Sunday, December 20, 2015

Better Know Your Baker

When I first started making cakes, I took the Wilton classes (the old class, not the current edition) at Hobby Lobby. I wanted to be able to make my kids' birthday cakes. My daughter's first birthday cake was my first cake ever. 

I enjoyed making cakes as a hobby and made them for family and friends. It was so much fun, I even made a Facebook page for my stuff and named it Cakeapotamus. 

I continued looking for more and more cake decorating classes I could take. In time, I started making cakes for strangers. That wasn't so much legal, and got me a call from the local Health Inspector. Yep. So, I opened a bakery. 

That's how Cakeapotamus came to be. I now have a precious yellow bakery that I adore where I get to make cakes for the best people on Earth. I sometimes forget, though, that not everyone has been around from the start. Cakeapotamus has grown, and not all the cakepots know me or my story. So I thought I'd write a little blog post about the baker. If you're not interested, go check out the Bloggess's blog. It's way funnier than this one.

My name is Mandi Buckalew.

I've been married for eleven years to the best man I've ever met. He teaches computer science and business at a local community college.


 We have two kids, a son and a daughter, who are both at the ages where they read chapter books and still write letters to Santa. They're not twins- they are 15 months apart in age and are best friends.

We own Cakeapotamus, a custom small-batch bakery and cake studio in Opelika, AL. Cakeapotamus is not a franchise or chain. We are a family-owned small business. The bakery opened in the summer of 2013. Yep, we've been there 2 years already!

Before I opened the bakery, I was a teacher at a local public school. During my last year of teaching, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.

That's where this scar came from.
My cancer turned out to be a huge blessing as it gave me the confidence to leave teaching for a career that brings me joy. Making cakes and creating parties for people is much more joyful than assigning homework to moody adolescents.

I am in remission and have been since shortly before the bakery opened. I can't imagine trying to run a business while dealing with cancer treatment. Holy Snokes!

It would be hard to make cakes from the radiation room!
I have a colorful medical history that includes getting all kinds of body parts removed. At last count, I've had something like a dozen surgeries and almost all of those involve getting something removed. My gall bladder was my favorite. The surprise hysterectomy was my least favorite.

I think this one was from having a tumor removed from my hand.
I earned my Master's Degree in Special Education from Auburn University. My training focused on autism and behavior disorders. I spent most of my teaching career working with adolescents with behavior problems.

I earned my B.S. in Applied Psychology from Georgia Tech. My emphasis was on animal behavior and learning. I've always found the learning process fascinating, in all kinds of species. As an animal behaviorist, I worked primarily with exotic animals in zoo environments. I've worked at Zoo Atlanta, the Fort Worth Zoo, and done some stuff at the Dallas Zoo, all the Sea World parks, and a couple of university labs. Before you get all mad at me for working at Sea World or in an animal lab, consider that my main research was on teaching landmark navigation to Madagascar hissing cockroaches. Yep. And those cockroaches were treated like KINGS, y'all.

I was in the Georgia Tech band all four years of college and was lucky enough to travel to all sorts of neat places with the football team. Despite this, I still don't know all the rules of football.

I also don't actually know that much about Star Wars. Despite being a "super fan" in the In a Galaxy series, there's almost always someone around who knows things about Star Wars that I don't.

Harry Potter though- that's my favorite. I know that universe pretty well.

Harry Potter, Star Wars, and the other things I enjoy are featured in the bakery's decorating scheme. I filled the bakery with the things I love in the hope that people who come to the bakery will also find at least one thing they connect with. Most people do.

Except that pink fish. See... I was at Roland's Thrift Shop one day and she showed me that stupid fish. I said, "No one will ever want that." As soon as I said it, I knew it was true. Nobody would ever want a taxidermied fish that has been spray painted pink. I started to feel bad for the poor, pink fish that nobody loved. I started to care about it. And the next thing I knew, I was in love with it and it was hanging on the bakery wall.

Most things in the bakery have a story like that. I'm always happy to tell you what something is and why it's there.

What else? While I was still a teacher, I put myself through business school at night. My plan was to open a bakery after I retired and I wanted to be as prepared as possible for that. The cancer pushed my retirement date way up, though.

My favorite cakes to make are the weird ones. Or the ones where people tell me, "My budget is $xxx.xx, I want this size and flavor of cake in this/these theme(s), it has to have this, this, and this. Go!"

My least favorite cakes to make start with, "What's the cheapest thing I can get?"

I'm a member of an assortment of organizations and clubs: the 501st (and soon the Rebel Legion), Alpha Phi Omega, Kappa Kappa Psi, Epsilon Kappa Sigma, Mensa, ICES... I guess I'm not a member of the teacher organizations anymore.

I firmly believe that you should like what you like (as long as it isn't hurting anyone) without apologies. Whether that's Auburn football, Star Trek, or purple unicorn kittens, people should always be comfortable geeking out for what they like. And then get a cake to go with it.

I also believe that the birthday boy or girl should get to choose the cake flavor. If you tell your child that they can't order a pistachio/ nutmeg cake today because it's not their birthday, then you should allow them to get a pistachio/nutmeg cake when it is their birthday. You never know who will discover their new favorite flavor because you or your kid ordered something weird.

I think this answers the questions I get asked the most. If there's anything else you want to know, feel free to ask. Except what's in the icing. I'm not telling that.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

No Caking for Assholes: Lesson 2- Watch Out!

This post is part of the NC4A series for cakers. If you're not a caker, this post isn't for you. But you'll probably read it anyway. I mean, you've come this far, why stop now?

For more No Caking for Assholes goodness, check out my class at CakeFest 2016!

In the past couple of weeks, I've received three separate, unrelated unreasonable cake requests. You know the kind:

"I want this cake, 50 servings, my budget is $45."
All three people contacted me with caviar taste on a cat food budget. As I read each request, I heard the indignant cries of a thousand unruly bakers echoing in the back of my mind, screaming at the injustice of it all. "No caking for assholes!"

My first reaction was to get defensive. After all, these people were asking me to work for less than a dollar per hour. That's not ok! That's offensive!

But then I thought about it. I've been around the cake world enough that getting defensive is my knee-jerk response to requests like this. But what if these clients aren't assholes? What if...

Did you know that I used to be a teacher? Really. And one of my fundamental beliefs in teaching is that you can't expect a student to know something that you, yourself, have not told them. What if cake clients are the same way?

So, I tried something new. Rather than getting offended and defensive and invoking the "No caking for assholes" mentality, I decided to think like a teacher. I had no right expecting these new clients to know how custom cakes are priced because I've never tried to tell them. And if I expect them to know something I never told them... that makes me the asshole!

Well darn. I hate it when I'm the asshole.

I mean, it's not like I'm an expert on what plumbing repair or tax preparation should cost. I have no idea what different things in those professions would cost. I would hate to unintentionally offend someone by offering them 75 cents an hour to fix my sink. But I'm sure I've been that jerk sometime in my life.

This time, rather than being defensive and grumpy (and losing the client), I went for friendly and straightforward. I laid out my pricing structure and bakery minimums. I quoted a reasonable price for the cake design they'd actually requested (that decimal was not where they expected!) and gave some options closer to their budget.

As usual, my clients were super awesome. In two out of three of these cases, they were flexible on their deign and budget and ended up ordering cakes that earned positive reviews! The third client couldn't budge on design or budget (due to outside factors) and ended up ordering from somewhere else. That's fine, too! Cakeapotamus cakes aren't for everyone.

It turns out, if you go into a conversation with a client expecting them to be mean and clueless, that's what you'll find. But if you go in treating the client like a friend, everybody enjoys the experience more. Lesson learned. No caking for assholes means you can't be the asshole either.

No Caking for Assholes: Lesson 3- PRICING!

This post is part three of the NC4A series for cake decorators. If you are not a caker, this post isn't intended for you. But you'll probably read it anyway. Nosy.

Pricing is something of a taboo topic in the cake world. Newbie cakers frequently ask, "How much should I charge for this cake?" and the veteran cakers sigh internally (or out loud) and ignore the question.


Well, because nobody can answer that for you!

And we all did it! I asked pricing questions when I was new. I think we all did. At some point, there were so many pricing questions flying around the cake world that we decided to answer any "How much should I charge for this?" with "$62.50."

Five tier wedding cake? $62.50.

Looks like $62.50 to me.

Dozen cupcakes? $62.50.

Why can't the cake world give you a straight answer on what you should charge? Well, because that would be cheating. We don't want to do your homework for you.

  • We don't know your materials cost. How much will the materials and ingredients for this cake cost? Don't forget to charge for the cake board and box! There's a huge variance in the cost and availability of ingredients across the country (and the world).  

  • There's no way we know your overhead. Are you a home baker? Do you have a shop? Employees to pay? Rent? What's your profit margin for your business? 

  • Nobody but you knows your hands. How long will it take your hands to bake this cake? To decorate it? To color all the icings or make the fondant? To clean up after? Yes, you should charge for clean up time! That's part of the job. How much do you charge for your time? If you're not charging at least a living wage for your time, you're part of the reason people think they can pay $30 for a 50 serving, two tier cake. If you think you're not good enough to charge for your time, you're wrong. 

You and your time have value.

You should be charging more to create a custom cake than someone gets paid to put together a Whopper. Sadly, there are a lot of cakers out there working for (literally) pennies. Don't believe me? Check your local yardsale site.

Work for free for your family and friends if you want. But if you're going to advertise cakes to the public, you need to act like a professional and charge for your time. Nobody respects people who give it away for free. (Remember high school?)

  • We haven't done your market research. What are reputable bakers in your area charging for comparable cakes? You should find out! We're not going to do it for you. And I mean reputable bakers, not the people who are willing to work for free on yardsale sites. They aren't trying to make a living.
Once you've figured out your materials cost, time estimate, overhead, and market comps, you can set your price.

See? This is why nobody can tell you what to charge for a cake. Learning to price your cakes takes a fair amount of trial and error. Just like decorating cakes! Practice, practice, practice.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Behind the Scenes: In a Galaxy

A few months ago, there was a call for Star Wars fans to be featured in little, five-minute documentaries by Warrior Poets. Warrior Poets is Morgan Spurlock's production company. Remember the guy who ate nothing but McDonald's for 30 days? (Shudder.) Yeah, him.

Now, I never claimed to be the biggest Star Wars fan. I'm not the biggest fan in our group. Heck, I'm not even the biggest fan in my house. But I do enjoy the Star Wars... and the production company happened to be looking for someone who's made some Star Wars cakes.

A baker who's also a member of the 501st seemed to fit their bill pretty well.

Secret plans were made and orders given. The production crew would come to the bakery for one day and shoot us doing what we do best: throwing a tea party. This time: a Star Wars tea party.

The original plan was actually to change my son's birthday theme to Star Wars and have them film that. But Minecraft is his true love and he didn't want to change from that, even for a film crew. So we arranged an extra, Star Wars tea party for that morning with my daughter as the hostess.

Now, you have to keep in mind that all of this was going on in addition to the regular bakery production schedule. I was working all this in around parties and wedding cakes as well as planning my kid's actual birthday party. It was a task!

The day started bright and early with this:

And we went from there. I'd done a little bit of prep for the tea party, but they wanted to shoot me decorating the cake. Ummm... I don't usually decorate early in the morning. And I NEVER decorate right before the cake is due. Especially a cake design I've never done before and have a time crunch on... meh, we'll just wing it!

You can kinda see the cake in this picture. Don't judge me, I think I ended up decorating it in 25 minutes.
They filmed the tea party and we quickly cleaned everything up to set up my son's Minecraft/Pokemon party. After that, I headed to a local hotel for the interview. You know those parts of a show where it's just someone talking against a plain background? Yeah, that takes for-stinkin'-ever to film. I think they asked me questions for two hours? Three? And used maybe a minute of film from it.
My view during the interview:
Best pose ever.
I got home late that night and began the waiting game. The series of fan profiles is called "In a Galaxy" and it was set to be released before the new Star Wars movie comes out.

Now it's movie time! Where's my profile? Well... here's how it works. The "In a Galaxy" series was created by Warrior Poets, Maker Studios, and Verizon. So, to see it, you can download the (free) Verizon app that works on any phone called go90. They started releasing the profiles a few weeks ago- number 3 made me cry! They release two profiles a week and will keep releasing them through February. Ours comes out on December 23rd.

So that's part of why we've been so Star Wars crazy these last few months. That and there's a new movie coming out! That, the new movie, and how much I enjoy taking the Star Wars characters to visit the children's hospital. Oh, and the Toys for Tots drive on Wear Star Wars/Share Star Wars day. Anyway, the Star Wars mania is almost over.

Meanwhile, if you don't already have tickets to join us on Thursday night for "The Force Awakens," get some! We're doing the 8pm showing at the Opelika theater and we'll be in our jammies. Don't judge. If you want to watch the new Star Wars movie with some "superfans", this is your chance.