the angles that apply to you at least somewhere in your website. ( and i would be confident to say natural talent is not your only unique or superior or even just competitive selling point. as you said, your finish, and so i assume attention to detail is better than theirs, and thats a pretty big start )
as for marketing, theres 100s of options. also, lots of posts about them too, but think wedding fairs, leaving cards with deliveries, local papers, ad boards in supermarkets, sky writers... whatever you think will reach a good target!
plenty of high end bakeries use mixes, doctored or not. if you are happy to use mixes, then do it - a lot of customers only like mixes, just like a lot of people only like scratch. there have been posts a while ago on how to address this issue on your website etc which are quite useful. (as for scratch recipes - i tend to use a victoria sponge or maderia - once you have the basics of sponge making (like dont overbeat) they are very reliable)
as for this home baker in your area... is there a way in which her area is different to yours, so same county different??? maybe its a zoning thing - if her area is zoned for retail or whatever, maybe it was easier for her?
if you would want to operate out of your home, then i think you need to do something... if you want a store front, i wouldnt worry so much for now anyway. now as to what that something you should do is, i have no clue. id say approach her first, but who knows how she will react. and you dont really want to turn someone in, but im sure you could say your aware of 'someone' saying they are legal selling home baking in X area, so why cant you?
i hope thats of some help to you. mainly, you want to do this because you believed you could, i think you need to get back in touch with that determination!
I am 3 months old at this cake decorating adventure, and I loved it. I went to culinary school, and I have a degree on culinary but not on pastry(2 different things), but everything I know I about cake decorating I have learned here, reading books, youtube videos etc, since I wasn't taught anything about cake in school, so just b/c they have a degree from CIA doesn't mean it's a pastry degree. Besides it takes more than a degree to be talented, baking a cake and know how to decorate it, it's 2 different things...
About being afraid of the competition, I agree with brincess_b, just do what you like to do and believe that your cakes are the best, look for something that would make you stand out from everyone else.... For example I do cakes from scratch, B/C and pretty much everything I can get my hands on, 1. b/c that's how I like it 2. b/c the other cakers around me don't (not nocking down the cake boxes) I just wanted to be different. Then again I believe that there is a customer for every flavor and style of cakes..right now I bake for friends and family, b/c I can't sell from home, and I am just taking it as a leraning experience and because I love what I do. Cake or scratch do what you like and what your customers like, many people don't know the difference between one or the other... Good luck and believe in yourself !!!!
Happy caking !
Zee4040: Thank you very much! Yours are excellent too! The cakes in my gallery are pretty much all I've done in fondant, so I don't have much of a portfolio yet. I'm still looking for a good excuse to make a cake with several tiers that wouldn't go to waste. If I can't find a good reason soon, I guess I'll break down and buy some dummies to decorate.
peg818: With the Dept. of Ag being a state agency and the Health Dept. being a county one, it kind of sounds like the No Turn On Red thing to me. NY state says you can turn right on red, but the city of NY says no - and you WILL get a ticket if you do so. The most frustrating part for me was that each one I spoke with (County H.D. and Dept. of Ag) basically said it was HIS jurisdiction and that the other didn't know what he was talking about.
And without question, I won't be starting right out with a storefront, as exciting as that may sound! Definitely taking the safer rent-the-commercial-kitchen route.
indydebi: Funny that you should mention the homemade taste/gramma thing. I'm a basic baker, by no means a gourmet. "Infusion" and "reduction" will probably never be part of any of my recipes, but I can make great plain old apple pie. That's a marketing tack that I could happily embrace!
I'm glad to hear no bride ever asked about your baking "degree." There seems to be so much emphasis on that near me. It probably doesn't help that I don't live far from the CIA (although I ate there once, and will never forget that the chicken was BONE DRY lol). I suppose I would be a standout for not mentioning such a thing.
Thank you all so much for your input! I feel a little more confident already!
I'm self-taught and have the best looking and tastiest cakes for miles. My competition is only there to keep me on my toes so I constantly challenge myself and so I don't get in a rut.
I'm cross-posting this from another internet forum that I read frequently because I think it sums the whole "culinary school or no" debate pretty succinctly:
"SO, SHOULD I GO TO CULINARY SCHOOL?
The answer: probably not. I will try to sum up why as simply as I can.
Things culinary school WILL NOT do for you:
Put you above anyone else. Most of the people decorating cakes out there didnt go to school. Your skills are all that matter at the end of the day, and the people with experience have much more skill than those with just schooling.
Teach you how to decorate cakes well. We had one 3-week module on cakes, and it taught me nothing I didnt already know. Plus, making a product once is basically like never having made it at all. When you hit a bakery job and you have to do 30 cakes in a day, you suddenly feel like your school experience was woefully inadequate. Especially when you find out that even some of the most basic techniques vary at every new job you go to, to the point where doing it the way you were taught in school gets you into trouble.
Prepare you completely for working in the culinary industry. Culinary school is a warm summer breeze compared to bakery work. Think a hug from your grandmother vs. being mauled by a bear. Yes, even if your chef instructors are jerks. It tells you very little about whether youre cut out for the food industry or not, unfortunately I was lucky to have a bakery job during school, but about half of my class graduated and realized they wasted their time on an occupation they ended up despising.
Impress your future employers. I had a 4.0 and perfect attendance, and no one cared. Awesome ego booster, that was.
Things culinary school WILL do for you:
Introduce you to people who could give you some serious help down the line. I made a real effort to keep communicating with my teachers, and they send me job openings and offer to hook me up with private interviews in return. I also keep in touch with a few of my classmates, all of whom are excellent contacts and would help me get a job if I needed it. People are pretty careful with recommendations, so having someone to put in a good word for you is absolutely huge.
Make you excited and motivated about your career provided you love pastry. I loved every single second of every ridiculous class and I would go back there and re-take every one if I had the scratch. I know classmates of mine that go back and assist the chef for free simply because they miss it. The day I learned to make peeps was a great day.
Give you a little bit of an idea about whether or not youre suited for the industry. If you cant handle people being harsh with you, being on your feet for long shifts or mixing something until your arm hurts youre probably not going to love being a decorator. It tends to weed out the people who really are not suited for kitchen work at all, but its just kind of like getting past the first stage of American Idol, as strange of a comparison as that is.
Meet certain peoples requirements. Maybe. No one will turn down experience. Even the boss that told me to go to school I saw hire self-taught people on a regular basis.
Give you a crapton of debt that the minimum wage job you get upon graduating can never ever put a dent in. Not that Im bitter.
Summary: Culinary school is insanely expensive and doesnt even really help you get a job, because all anyone wants is experience and skills, neither of which most culinary schools provide."
It is definitely important to know your competition, and know what they do to set themselves apart, so kudos to you for doing the research.
Now, take it a step further. CONFIRM your hunches. Call them and ask if they are scratch or mix. Go into those with shops (NOT ON A SATURDAY!) and ask a few questions.
Then, take this information and decide how much and in what areas you want to be LIKE your competition and what you want to do to set yourself apart. This is what market research is about. If your competition lacks neatness, you can market yourself as taking the time to make each detail perfect.
I have been in business for 6 months now and what I'm learning is my cake flavor and my cake photos sell themselves to my customers. If they taste my cake, I almost always get their order. What I find is that if I don't get the order when they call, it's that they want a cheaper cake.
No one has asked me if I bake from scratch or from a box. Occasionally, they ask about freezing but that's it.
Going to culinary school doesn't mean that they bake any better than you do. Stand behind your product and it will sell itself. Don't be intimidated by others. BTW, your cakes look awesome!
Just because they went to culinary school doesn't mean they aren't baking all of their cakes from 50# bags of mixes.
Wow, thank you all for your responses! I'm so grateful to have some perspectives from people who have been there! It's encouraging to hear that people base their final decisions on the actual product and not a certificate on the wall.
Just to be clear on my little insecurities regarding that... It's not my abilities I'm unsure of, it's what I CAN'T do (yet, that I'm aware of) that I worry about. brincess_b, from your post, I feel like I made myself sound like I was insecure about much more than I am. It's the gaps in my experience (such as ornate gumpaste flowers, exotic gourmet flavors, intricate piping, poured/blown sugar work, stencilling, etc.) that worry me to a small degree. Sort of. I'm actually REALLY looking forward to trying these and so many other techniques - but the worry comes in when I try to see it from a potential client's point of view. How many people, really, are open to a decorator who says, "No, I've never done that - but I can't wait to try!" I feel like I have it in me to do these things successfully, I just worry about clients being willing to give me that chance.
I guess that's where practice and dummy cakes come in...
And regarding the home baker and any of my other competition. Maybe my attitude might prove to be too soft for business, but I have no desire to cause unnecessary harm. While I totally agree that competition is good and keeps you on your toes, I'd prefer to have somewhat of a cooperative relationship with the bakers in my area. I actually considered introducing myself (once legal) to my nearest bakeries in hopes of starting a cooperative relationship. Not that we would all be buddy-buddy all the time, but I would think all bakers would appreciate having somewhere to turn, for example, when a big cake delivery goes awry.
So in that spirit, even though she might not react positively to me, I'm more inclined to contact the home baker directly. If I were to contact the HD again and bring her up, I wouldn't want to put her on his radar if she isn't legal but thinks she is. I suspect she loves caking as much as I do, and that seems a bit underhanded. Of course, if I discover that she's operating illegally knowingly but advertising otherwise, all bets are off LOL.
Going back to scratch vs. mixes, I'd like to know who uses the 50lb. bags of mix (where I can taste it, and where I can get it)! But then again, 50lbs. is an AWFUL lot... I have a 50lb. bag of cake flour that might take me several years to get through...
well sherri, not sure where your located.
I have never seen a 50 lb bag of cake mix, But Ginsberg in Hudson NY has 5 lb boxes that you just add water to. IMO they aren't as good as what you buy in the grocery store, and certainly not as good as a well made scratch cake. Ginsberg is where i buy my vanilla, last bottle i bought was $20 for a quart of pure vanilla. Not a brand readily recognized in the grocery but very tasty none the less.
Dawn, BakeMark - the wholesale bakery suppliers all sell cake mix in 50# bags.
As far as the scratch vs box, well make the best cake you know how and your product will stand for itself.
That is some excellent advice! If what you are doing is working, why would you want to change it?
You can always "play around" with some recipes - try them out on friends and family before actually selling them. You will find out what is works and will sell vs. what doesn't.