Launch Into Spring: How To Design A Profitable Cake Program
Pictured above: Spring kicks off busy season for cakes! This on-trend naked cake features our popular floral flavoring, Elderflower.
By Jimmy MacMillan
Spring is just around the corner, and with warmer weather comes cake season! Celebrated pastry chef and food writer Jimmy MacMillan gives us a thorough game plan on how to set up and run a successful cake program, from insightful tips on trend forecasting to streamlining efforts to save time and labor.
Cake Decorating Season
Warmer weather brings the unofficial kick-off to what can be a year-long business for cakes and cupcakes. Especially in colder climates, spring is when gatherings start, with many occasions such as Easter, Mother's Day, Father's Day, Fourth of July, and graduation to follow before the Fall and festive season commences.
If a bakery team can create delicious and attractive cakes, a loyal customer base will follow for birthday parties and other celebrations. Sales captured from these cakes are tied directly to the set up and design of a complete cake program.
Cake programs can be efficient, productive, and lucrative if correctly set up. However, it can be a lot to take on at once, so let's examine the components of a solid cake program to understand each step's importance. This is a reminder that you and your team can start small and build on as you see fit for your business.
Cake in all forms will always be in fashion. For example, cake with ice cream is high fashion, so it is recommended that you produce or provide and sell gelato or ice cream as a way to enhance sales.
This add-on and other complimentary products, such as candles or balloons, are examples of compounding sales once your basic cake program is in place.
Cake Trends and Program Identity
Many exciting trends are occurring at the moment in cupcakes and layer cakes.
For cupcakes, filled, mini, or oversized cupcakes are popular. For cakes, naked cakes (without icing covering the sides), tall cakes with four or more layers, dripping with glaze, bedazzled with sugar geodes, or covered in decadent gold leaf are all current cake trends.
It's crucial that before you build the steps of your program, you set aside time to define what cakes you want to sell. Consider what's productive in your market and what is lucrative for you. What cake items sell well, and what are the corresponding special occasions and holidays? Build your program around these items so that when the busy graduation or wedding season arrives, you already have the mechanism to create and sell. Create a clear list of what cakes you will sell, their decorative options, and what cakes you won't sell. If your decorators can execute custom cakes, you can ask top dollar for these. On the other hand, if your team cannot produce customer designs, it will save you time and money to stick to the cakes and flavors the decorators can execute confidently.
Pictured above: On-trend cakes for spring: think fresh flowers, ombré cakes, cakes dripping with glaze, delicate gold leaf and more. Photo courtesy of Dreideoppel
On-trend flavors that can be used for on-trend cakes:
Fruit and floral combinations:
- Blueberry and Lavender
- Strawberry and Rose
- Lemon and Elderflower
Warm and indulgent flavors:
Pictured above: This trendy, glittering fondant Mosaic Cake gets its magnificent shine from ifiGOURMET's all natural Brilliant Powders from PurColour.
Cake Menu and Order Form
I firmly believe in starting with the end in mind, which means taking the final list of items you'll be selling, including everyday objects, custom cakes, and enhancement items such as specialty décor, and creating your last cake menu. Now you're ready to get started on the corresponding cake order form.
There is still an argument for a manual cake order system, but many POS platforms allow seamless workflow from customer to bakery through pick up. Cake programs are more exciting and potentially lucrative, with more options. Everything regarding a cake order needs to be carefully tracked. The most critical example is capturing accurate inscriptions and spelling of names. There is pain on all sides when a guest picks up a cake with the wrong name or misspelled, and the baker on duty is scraping the icing off the cake and attempting a skillful replacement. Less personally egregious but just as damaging is the improper filling or icing of nuts when there's an allergy. The list is long, so all the more reason to get it right. a thoughtful and complete cake order form is the easiest way to combat errors.
You will tailor this to your program, but separating the elements so that a guest can order clearly and concisely will make ordering straightforward and minimize mistakes.
First, collect all the necessary contact details, name, phone number, alternative phone number, date of order, and pick up date and time. Then, capture anything else you think will help if a guest remembers to pick up. It's essential to be clear on every step of this process. Payment information can be gathered now, but the guest typically wants to know the final price before deciding how to pay.
Every bakery needs a payment policy, and I recommend putting this in writing on your website and cake order form. Some bakeries request full payment in advance. I recommend this if the cake requested is custom. Also, state your bakery's policy for cakes not picked up at the arranged time.
Next, create a section for cake size and a guide for how many people it might feed. Err on the side of the bakery here. There's no point in stating that a 10" cake might provide 25 people with tiny slices. I suggest a 10" can serve 12-15 people. As a rule, the recommended servings should be generous and allow for a little extra cake. State all the options here: round or sheet cakes, number of layers, and size.
Continue to list the fillings offered: ganache, cream cheese, chocolate mousse, white chocolate mousse, jam or preserves, lemon curd, and anything else you want to put inside a cake. A separate list of inclusions, such as fresh berries, chocolate shavings, crispy rice pearls, and other enhancements, should be provided. More is more, allowing you to capture a higher dollar for the cake. We'll cover pricing below.
The next area will allow the guest to select the finishing of the cake. Buttercream, ganache, chocolate buttercream, whipped cream, or anything else would be significant to ice cake. Bear in mind when making these choices how the cake will travel. For example, how many characters can fit on a cake? Is the baker's writing in cursive or print? Again, this is a critical area and will save everyone time and money by capturing the details upfront.
Pictured above: Assorted cake décor enhancements can include anything from non-edible items such as toys or signs, to chocolate covered strawberries, chocolate shavings, fresh flowers and more. Photo courtesy of Dreidoppel
IfiGOURMET Products that can be used for enhancements:
- Dusting chocolate toppings and décor in luster dust gives a natural color and vibrancy to your cakes! Pair Brilliant Powders with our White Chocolate Crispearls, Exclusive Assortment, Dark Blossom Curls or Maxi Pencils
- Add a bit of whimsy from our Carrara Punta with cute polka dots, Forest Shavings, Elegance Milk Chocolate Leaf, Twisters and Pastel Lily
Additional décor is the final touch and should be listed separately. These items include toys, chocolate-covered strawberries, chocolate sticks, or any other attractive stock garnish that can be sold as an enhancement. Also, have the opportunity to add candles or other non-edible items such as balloons or another décor if you can provide them.
ifiGOURMET has exciting options for spring, summer, and winter cake and cupcake decorations. You'll also find options for graduation, the 4th of July, Mother's Day, and Father's Day. Of course, making all décor in-house is admirable, but buying some quality décor can help save time and labor costs during busy holidays production.
From my experience, guests are accepting charges for items they select. A bakery can offer a few 'stock' cakes with set pricing. These delicious no-frills cakes can be ready within 24 hours or less. I'd recommend asking for a small fee or offering a free inscription but no other substitutions for these cakes.
The above can apply to cupcakes or even wedding cakes. There is a market for simple wedding cakes with some choices the bride can make. However, if you can offer elaborate custom cakes such as carved cakes, fondant cakes, and custom wedding cakes, this is by consultation only. To review, I'm suggesting three categories: stock cakes, menu-built bakes, and custom cakes by consulting with a bakery manager or lead.
There are two choices for charging a client: price inclusive of all options, or pay-as-you-go. Think of buying a car. Some automakers sell you a car, and every trim level is additional. Others may charge a higher price, but many bells and whistles are included. Which is right depends on which you think will add more to the bottom line.
First, calculate the cost of each cake, icing, and other offerings from your cake order form. Next, you need to know how much it costs you in ingredients and labor. For labor, what is the average cost you are paying the bakers to scale and bake the cakes? How much time does it take to fill and decorate a cake? Assign an hourly rate for all elaborate decorations and specialty work. During a cake consultation with a guest, decorators can assign several hours to a custom request. Once you understand the costs, you can make good pricing choices. You should feel confident with a minimum profit margin of 35-40% for a cake program.
Next, do a little research on your competitive set. If you believe you are making a great product, don't be afraid to raise your prices. It is far easier to run promotions and offer discounts than to realize it's more expensive to produce a cake than you calculated and raise pricing.
Download our sample Cake Ordering Form here.
Production Specifics and Tools
Depending on your viewpoint, cake programs can be efficient and profitable or challenging to manage due to the many moving parts. Especially if there is no opposition to freezing cake layers, cupcakes, or even cake assembles with fillings, production can be built around stages and when labor is available. An additional note on freezing: the highest ratio of oil-based cakes freezes well and stays moist.
There may be no substitution for a cake baked, filled, and frosted on the same day, but as you scale your business, this becomes increasingly difficult to manage.
On the guest or customer side, the more options, the better. On the production side, it's virtually the opposite. To be efficient in the bakery requires a bakery team to execute perfect products consistently. Cake layers can be baked in advance, cooled, and frozen. Cake ratios with oil vs. butter may store better. Working too far ahead with frozen cakes may result in poor quality. That said, keeping a few filled un-iced cakes on hand in the freezer and several cake layers, and a few dozen cupcakes for about 5-7 days will prevent the bakery from running out of product. I recommend not holding frozen cake elements for more than 5-7 days in a perfect world. There is no advantage to producing cakes in advance for the freezer. Cakes should be finished the day of or the day before pick-up. Partially thaw all assembled cakes (layer cakes frozen with filling) before icing and decorating cakes.
For the cake decorators in the back of the house, it is ideal for creating an inventory system for cake layers, cupcakes, icings, fillings, and other items they must have to execute cake orders. This tool can help order food and supplies for the program. In addition, the inventory sheet prevents bakers and decorators from having to sort through the orders to understand their more global needs, such as how many cake layers or cupcakes are needed every day.
Download a sample Cake Inventory Sheet here.
Another critical tool is creating a system for tracking cake orders on printed forms or screens. On the manual side, this could be clipboards on the wall with copies of each order broken out by day or electronically the ability to view daily cake orders. In either case, identify the timeframe for completing a cake order before the pick-up time. For example, you may create a standard where all cakes are completed by the end of the day for the following day's pick-ups.
We must recognize the importance of marketing and the ability to use platforms such as social media to entice guests and customers to order the cake. In particular, Instagram is a visual medium perfect for displaying cake photos. Orders and inquiries can be taken directly from social media.
Seasonal promotions should be the backdrop for an excellent promotional plan. Every holiday offers an opportunity to create a signature item or two and post it on social media and other channels to grow the business.
Single-day holidays like Easter or Father's Day may not yield huge sales, but consistent marketing of your cakes and cupcakes reminds your guests that your bakery is ready to fulfill any of their needs.
I recommend taking photos frequently of these items. Photography can be expensive, but a good cell phone and frequent photo shoots can yield results. Next, start promotional posts 3-4 weeks before a holiday. This timing may seem early, but if you see holiday items on the shelf at major retailers, you should consider promoting them immediately.
One scenario that works well for special occasion sales has guests preordering. This system is where having holiday designs up weeks in advance is an advantage. Allow guests to preorder by a specific date and select a pick-up day and time. This practice can capture sales you might not otherwise get and will inform you how much to purchase and produce for a holiday. I know a handful of bakeries that carve out time in January to take photos and make promotional flyers for the entire year. Having this content ready allows them to post early, collect preorders, and capture sales well before the holiday.
Good quality photos and consistent marketing of your finished product reminds your guests that your bakery is ready to fulfill any of their needs. Pictured: Behind-the-scenes at ifiGOURMET with Chef Jessica Ellington preparing her Mardi Gras cake for a photoshoot.
Success is a Planned Activity
Having set up several successful cake and cupcake programs, it is clear that having a plan and mapping it out before introducing it to the public will achieve the best results. Set a calendar date for the completion of each step: program identity, menu, order form, costing, inventory sheet, and marketing plan. If you're already selling cakes, map out the program and access each step. A good cake program has many moving parts and can be accessed and improved in steps. At a minimum, the recommendation is to cost all recipes once a year. Suppose your labor costs increased due to raises, new hires, or benefits that must also be recalculated. You may be able to reuse suitable quality marketing materials such as photos but be sure to refresh materials with shots of new items. Above all, enjoy the process. Cake and cupcakes are items purchased to be enjoyed. The excitement you bring to the design of your program will result in happy guests who want to buy their cake and cupcakes from you!
Jimmy MacMillan is a celebrated pastry chef, food writer, and Emmy® award-winning video producer. His awards include Top Ten Pastry Chef, Rising Star Pastry Chef, and two James Beard Award Nominations. Chef MacMillan is a pastry consultant servicing the restaurant, hotel, manufacturing, and retail industries under the Pastry Virtuosity label. For more information, visit: www.PastryVirtuosity.com
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