Sugarcrafter Interviews / Sugarcraft Artist Jamie Hoffman
I first “met” Jamie on an active cake decorating forum a few weeks ago. After listening to what she has to say, I am very impressed with the sound advice that she is passing on to anyone out there who is thinking of starting up their own business. I also spent some time having a look around her site, Yuma Couture Cakes, and her work is just amazing as you will see by the photos below.
Read on for another fascinating insight into the business of cake decorating!
Please tell us a bit about yourself …
My name is Jamie Hoffman, and I am from Yuma, Arizona. I am the owner of Yuma Couture Cakes, a custom cake design studio, and Cakecessories which recently launched, and there I create custom fondant and gum paste toppers for people to decorate their own cakes with. I do offer private instruction to people who already have a basic knowledge of cake decorating, but wish to sharpen their skills or learn advanced decorating techniques. Currently, my studio is by appointment only, and I really like it that way, with no real desire to open a storefront anytime soon.
What got you interested in Sugarcrafting?
I loved finding the latest Dean and Deluca in my mailbox, because they had the prettiest little cakes that looked like purses or gift boxes. After my son was born, I needed something to do that was “me time”, and although I was already a good baker, I had not made one of those fancy cakes before. So I went to the hobby store and bought a couple of pans and a rolling pin, and went home and baked a cake and made some marshmallow fondant. I was hooked! My very first cake was a two tier cake, decorated with little cut out circles, and although it was a hot mess, I knew this was my calling.
How did you make the transition to setting up a business?
Making the transition, well that I took my time with. I made many cakes, and had lots of friends and family to sample and critique, but the biggest help of all was the online cake decorator forums and friends I made that were also in the business. I bounced ideas off of them, asked advice, and studied tutorials. I attended some classes and workshops, and got my cakes looking presentable enough for selling. THEN I studied pricing, and calculated costs and figured out what I needed to charge to make this a profitable business. I designed a website, bought some local advertising, and launched Yuma Couture Cakes.
I like your advice on taking time to set up the business and gain experience before launching – can you recommend any forums, sites or online classes to our readers?
How important would you say your web presence is for your business? How much of your work would you say you get through online contacts? forums? traditional advertising? word of mouth?
Thankfully, I have never had to spend much on advertising, but if I were in a larger city with similar businesses, I would definitely have to pay for it. I bought a few ads on Facebook a few years ago, but don’t bother with it anymore. I can pin about 50% of my new clients from internet searching, and the rest from referrals. I generally end up turning away business each weekend (I wish I could take them all!!), so until that stops, I am fortunate not to have to allocate funds for advertising.
I love the idea of your Cakecessories site – how did that idea evolve?
There is such a booming business on Etsy right now for sugar flowers and cupcake toppers, and I wanted to see if there would be a market for it here. For now, I don’t plan on selling to people that aren’t here locally, but it might evolve into a bigger part of my business in the future. We shall see! So far I have had a few orders, with plans for many more in the coming months. It’s a nice break from the typical cake order too. No appointment or consultation to make, no contracts and flavors to go over, its just me sitting down with some fondant and creating something.
What is your must have tool or piece of kit?
Right now, it’s a piece of plastic that I cut from a chopping mat. Seriously. My must have tool is a 20 cent piece of plastic. I can’t get into specifics, because I’m working on a tutorial for what I do with that piece of plastic, but I will say it’s to give me nice naked borders for my fondant covered cakes. As soon as I publish the tutorial, I’ll send you the link!
Other than that, I love my paint brushes and racks of edible pigments and glazes. Give me a paint brush and a cake, and I’m in heaven.
What is the cake you are most proud of? Worst disaster or scary moment?
The cake I am most proud of is a one I made for an online contest called Threadcakes. A t-shirt company called Threadless has a contest every year where you pick a t-shirt design from their store and create a cake based on that design. And most of the t shirt designs are either completely bizarre or beautiful works of art. I chose one that was totally bizarre; a decapitated diver that oozed rainbow pools of blood. The t shirt design shows the head “floating” above its severed torso, so mine had to look like that too. I created a completely edible version, except for a tiny piece of PVC pipe that supported the pastillage helmet which contained cake. That contest was so much fun, and I regret (sort of) that I have been too busy with orders to compete the last couple of years.
Worst disaster? Thankfully I have not had one, knock on wood. I’m really careful, and learned a LOT about what not to do on the cake forums I spoke of earlier. Scary moment? I have scary moments out on delivery at times, but nothing has ever happened. Recently I had to take a very tall and narrow wedding cake back to the studio because I was given the wrong delivery time, and that was not fun. Loading and unloading a wedding cake TWO times is not a fun thing to do!
What advice would you have for someone thinking of starting a cake decorating business?
The most important piece of advice I can offer is to get familiar with the business side of cake decorating first before you think about selling. If you go into it with super low pricing because you’ve just been making cakes at cost for friends and family, you’ll have a hard time raising your prices to ever see a profit down the road. People get used to cheap and it’s a hard sell to raise prices drastically. Make sure you calculate your costs and charge appropriately for your time. You have a skill that demands more respect than minimum wage pays, so be good to yourself. Check out the local competition and see what their prices are like. It’s a real disservice to the entire industry to start offering super low pricing when established decorators that have done their homework are charging appropriately. It brings down the value for everybody’s business, and alienates you from the other decorators who network and share referrals. Oh, and don’t advertise with other people’s photos, make your own cakes and show those photos off. Make dummies if you have to, but always advertise your own work.
Don’t let people talk you down in price. No, sometimes there is not a cake for every budget, and that’s not a bad thing, and you shouldn’t feel like you need to accommodate every request that comes your way. The price of a quality custom cake can be a shock to someone who has never ordered before. Educate your potential customers about why it costs what it costs. People who appreciate quality will understand and become lifelong clients, and the ones that just want a cheap cake will go elsewhere.
Do you have any special tips or secrets you would like to share with beginners?
Yes! Take some classes, take every class you can. Get some face time in with people who share your passion, and learn in a hands-on environment. Don’t dismiss the boring stuff in favor of the pretty stuff either. What I mean by that is work on the appearance of your undecorated cakes before you start making decorations. Work on getting clean symmetrical stacked tiers, smooth your cakes as best you can before you start working with fondant. What good is a spinning light up cake if it’s lumpy and falling apart looking? Customers might be wowed by it at first, but the quality customers are the ones who will come back because they know they are getting a polished piece of art, and if it happens to dance and sing, well that’s a bonus. I appreciate smooth clean lines and symmetry far more than a novelty moving cake, or pretty decorations on something that is lumpy and leaning. Trust me, you’ll be happier and will be able to command a higher price when you’re producing quality work.
What kind of training and courses have you taken? What would you recommend?
I have taken basics classes, cake assembly classes, working with fondant, baking, etc. I also do own a good number of instructional DVDs. I would suggest a class on anything at all would be beneficial to anyone. Thankfully, I live near enough to a city that has lots of cake decorating classes, and last summer I flew to San Francisco to take a class with an instructor who came from Australia to teach that awesome Aussie method of topsy turvy cakes and ganache. That was my favorite by far, and I learned a lot and got to spend time with some great decorators! If you like making flowers, go find a flower course. If you want to learn how to carve and sculpt, go find a class for that.
Who is your inspiration?
I would say my biggest inspirations are the decorators who paint and create unusual designs with their own two hands, without molds or electronic cutters. The decorators who look at something that isn’t a cake, and make a cake from the inspiration they get. And I can’t pick any by name, there are so many! When browsing cakes online, I’m immediately drawn to flowing painted lines, ruffles and sugar jewels, and interesting geometrical designs.
Favorite decorators just because they are awesome people and have mad skills too? Debbie Goard of Debbie Does Cakes, Jeanne from The Well Dressed Cake, Stella of Miso Bakes, Kara from A Cake To Remember, Kat who owns the Sugarland dynasty in North Carolina, Jessica from It’s a Piece of Cake in Texas, Cake Opera, The Caketress, Sally from The House of The Rising Cake, etc., etc. So many amazing decorators out there, and some of them have become personal friends that I depend on for advice and good laughs.
What areas of cake decorating are your specialty? What areas would you like to develop more?
I like to carve butter cream. I get it really cold, and carve designs into it with different tools. I like to paint on fondant, and have started to bring that out in most of the designs that I do now. As much as I appreciate people that have a signature style, I don’t really want to be known for one thing though. I hope that every project is as different as I can make it, and always brings a new look or style. I know that’s not possible, but I dislike repeating designs, so I avoid it. I’d like to expand more into sugar flower work, and have my eye on a few workshops that I’d like to attend. I can make a mean giant rose though! I would like to do more work with ganache soon, and put some of the skills I learned in a workshop recently to use.
I have noticed an increasing interest in hand painting cakes. As with most other things, trends in cakes come and go – have you noticed any up-and-coming trends that you think will be the next big thing for 2013?
I have to sit this one out. I really don’t push the “new thing” or the latest fad, or even promote the Pantone color of the year. I ask my clients to bring me their wedding invitation, their bridal jewelery, interesting details that will decorate their reception, the flowers they’ll carry, what their dress looks like, etc., etc. That’s what I look at and draw inspiration from for their design. If their dress is ruffly and they’d like to see that on their dress, then fad or not, I’ll design something with ruffles. If they have a beautiful motif or monogram on their invitation, I can design an entire cake around that. I try my best not to follow fads or trends; I opt for making their cake as personal and unique as possible.
Anything else you would like to say?!
I don’t think I have anything else, but thank you so very much for interviewing me! I’ve really enjoyed the other interviews you have posted here, and have a new book to track down thanks to your interview with Colette Peters!
Where can we see more of your work, find out more about you, or contact you with an order?!
Thanks to Jamie for her time and for sharing some really great advice for anyone just starting out. We wish you lots of success for the future!