April 17, 2011

How Cake Shows are Ruining Cake. ~ René Cousineau

Photo: mgrayflickr (Carlo’s Bakery of Cake Boss fame)

Your local bakery is the ace of cakes… within reason of course.

It’s no secret that I work in a bake shop. If you’ve read any of my previous articles, then you know that I tend to mention it. Specifically, it’s a custom cake and cupcake shop at which we also serve some of the best coffee around. It’s a pretty great gig, I come home smelling like coffee and sugar which my boyfriend digs. Our regulars are some of the most interesting, friendly and generous people I’ve ever known. Best of all, cake generally makes people happy. I love making people happy.

There’s a dark side to all of this though. I say that cake only generally makes people happy because, sometimes, cake throws people into an inconsolable rage. To be perfectly honest, the volume of people I have seen in such disarray over this spongy, sweet confection recently has almost outnumbered the people that leave our shop with a smile on their face.

This leaves me inclined to change my former statement to this: cake generally makes people really angry and unhappy. Isn’t this the most ridiculous thing you’ve ever heard? Cake is pretty and delicious! Why is this happening?

Why is the pursuit of the perfect cake turning people into monsters? Because reality television has given them permission.

‘Oh God,’ you say, ‘here she goes blaming t.v. for yet another one of humanity’s shortcomings. What a cliché.’

Yeah, I know it’s a cliché. It’s a cliché that I normally hate. In fact, when anyone ever tries to blame my precious t.v. for anything (be it valid or not), I’m usually the first person to call shenanigans. But not this time. This time, I’ve seen the negative effects of reality programming consumption. I’m living it as we speak. As soon as I can get a crew in here to document my plight, I’ll send the footage to VH1.

Cake Boss. Ace of Cakes. DC Cupcakes. Cupcake Wars. Ultimate Cake Off. And that’s just off the top of my head, there are probably more ridiculous cake reality shows on t.v. that I don’t even know about.

Photo: The Charm City Cakes website (these people really are amazing)

Admittedly, they’re fun to watch. It’s truly amazing what people can do with cake. But what’s even more amazing to me is what the consumer wants these people to do with cake. People want cakes shaped like actual size dogs. They want cakes that can move with motors and shoot fireworks. They want a freaking replica of Hogwarts, made of cake. In virtually any case, the bakeries featured in any of the aforementioned shows can make it happen. That’s why they have their own show. And it probably works the other way around too.

Not every independent bakery gets its own show. This doesn’t make them any less creditable than those that do, but most small bake shops are just that—small. Many independent bakeries are simple, mom n’ pop style operations with limited resources and limited space. And I can only safely speak for my place of employ when I say this (and the few small cake shops I’ve visited in Chicago), but we do a hell of a great job with what we have.

Unfortunately, for many consumers of cake t.v., the words “custom cake shop” have become synonymous with Disney World. If it’s a custom cake shop, it can make your wildest cake dreams come true regardless of size and resources. Many people who call in with custom cake requests, haven’t even been to our shop, and have no idea exactly what we do and what we have to work with. They simply expect that we can bust out a four hundred pound cake shaped like the Titanic lickity split—and most don’t realize that for a custom cake like that, you need to have a custom cake budget.

Shaped cakes from Charm City Cakes (the shop featured on Ace of Cakes) start at $1000.

That’s before you add the fully functional, edible toy train and the life-like bust of your two year old so it’ll be a birthday party he never forgets. (For the record, I remember pretty much no details of my life under the age of 11.) When I quote potential customers at our shop the starting price of $250, I get accused of being a scam artist.

They don’t discuss pricing on t.v. But if they did, maybe we would all be a little more realistic.

(This sweet guitar case cake above was made at you’re friendly neighborhood cake shop, Tee & Cakes! Photo: Brian Wood)

Buddy Valastro did not make that cake shaped like a gigantic flip flop in the half hour that it takes to watch an episode of Cake Boss.

And he did not do it by himself. Cakes like that take days to make. They require research and extra materials and hours of labor. On Cake Boss, they have people who are employed specifically to mold figures out of fondant, specifically to make the batters, the person who carves the cake may not even be the person who ends up icing it.

At our little shop, there are one or two bakers in our kitchen at any given time. It’s all we can fit! And we can only fit so much cake in our walk-in refrigerator, so we get booked up. That’s just how it goes. In the world of cake, you snooze you lose… and then, sometimes, you scream until you get your way. It’s amazing.

Men who have dropped the ball on ordering a cake usually grumble a little when I tell them they’re too late. Women, not all of them but (unfortunately) many of them, tend to go a little berserk. I’m talking Real Housewives berserk. Why is this stuff on television? Why are people televising their bad behavior, and why are we following their example and behaving like brats? This question stands whether t.v. is really to blame or not.

Photo: STYLEMOM (The Real Housewives of NY… yick)

Please reader, promise to never behave like this lady (this may or may not have been staged but… it’s still aggravating).

It all comes down to expectations.

You get an idea in your head that you want a cake shaped like a whale ordering an ice cream cone from a transformer on top of the Eiffel Tower. That’s going to look a certain way in your head, and it’s going to look a certain way in real life depending on what your bakery of choice has to work with. When you’re paying at least $1000 to make it happen, I bet the people on Ace of Cakes could get pretty darn close. Again, that’s why they have a show.

For $250, it’s going to be scaled down. For a lot of shops that don’t have the gigantic work space that Charm City Cakes has, it’ll have to be scaled down just to fit in the shop. This sets us little guys up for failure. Attempting to realize big scale dreams on a small scale budget is a dangerous game, and everyone always loses. No one should be crying over cake.

Independent bakeries are the sh*t.

Whether they’re on t.v. or not. Where I work, the cake is killer, the service is friendly and attentive, and we put our all into every cake we make. They all come out looking beautiful. We always do our best, and we stand by that. So let’s pump the brakes and get real about cake again. Don’t abuse your local bakery because we don’t have the resources to make your dragon cake breathe real fire. After all, every cake is still going to taste like a cake (delicious), even if it isn’t shaped like a rubber ducky wielding a machine gun (seriously).

René Cousineau was born and raised in Glenwood Springs, CO. She currently lives in Boulder and is a student of fiction writing and Russian literature. She spends her time reading, cleaning, hiking, dancing, and slinging cupcakes at a local bakery/coffee shop.

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