Reposted from my previous blog, Chronic Masterbakers:
I have searched the internet, looking for some simple recommendations, rules, tips and tricks to help make your first wedding cake commissions go off without a hitch. However, I was astonished to find so little information on the subject. There are plenty of how-to’s for the bride- and groom-to-be, but not many for the neophyte home-based baker/decorator. So, I made some up myself based on my own experiences, because I’m awesome like that. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but these are definitely items that you should make your top priority.
If you are considering making a wedding cake for a friend or family, and this is your first time at the rodeo, we cannot recommend strongly enough to incorporate these simple rules:
1. Plan for PLENTY OF TIME to do everything you think you need to do, then add a hefty amount of extra time (minimum 15%) for contingencies. If you are having trouble thinking of how to plan your time, think backwards like a Project Manager!
Start with the date the cake is due to be delivered, then brainstorm every major task you need to accomplish for the cake’s completion, and sort in completion order (for example, you can’t list the “decorate cake” task on a date before the cake has even been baked!).
Assign “Done By” dates to the major tasks; add the sub-duties and link them to the appropriate major task, then start working in backwards date order, assigning blocks of time to each major and minor task, until you complete the list. That will give you a good start date (don’t forget to add the contingency time throughout your list!).
2. Don’t promise what you aren’t 100% certain you can deliver. Nothing can spoil a bride’s day like having something not exactly the way they had envisioned it in their heads.
And when the bride’s not happy, you won’t be happy.
3. If you are charging for the cake, obtain at least 50% of the cake deposit UPFRONT before you start spending time or money on it; this will ensure all parties that you are both serious about the commission, and any alterations to the original contract will be communicated effectively and with alacrity. If it’s a rush job — we don’t recommend taking these if you can avoid them, but stuff happens — then get that deposit immediately and have them sign a contract stating they will pay you the remainder upon delivery and set-up; if you can get them to give you the remainder of the money prior to delivery then so much the better. However, if you have a bit of time before you start working on the cake, then get your deposit a minimum of two (2) months before it’s due. You may think this one is ok to slide on, guys, but it’s really not. Unfortunately, money makes the world go round, so if the bride and groom decide to make a last-minute change to the wedding venue, date, or theme colours expected to be reflected in the cake design, having “skin in the game” (i.e. a big deposit) will make it more likely they will COMMUNICATE these changes to you in a timely manner.
Most importantly, though, is make sure you receive a cheque, cash, or money order for the remainder of the payment by the time you have dropped off and set-up the cake; whatever you do, DO NOT LEAVE THE CAKE WITHOUT YOUR MONEY. Once that cake has been consumed, there is no longer any product to hold for payment, and you will be over a barrel and in small claims court if they decide not to pay you. Sadly, the world being what it is, this is something you need to consider.
3a). In concert with tip #3, unless the wedding cake is your gift to the bride and groom, you need to place an accurate value on the cake and then ask for it. It’s irrelevant whether the payment be money or the bartering of a good or service that is of equal or higher value to you (I once made a lovely cake and received a gorgeous set of Wusthof knives in payment!); what is important is that you are being compensated for your time, your skills, and your overhead (i.e. ingredients and utilities used). Even if you make cakes as a non-monetary hobby, attaching a proper value to your work actually makes it MORE valuable in the recipients’ eyes than if you gave it for free or for a nominal charge.
There is a reason that wedding cakes are so expensive to purchase from professional bakeries; while some of that perceived “inflated” price is admittedly markup, the true value is usually not that far off the mark. Wedding cakes are considered completely customized and unique to the personalities, needs, and wishes of the prospective bride and groom, and to that end, a ton of research, preparation, and skill goes into each one. These attributes are worth far more than the value of eggs, sugar, flour and butter, and are worth being compensated for.
4. If you are asked to make the cake with a new recipe, or you’re tempted to do so yourself, for the love of cookies make one or two test cakes well in advance of the commission due date! When your reputation is on the line, the week before you’re expected to deliver what you promised is NOT the time to start pioneering new recipes! This goes double if you are using an oven or ingredients different from what you normally use and are used to. Seriously – as few unpleasant surprises as possible means less stress for you as well as more profit, since a) you won’t be throwing out failed product, and b) you won’t be having to maybe re-buy ingredients at a premium….
Note: I *do* hope you are buying your ingredients in bulk when there’s a wicked sale on. Flour lasts a long time, longer if you freeze it, and so does butter, chocolate, cocoa, and baking soda/powder. Sugar and vanilla extract are good for a long time too, and you can always freeze milk or use shelf-stable evaporated milk or skim milk powder.
Ok, back on topic.
5. Be sure to confirm with the bride and groom whether you are expected to deliver and set-up the cake at the venue. Some couples are perfectly fine with a little DIY aspect, and will have trusted family members pick up the cake and set it up at the venue. The reason why they may do this? To save money, of course. How are they saving money? Because you should be CHARGING for delivery and set-up. At the very very least you need to have them reimburse you for your gas money to get TO AND FROM the event, plus venue parking charges if any, but you should also be charging a flat fee for set-up. The more intricate the cake you have created, the more skill it will be to set up the cake without it falling, breaking or otherwise destroying itself. You deserve to be compensated for your skill-set.
6. If you *are* expected to deliver and set-up the cake at the venue, we strongly recommend that, if your cake design allows it, you transport the cake in sections and assemble it onsite. Make and bring extra decor to replace anything broken, and definitely bring a tipped pastry bag of ready-to-use royal icing to give the cake first aid as needed. However, if the cake design means that the cake absolutely cannot be assembled onsite, then make sure it’s doweled to high heaven; this means doweling each tier, then ramming a long dowel from the top tier through to the bottom tier and into the cake drum. For more information on how to properly dowel a cake, check out this post.
7. In concert with tip #5, this is one that I cannot stress enough. TAKE PICTURES OF YOUR CAKE AFTER IT HAS BEEN SET UP AT THE VENUE. If at all possible, don’t leave it for others to set it up, but do it yourself…then take photos. If you don’t own a camera, buy one. Even a disposable one will do.
There are two very good reasons for this: on the positive side, these pictures should be going into your portfolio to show future prospective clients how awesome your mad skills are. On the negative side….well, not everyone in this world is good. We know this. So, do yourself a HUGE favour and take pictures for evidence that you delivered and set up the cake perfectly and all was well when you left the cake to the mercy of the caterers, restaurant staff, mischievous guests and random Acts of God. The last thing you need is to be refused the remainder of your payment because the cake you left in perfect condition was ruined before the bride and groom got to see it and they blame YOU.
Lastly, but not least, have fun with your budding cake decorating business! Even if you’re only doing it as a hobby, or a once-or-twice-a-year thing for family and friends, it’s important to not lose sight of the reason you said yes to the commission in the first place. Whatever the reason, the less stress you put on yourself, the more fun you will have, and I strongly believe that happy baking means the food tastes better ;o)