The three months of October, November and December are particularly significant to the profitability of the cake business because this is the time of year when it can be easy to overlook the details that make or break your season. For many, managing the holiday season can be akin to walking into a hectic casino — bright lights flashing, crowds of people yelling, all types of distractions — and knowing that at any one moment you’re up it can all come crashing down in an instant.
Experienced bakery owners know the conundrum of the holidays all too well. Their experiences have taught them enough to offer sage advice to fellow bakers.
“Spend time in your slower periods planning for the busy times,” says Scott Calvert, owner of The Cake Plate in Austin, Texas. “The more time you invest in this, the smoother and more efficient the busy seasons are.”
Staff collaboration (among your bakers, decorators and management) is critical to success, echoes Jayne Torline, owner and co-president of 3 Women and an Oven in Overland Park, Kansas. “Everyone in this business has to be very detail oriented. You need a good team approach because you’re only as good as the people who work with you.”
Torline emphasizes their staff has “true ownership” in the continued success of their business. That’s the kind of commitment necessary. “We don’t just hire part-time people to fill in the gaps during the holidays,” she says. “We’re creating a new position right now. We don’t want anyone hitting burnout.”
From calculating time studies to determine the precise number of minutes it takes your decorators to complete a cake to making fondant figures in advance for easy application on holiday cakes, there are many strategies you can employ to stay ahead of the fourth-quarter crush. “Working ahead with our customers is the most important lesson,” Calvert says.
“Since we are a wholesale bakery, we get with our customers that like to change dessert items seasonal several months in advance,” he shares. “We will talk about ideas and do tastings with them. If they decide they want an item or items, we will be ready to go when the agreed upon launch date comes around. The Cake Plate sells product to a number of food purveyors, so often we need to have the product in their house several weeks before the restaurant group is ready to launch the new menu cycle.”
When planning special promotions for the holiday season, Calvert says they start six months in advance for desserts to distributors. “There are a lot more moving parts with them, and this helps avoid hiccups and pop-up costs. For other wholesale customers, caterers, hotels, etc., we will send email blasts. We will also follow up with phones calls to certain customers.”
Trendy Ideas for the Season
Mark Seaman, CMSA, Culinary Applications Chef, Specialties, for Barry Callebaut, suggests trendy cake ideas for the holidays that add a modern twist to traditional desserts.
For example, baby boomers will love the nostalgia of a classic Christmas log cake, while millennials will be attracted to the pearlized fondant snowflakes used to decorate the cake, he says.
And don’t forget there is a huge trend toward health and wellness in foods. “When it comes to cakes, take advantage of calling out special claims such as rolled fondant made with all natural and non-GMO ingredients.
“Chocolate and cinnamon are two of the top flavors in bakery items today. Capitalize on that by using chocolate fondant on cakes to immediately catch the eye of chocolate-loving consumers.”
New ethnic flavors such as ube are gaining increasing interest, Seaman says. Ube is a food trend that has been sweeping the nation’s eateries in recent months. The purple-colored yam is a mellow-flavored root vegetable that adapts to a wide variety of tastes. Cafe 86 in Los Angeles, California has been adding ube to many of its desserts, including ube bundt cakes.
“Use this violet-colored yam to create unexpected fillings for cakes. The sweetness of rolled fondant will balance the nuttiness of the ube,” Seaman suggests.
Pumpkin, of course, is the first flavor to consider for fall specials. “We will run pumpkin items up to Thanksgiving,” Calvert says. “We typically don’t have any traction with pumpkin beyond the holiday. Pumpkin praline cake, pumpkin flan, pumpkin cream cheese rolls. I also take advantage of apple harvest time by making fresh apple cake, caramel apple whiskey cheesecake. Going beyond Thanksgiving we will focus on more decadent desserts involving chocolate, liqueurs, nuts, etc., like chocolate bourbon pecan praline cake and chocolate peppermint cake.
“We’ll send holiday and seasonal emails to our customers a month or two ahead of the season to get them ready for the upcoming changes, typically with some kind of discount attached for pre-orders,” Calvert says. “This helps us to order the right amount of product and not over produce.
John Gardner, director of customer marketing for DecoPac, recommends that December is the perfect time to dazzle your customers with all things merry and bright.
“For the December holidays, move beyond simple red and green with a colorful palette that’s merry and bright,” he suggest. “Christmas light bulbs light up any celebration and draw all eyes to this magical time of year.”