At Hy-Vee's 2011 Cake Designer Challenge held in West De Moines, IA, this spring, many consumer onlookers were surprised to see a high level of fondant work being done by the Hy-Vee decorators competing in the challenge.

“We still get a lot of that,” says Sara Vanderheyden of Ames. “But it’s also amazing how many customers do know what fondant is. It’s fun that they want to order cakes like they see on TV,” she says.

But at this challenge, where 18 of Hy-Vee's top cake designers were competing for cash and prizes, the fondant was abundant. In fact, the winner, Katie O'Connor of Lincoln, NE, used much more fondant than she did in her regional qualifier, including over the sheet cakes and in some of the detail work of her other creations.

At the competition, each designer had four hours to complete a multi-tiered cake, a half-sheet and quarter-sheet creation, one dozen cookies and a cupcake cake. All competitors also accompanied their sugary creations with creative, artistic backdrops that matched the their own individual theme. O'Connor's winning theme was an Italian vinyard reminiscent of the animated movie Ratatouille.

Tony Byington, Hy-Vee’s assistant vice president of bakery operations, has seen an evolution of supermarket cake design that is raising the bar not only for the decorators, but also for what customers are realizing they can order from a supermarket bakery. “All of the cake shows and competitions are giving this career all kinds of exposure,” he says. “And the talent that works at Hy-Vee has stepped up because of that, and it’s brought a whole new life to cake decorating—a whole new variety for customers to choose from. It’s not just a plain cake with flowers on it anymore; you tell us what you want, and we create it.”