The High Stakes of Birthday Cakes

Birthday cakes are a multi-billion-dollar business in the U.S.
 
On any given day, an estimated 750,000 Americans celebrate a birthday. Birthday cakes represent a multi-billion-dollar business and, for this reason, cake shops across the country recognize the high stakes of cakes.

Balancing the extreme demands of today’s consumers with your own understanding of price points and production costs makes your job as a retail bakery owner even more challenging.

In short, customers want it all. Your job is managing their expectations.

This was the task at hand when Cake Life Bake Shop in Philadelphia opened its gorgeous retail store, filled with delicious cakes and pastries, in November 2016. Chef/owners Nima Etemadi and Lily Fischer sought to answer one pressing question: Where do customers in Philadelphia go for a birthday cake?

“If you want something beyond a supermarket bakery, the options were somewhat limited,” says Etemadi, who attended culinary school at age 17 in Vancouver, British Columbia, and later studied at the French Culinary Institute (now the International Culinary Center) in New York City.

Cake Life’s line ranges from simple celebration cakes to elaborate weddings. A chocolate cake with cream cheese frosting and rainbow sprinkles, the Fiesta Cake at Cake Life is their most popular seller for birthdays. Other popular everyday flavors are Vanilla Cake, Raspberry-Earl Grey, and Rival Bros. Cappuccino. A 4-inch Fiesta Cake sells for $18, while a 12-inch sells for $45.

Music superstar Beyoncé celebrated her 36th birthday with a $3,500 geode-design cake from Cake Life Bake Shop in Philadelphia.
 
“We try to keep it in a price point that makes sense for our customers,” Fischer says. “Charging $80 for a 6-inch cake is too much. Our 4-inch cakes start at $18, which is almost at the price point of getting four cupcakes from somebody else.”

Adding to the appeal at Cake Life are their offerings of birthday candles, festive party hats and fun treats like “unicorn poops,” which are an easy-to-make sweet treat of meringue “sprinkled with magic,” Fischer says. “It’s important as a neighborhood bakery that we can make you a thousand-dollar cake, but we also sell 75-cent unicorn poops. We also started selling cake cutters as an experiment, and really went through them faster than expected.”

The “Cake Boss,” Buddy Valastro, star of the hit TLC show and owner of Carlo’s Bake Shop in Hoboken, New Jersey, suggests keeping an eye on the latest trends to understand what today’s consumers will consider “buzz-worthy.” And the appearance of your birthday cakes plays a significant role. Not only must your cakes taste great, they need to be photo-shoot ready.

“I think right now everyone wants what we call around the Cake Factory: the ‘unicorn.’ They want something super cool, something super over-the-top and unique, and something that makes for a great picture,” Valastro says. “Food is just another way to showcase your lifestyle on social media for so many people and finding a balance between that, and offering our traditional recipes, is a lot of what I’m doing these days.”

Apprearance is important. Not only must your cakes taste great, they need to be photo-shoot ready.
 
Carlo’s Bake Shop has grown tremendously in number of locations, recently opening its 22nd store and first in Minnesota at the famous Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota.

Five years ago, Valastro and his team crafted a three-dimensional birthday cake for the 20th birthday celebration of Mall of America by creating a cake that stood 8 feet long by 4 feet wide, and depicted the wonders of the Mall including Nickelodeon Universe and LEGO. It took them four days to make the enormous birthday cake, using more than 50 pounds of flour, 250 pounds of fondant and more than 450 eggs.

Painted cakes for birthdays

Painted cakes have made their way deep into the fabric of celebration cakes, according to Mark Seaman, CMSA, culinary applications chef, specialties, for Barry Callebaut. This includes buttercream cakes for birthdays.

“Decorators use a variety of shades of a color or full palettes of buttercream to create the effect that the cake has been painted with watercolor paints,” Seaman says. “For fondant cakes, use colored cocoa butter for a rich look.”

In other suggestions, think about any hobbies or special interests that the guest of honor has before ordering a birthday cake, he recommends. This will help the decorator suggest unique designs. “Be ready to answer questions such as the person’s favorite color,” he suggests. “It’s also just as helpful to tell the decorator about things the person does not like.”