Go back to your roots

Make My Cake in Harlem, New York has a well-balanced selection of classic and signature items on its menu.

Running a retail bakery and baking for a living more often times than not begins with a genuine love of baking. Maybe this love is innate, maybe it comes from a childhood memory or a relative. No matter where it comes from, it is the place for a baker to begin the search for a signature item. It might not yield the signature item directly, but it’s the place to start looking. Aliyyah Baylor, president and chief branding officer at Make My Cake, and her family come from the south, West Point, MS, to be exact. Those southern roots produced Make My Cake’s most popular signature item, sweet potato cheesecake.

Discovery

Make My Cake has two locations in Harlem, NY, and this year marks the 18th anniversary of its opening. When the family decided to take the business from the home kitchen into the retail industry, they all got in the kitchen to pitch in their favorites and come up with the menu for the shop. Baylor’s brother Khalid was fresh out of Johnson and Wales and had always been known as a rebel in the kitchen, she says. “He’s always been able to come into the kitchen and create different things.”

Sweet potatoes are a big part of Baylor’s family culture, so it was natural that coming up with menu ideas for the shop would include them. During the kitchen session, Baylor’s grandmother was assisting with the sweet potato pie batter. Khalid was making cheesecake and just decided to mix the two together. “It just took off immediately,” Baylor says. “I’ve seen clients sit there and wait until it’s ready, and that’s after we’ve sold out and promised that there’s more coming out. It’s been a real joy to get that feedback from everybody.”

Khalid currently works as a fireman, but that doesn’t keep him from his love of creating with food. “In our family business, everyone has a role and is reliable for the rest of the family,” Baylor says. “His expertise has been a major part of that. Still as a fireman, he’s a major part of our business.” About two months ago, Khalid won a fireman’s contest for the five boroughs on The Rachel Ray Show with a sweet potato waffle with fried chicken and peach maple syrup. Beginning to see a pattern?

Using the sweet potato was obvious for Baylor and Make My Cake because of the cultural significance to the family, but the signature cheesecake was something different that worked so they went with it. “We’ve created other items from the sweet potato itself, but the sweet potato cheesecake has been the main item,” Baylor says. “If someone was to come into the shop and want to try something new, we always recommend the sweet potato cheesecake.”

Make it stand out

Spotlighting your signature item takes a little thought because it can be tricky when you’ve got 40 or so items that you want to move out the door. No retail bakery wants to downplay any of its items, but at the same time, if something is special it needs to be represented as such. “When you’re marketing you want to look at each individual item and place them in categories,” Baylor says. “You can have a gourmet cookie, but then you also have your classics.”


Make My Cake, harlem
The sweet potato cheesecake at Make My Cake.

One of the first things Make My Cake had to do with the sweet potato cheesecake was make sure it didn’t get mistaken for pumpkin. “My brother came up with a very unique way of slicing the smaller sweet potatoes,” Baylor says. “He was able to make it look like it was candied. He didn’t put it on top, but instead put them around it as a garnish.” This generated good conversation around the item. As customers came into the shop and noticed it, they would ask about it because they knew it wasn’t pumpkin.

Get it out there

The main thing that creates a signature item is the fact that customers love it and continue to buy it day after day. Some items that have the potential to become signature items might need a little help getting into the hands and mouths of customers to gain their due notoriety. Give your customers the chance to fall in love with your signature item(s) by giving them a taste.

“I have clients that walk in here and they’re stuck on one thing,” Baylor says. “Tasting and sampling is so important. It allows them to know that we’re known for more than just that one item that they come in for. Besides word of mouth, sampling is the best thing to do.”

Something else bakeries need to do, educate your staff on the signature product. When a customer tastes a sample and shows interest, staff needs to be able to continue the conversation until the sale goes through. “Not just the ingredients,” Baylor says. “For example, we bake our sweet potatoes. When people hear that, anyone who knows the difference between baking and boiling sweet potatoes knows that baking it is sweeter. You get more of the caramelized sugar taste. It’s a better product.”

Baking rather than boiling the sweet potatoes was another tradition that Make My Cake just carried over from home. It’s one of the many things that set the bakery’s signature sweet potato cheesecake apart from others. “When we would talk about the product, people knew that we took the time to keep traditions from home and incorporate them into a retail setting,” Baylor says.

You’ll know when it happens

When creating or trying to market a signature item, you can’t set the expectation too high too soon. Usually a signature item evolves from a baker or owner’s own love for it. The belief in something you’ve made and put your heart and soul into might cloud your judgment of what it should be. “If they don’t like cheesecake, they just don’t like it,” Baylor says. “There are certain things that if you just don’t like them, it’s not going to be easy to convince you to purchase it.”


Signature items can take time to catch on with customers.

Give an item a realistic amount of time to catch on, but don’t be afraid to go in a different direction if needed. “Sometimes signature lines do change,” Baylor says. “It phases out because you try something, and if everybody is not enjoying it, then you look at something else or just eliminate it if it’s not a strong seller.”

You’ll know a signature item has reached its desired status when it starts to become an item that appears to be just one of your best sellers. “After a while, they [customers] don’t even see it as a signature item,” Baylor says. “They look at it as just part of our menu. They don’t see it as something that is limited, they see it as a mainstay. That is really the goal, to have your signature item become a staple in your line-up of products.”

Price it for what it is

Signature items represent something that is special, a step up, and as a baker who has put in the time and energy to produce something specialty, you should price your signature item accordingly. However, be careful not to go too far. “Our sweet potato cheesecake is $6.50 a slice and the plain is $6.00,” Baylor says. “So it’s not a huge difference between the two, but there’s still the identification that the sweet potato cheesecake is more of a specialty item.”

For Baylor and Make My Cake, the products that come from “home,” they call classic. “Classic for me is southern baked goods, it’s tradition and it reminds me of home,” Baylor says. “So anything specialty or signature is something that’s one step above, and I expect to pay a little bit more.”

Make My Cake Bakery has set itself up to serve two budgets with classic products, as well as specialty products. “When you have a shop where there’s an assortment of specialty items and classic items, then you have that balance of being able to keep clients from feeling apprehensive when walking in,” Baylor says. If a shop’s awning says “Gourmet,” a customer walks in expecting a certain price point, she adds. Customers that walk into Make My Cake know they have a choice. “They’re saying, ‘I’ll definitely be able to purchase something I can afford, or I can splurge.”

Play the role of customer

A critical practice all business operators must remember to practice is getting into the frame of mind their consumers are in when deciding whether or not to purchase a product. “As a business owner, I think as a consumer and look at both ends,” Baylor says. “I’ll step in front of the showcase and ask, ‘What would I do?’” Baylor, her family and Make My Cake have seen a lot of success employing the methods they have for both their classic and signature items.

“We have the best of both, being able to have our classic and signature items stand out. Both of them have been able to maintain,” she says. “We haven’t changed too much. We’ve added some, but we haven’t changed much of what we originally started with. I don’t want to say that we haven’t been innovative, but we have been able to have a base of products to build on.”