Tips and Tricks: New Home-Based Wedding Cake Designers

Excerpts reposted from my former baking and cake decorating blog, Chronic Masterbakers:

Are you a new-to-the-game home-based baker who wants to make and sell wedding cakes? Are you looking for some simple to understand and follow (and free) recommendations, rules, tips and tricks to help make your first wedding cake commissions succeed with as few hitches as possible? If so, then you’re in the right place!

It can be challenging to get straight answers from other cake decorators (primary research), as the good ones are busy hustling and usually don’t have time for an interview, and in any case may not want to “give away” what they consider trade secrets anyway. As for secondary research, while there are some good books available, a lot of subject matter on this topic is not exactly “quality”; the search for useful, relevant information, especially online, can be confusing, conflicting, and highly regional. Plenty of how-to’s for the bride- and groom-to-be, but not much solid advice for the just starting out home-based baker/decorator.

So, to make it easier for everyone, I figured that I would share some of the rules I try to follow, which are based on a) my culinary education in Baking and Pastry Arts Management, and b) my own subsequent experiences as a small business professional wedding cake decorator. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but these are definitely items that you should consider quite seriously before accepting commissions for wedding cakes. I’ve broken each of my tips into to two main categories: Time and Money, with various sub categories in each. If this is your first time at the rodeo, regardless if you’re considering making a wedding cake for a friend, a family member or a stranger, I cannot recommend strongly enough to incorporate these simple suggestions into your process.

  • Planning: First and most important in my eyes, plan for plenty of time to do everything you think you need to do, then add a hefty amount of extra buffer time (minimum 15%) for contingencies. If you’re having trouble thinking of how to plan your time, think of it this way; every cake is a Project, and so you should be thinking “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, then sort those tasks in completion order (for example, you can’t list the “decorate cake” task on a date before the cake has even been baked).
    • Assign “To Be Completed By” dates to the major tasks; add the sub-tasks attached to those major tasks, 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. (Reminder: don’t forget to add the contingency time throughout your list).
  • Communication: Wedding cake planning can be very exciting for the couple to be. They may have thought about their future wedding cake for ages and know down to the last dragee exactly how they want the cake to look for it to align with their overarching wedding “theme”. Or conversely, they may have only the barest idea and will lean heavily on you to design a cake within their budget. It’s your job to bring those dreams to life. It’s up to you to assess how realistic those dreams and wishes are compared to their budget and your skill-set, diplomatically recommend alternatives where possible, and most importantly be honest about your own abilities in relation to their vision. Put more simply, don’t promise what you aren’t 100% certain you can deliver. Nothing spoils a bride’s day faster than having something not exactly the way they had envisioned it in their heads. And when the bride’s not happy, ain’t nobody happy.
  • Also in the “Communication” bucket, make absolutely sure you have solid contact information, both phone numbers and email, for the deciding party (the one who pays you your deposit and final payment, which may not necessarily be the bride or groom but usually is), and have at least one backup number. This can be the wedding planner, a parent of the bride or groom, the venue manager, or the Best Man or Maid of Honour. The wedding day is a crazy time, and the initial contact person may not be immediately available when you show up, cake in hand. You MUST be able to reach someone responsible to not only show you where the cake is going to be placed, but also has your final payment in hand. This should be non-negotiable.
  • Preparation: 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’re 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. 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 or non-dairy milks or skim milk powder.

  • CYA (Cover Your A$$): If you have it in your contract to deliver and set-up the cake at the venue, I strongly recommend that, if your cake design allows it, you transport the cake in sections and assemble it onsite. Make and bring extra décor to replace anything broken, and definitely bring a tipped pastry bag of ready-to-use royal icing (i.e. emergency glue) in the proper colour to give the cake first aid as needed. However, if the cake design or delivery contract states that the cake absolutely cannot be assembled onsite, then make sure it’s doweled to high heaven; this means thoroughly doweling each tier, then ramming a long dowel from the top tier through to the bottom tier and into the cake drum. Also be sure that your transport on the day of is On Lock, and as silly as this sounds, that there is enough capacity (and if necessary, height) in your vehicle to transport your cake safely to its destination. This often means driving with a trusted buddy; one to drive and one to hold the cake.
  • In concert with the above tip, this is one that I cannot stress enough. TAKE PICTURES OF YOUR CAKE AFTER IT HAS BEEN SET UP AT THE VENUE. Resist any suggestions or offers to leave the cake for others such as the venue staff, the wedding planner, or wedding party to set up; do it yourself…then take photos. You don’t need a fancy camera; just use your smartphone or buy an inexpensive dedicated digital camera with a good memory card for this purpose.
    • 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 wedding cake decorating skills are. On the negative side….well, not everyone in this world is a good bean. 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. CYA.
  • Deposits: Obtain at least 50% of the cake deposit UPFRONT before you start spending time or money on it; this will ensure all concerned parties that you are serious about the commission, and any alterations to the original contract on either side will be communicated effectively and with alacrity. You can also at your discretion but with negotiation if needed, require that a portion of the deposit is non-refundable either immediately or after a certain time goal is reached (for example, 6-8 weeks prior to the event, when it’s expected a certain amount of work in the design and maybe some ingredients have already been purchased, and timeslots for baking, decorating and delivery have already been added to your calendar).
    • If the wedding cake order is a rush job — I don’t recommend taking these if you can avoid them, but stuff happens — then have in the contract that: a) the deposit becomes non-refundable, b) the 50% deposit is due immediately and c) the bride and groom sign a contract stating they will pay you the remainder upon delivery and set-up. If you can negotiate for 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.

Pro-Tip: 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, for example, the wedding venue, date, or theme colours expected to be reflected in the cake design, having “skin in the game” (i.e. a big, non-refundable deposit on an iron-clad contract) will make it more likely they will COMMUNICATE these changes to you in a timely manner.

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  • Final Payments: make sure you receive a cheque, cash, Interac e-transfer or PayPal for the remainder of the payment by the time the cake leaves your possession; whatever you do, DO NOT RELEASE THE GOODS WITHOUT THAT FINAL PAYMENT. Once that cake has been consumed, there is no longer any product to hold back as a guarantee of 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, and the longer you are in the business, the more likely someone will try this on you.
    • Unfortunately, making cakes for family and friends doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be paid either, on a vague promise to toss you some cash on the day of; many a baker family member’s wedding cake has been involuntarily “donated” to the bride and groom due to familial pressure. A contract and a firm, clear understanding on all sides can help clarify ambiguity on what is a very busy, stressful, and scattered day.
  • In concert with the above tip, unless the wedding cake is your intended 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 is 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’re being fairly 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, such as the cost of ingredients.

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.

  • Delivery vs. Pickup: Amongst the myriad of items that need to be hammered out in the cake contract, be sure to confirm with the bride and groom whether you are expected to deliver and set-up the cake at the venue, or hold it for pickup. In normal (non-pandemic) times, some couples will have trusted family members pick up the cake and set it up at the venue instead to save money. 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.
  • Extra Fees: In addition to a delivery fee, you should also be charging a flat fee for set-up. The more intricate the cake you have created, the more skill it will need to set up the cake without it falling, breaking or otherwise destroying itself. You deserve to be compensated for your skill-set.

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.

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