I’ve been baking cakes my whole life, but I’ve only treated them as an art form these past 10 years. While I wouldn’t call myself a real expert, I’ve worked both sides of the industry. They both have their Pro’s and Con’s, and at the end of the day you have to decide what is right for you. I know that I prefer being my own boss, but I only found that out after I worked in a bakery for 5 years.
There are some things in life that are easy, the hardest part is getting started.
Cake Decorating isn’t one of these.
To be a Cake Decorator, the easiest part is getting started. After that, it can spiral into, “What the Heck” and “Let me Out of Here” pretty quickly if you don’t have a solid plan.
When I first started out, it happened by accident. Social Media became a “thing” in my life, so I started posting photos of fun cakes I was making. Friends saw them and started asking me what I would charge to make one for a birthday or special event, and the next thing I knew, I was an actual Cake Decorator.
Okay, here are my observations.
Cake Decorating: At HOME (or rather, Be Your Own Boss)
Con: It’s illegal.
You better know that right away. In most places, baking and preparing food from home is a Health Code violation, so this section is more appropriately about being your own boss. Be professional, don’t try to hide under the radar, it isn’t worth it. There was a local cupcake bakery that had a write up in the paper for their success, a few years ago. The woman told her story, of how she started out at home until she had a loyal following, and then opened her location. The next week, she was back in the paper again, this time because she was fined by the Health Department for her confession of home baking. You’re making food, the laws are there for the protection of the people, and in this age of extreme food allergies and intolerance, do you really want to mess around with all of that?
Pro: Maybe you can’t afford to open up a location right now, that’s okay! There are ways to do this still, without having to open your own bakery. When I first started out, I made cakes for people and accepted donations towards my hobby. I never gave them an amount, ever. Even when they pressured me, I always told them, “You’ve asked me to make you a cake and I will. If you’d like to donate to my hobby, it would be appreciated but isn’t required”.
Sometimes I was paid in gifts, like canned preserves and knit dishcloths. Sometimes I was given an envelope, with more cash than I would have imagined. At the end of the day it was for experience, to build a customer base, and to see if I really wanted to do this professionally. It was a good system for starting out. After a few months of low key success, I decided that – yes – I was going to have a go at making this my job.
Look around your area, you will find kitchens you can use. I found a catering company that only used the kitchen part time. They happily let me rent their kitchen from them for the times they weren’t using it, and even gave me a small closet to store my items. I had no lease, and negotiated a monthly rent that was acceptable for both of us. After all, an empty kitchen makes money for no one.
Pro: You are free. Freedom might be important to you. Are you going on vacation? Don’t book cakes for that time. Need a day off? Don’t book cakes for that day. Only want to do a few cakes here and there? Turn down orders you don’t want. Writing up a quote for a customer who is already a nightmare and you haven’t even started yet? Refer them to someone else. You don’t need to overload your schedule unless you want to. If you price your products properly, and manage your time properly, you will never feel the need to take on more than you can handle. If you’re goal is growth and expansion, you may work long hours, but this will be your decision and for your own personal gain.
Con: Poor time management, and lack of confidence, will destroy you.
While being your own boss can often mean working harder than everyone else, it doesn’t actually have to. As long as you can pay your rent, buy supplies and have money for yourself, it’s all in your time management and pricing. There is a phrase I’m fond of: Work Smarter, not Harder. Working smart as a cake decorator means pricing higher to account for loss, and setting aside twice as much time as you think you’ll need. When things go south in the kitchen, and it’ll happen… you’re still going to be on track. I have this listed as a Con though, because unfortunately too many people lose it all before they actually learn and implement this lesson.
Pro: You never stop learning new skills.
Your need to gain more business will force you to scour the internet for fresh ideas. You’ll take classes, and you’ll be determined to master new techniques. The hunger and drive you have, as your own boss, will keep your eyes focused on the horizon and that’s a good thing!
Con: You really need to know how to bake.
Like, really well. Know you’re ingredients. Read the ph balance of your flour before you buy it, know you’re oils and fats. Understand why buttermilk is required in some recipes and don’t be cheap with your vanilla. Use the real thing. Don’t use cake mixes, and above all, don’t ever just go by the opinions of your family and friends. They love you, they’ll lie. Find someone, or someplace, where you can send your baked goods and get real feedback. For me, this place is my husbands work. His coworkers have no problem being my focus group, and they respect my attempts enough to give me real feedback. If something is dry, they’ll tell me. If the flavour is faint, I’ll know. They aren’t cruel or dismissive, they’re honest, so when I get rave reviews over something, I know I nailed it!
Cake Decorating: In a Bakery (Working for a company or someone else)
Pro: The business comes to You.
That’s right. The first few weeks I worked in a bakery, all I did was show up and the orders were flying in! All I did was take them out of a box, read them, and get at them. It was such a load off my mind! I had an endless supply of ingredients, and more tools than I knew what to do with. Really, I would go home at night and look up what some of that stuff did, it was crazy.
Con: The business doesn’t STOP coming to you.
I’m not joking. The orders came in, but I had no say in how many. I would plan my week, but by the end of the week there would be anywhere from 15-30 more cakes added to my plate. Remember what I said about time management? Completely out the window, along with your sanity. Maybe you’ll get lucky, and you’ll work someplace where you have set hours… but I don’t know of any bakery that really adheres to that. When the orders are there, so are you. There were many dinners I missed with my family, many times when I got home long after my daughter had gone to bed, and many mornings when I crawled out of bed at 4am to get to work. In the retail world, there can be a lot of things that happen last minute.
Con: Everyone is (or thinks they’re) your Boss.
You have the owner, they’re your boss. They give you set hours, a paycheque, and a space to work in. They tell you what they expect from you and you provide that service. It’s a pretty great system until a customer shows up at 4:45pm and needs a cake because they forgot, and this bakery is where they always get their cakes, but you’re all cleaned up and supposed to leave work at 5pm. Guess what. You’re not.
Customers are kinda your boss, because they provide the need that created your job to begin with. Keep the customers happy and coming back, the numbers will always be up. It may mean long hours, but in the 5 years I worked at the bakery, it also meant two pay increases and a nice Christmas bonus as well.
Your coworkers think they’re your boss. Seriously. Seniority in a bakery is a power trip. It doesn’t matter that you decorate cakes and someone else bakes the pies, or another bakes the cookies. If you’ve been there 3 days and they’ve been there for years, look out.
Pro: Paid vacation, regular money, leave work at work (sort of).
If you can survive the rest, the regular money and vacation pay is pretty sweet! Having a set amount you can count on really helps when you’re budgeting at home, and being able to go away for a bit and know that you’ll still have a pay when you get back, is a big load off your mind.
Con: You sort of stop learning.
Customers love your fancy, 3-dimensional fondant cakes, but few people will pay for the experience from a bakery. Cakes like that are usually sourced from the “lone-wolf-artist” type. Most of the time in a bakery, you’re working with buttercream and piping flowers. When you go home, you’re tired and want to forget about cake for a while. The truth is, when you work for someone else you become less of a creative soul, and more of a cog in the wheel. It won’t happen right away, but it will happen over time.
If you aren’t a huge fan of baking, but you’re a total genius when it comes to decorating, you may be in luck! When you work for a bakery, you are surrounded by skilled bakers. Bakeries have a hard time finding someone who can decorate a really nice cake, so don’t be afraid to stick with your strengths and be honest about your skills. They can always find someone to bake those cakes for you, and you stick to what you do best.
Con: You may have to compromise on quality.
When you work for someone else, they call the shots on ingredients, because at the end of the day they have to care about those numbers. It’s how the business stays open, and how you stay employed. I make a great chocolate cake, but all the years I worked for someone else, I had to use their bakery-grade-cake mix. Same with the vanilla. When I asked about making them from scratch, I was told that this was how we made the most profit. Every other cake was made from scratch, but the chocolate and vanilla were just mix. They still tasted amazing, but I always felt a little guilty when a customer told me they loved our chocolate and vanilla cake.
No matter what, whether you work for yourself or for someone else, always remember; Be Good at Your Job! If you want to be treated like a professional, act like a professional. Professionals have their act together! Always answer your emails, get your quotes out on time and don’t forget orders. We’re all guilty of it happening sometimes, but check and double check everything two or three times. License yourself properly, get a Food Handlers Certificate, and do your taxes honestly.
Back to forgetting things… really, it happens. You just can’t allow it to become a thing. Set up reminders, take care of follow ups, write things down as soon as you think of them. You need to be in business-survival-mode.
I hope these observations help you when it comes to making your decision to move forward. There is so much more that I haven’t accounted for, like training and talent, but assuming you’ve already got these things sorted, I’m hoping this will help you take your next step.
Doing what you love for a living will bring you a lot of joy, you just need to take some time to sort out which direction you want to go.