When it comes to creative business concepts, Desiree Kelly takes the cake, literally. In the summer of 2006, she opened The Makery Co. Her business’s catch phrase is: “We Make. You Bake.” The Makery sells something that you probably won’t find anywhere else: a blank, undecorated cake and the direction and guidance needed to empower customers to decorate it themselves.
Before she was a cake maker, Desiree was a molecular biology major earning a master’s degree in business. One day her sister called her and told her she was getting married. Desiree wanted to help with the wedding, so she decided she would make the wedding cake. She took some cake decorating classes at a local hobby store, and found that she was a natural. “It’s just one of these things that you never knew… just a hidden talent I guess,” she says.
Ironically, Desiree’s sister did not get married and did not end up needing a wedding cake. But soon, Desiree was teaching cake decorating classes herself. Her students would have to bring an undecorated cake with them, which meant they would need to bake their own cake and make their own frosting before each class. One day, one of her students approached her and said, “I wish there was a paint your own pottery place, but for cake.” That is when the idea for The Makery was born.
Originally, Desiree planned to go into the pharmaceutical and biotech industry, but that phone call from her sister started a fortuitous chain of events that led Desiree to embark on a new career. She was in the process of getting her MBA, so she used that opportunity to prepare to open her own cake business. “I wrote my business plan, my financials, did my research and all that, during class,” she said. “So when I graduated I just went to the SBA and asked for a loan.”
“I really like it when clients are creative, and they ask me to do wacky stuff.”
The Makery Co. attracts a wide range of clients, from the do-it-yourself bride who wants to decorate her own wedding cake but does not have the necessary skills or tools, to the parents looking for a custom-made birthday cake for their son or daughter. Desiree says only about 5% of her customers actually want to come in privately and make their own cake. However, she offers an array of classes, including children’s classes, one-month long courses for adult beginners, and more advanced classes that last only one evening.
A lighted display case full of blank cakes coated in smooth white frosting greets customers who arrive at the shop. There are many kinds of pre-made blank cakes available, and they are all labeled with cards that read “White Genoise Cake, Royal Buttercream” or “Grandma Mavis’s Chocolate Cake, Chocolate Buttercream,” listing both the cake-type and the filling. Behind the display case, in open view of any customers that might be in the shop, Desiree’s employees work on layering and frosting the special-order cakes.
Farther back in the shop, a wall is stocked with fun cake accessories. Among them are a variety of sprinkles, candies, miniature flags and plastic figurines, including ones of Dora the Explorer, Spongebob Squarepants and other characters that would make any kid excited to decorate his or her own cake.
Do-it-yourself decorating is only one small part of the equation. Desiree has some serious cake decorating skills, and most of her revenue comes from wedding cakes that she and her assistants make and decorate themselves. She can create just about any kind of wedding cake, from the classic three-tiered white cake with scrolls and pearl-like beading to fantastical themed cakes. She also provides every bride and groom with a complimentary “sweetheart cake,” a miniature cake that they can take with them to their hotel room. “Most of the time, they don’t get a piece of [the actual wedding] cake,” she says. “They’re just so busy. They get what they feed each other, and that’s about it.” So she brings a sweetheart cake with every wedding cake delivery.
The biggest wedding cake Desiree ever made was a ten-foot tall seven-tier cake. It was so large that she had to transport it in pieces and put the tiers together at the wedding. “I had to hold the ladder and lean over and get the top tier on there,” she says. The wind was blowing hard, and the cake was so tall that it was swaying. “I crossed my heart and hoped to God that it was going to stay,” she says. Fortunately, the cake remained intact.
“You’ll see me in the crowd of a lot of the Food Network Challenges,” Desiree says. “I love to just go sit and watch, because I learn so much.”
Desiree offers cake samples in her shop and holds tastings for brides every Sunday
The most challenging wedding cake she ever made was an Alice in Wonderland cake with a skewed checkerboard base. “No matter how artsy you are… it’s really hard to do something that’s so random and off the wall.” She explains that putting random polka-dots or crooked lines on a cake is much more difficult than following a set pattern. And that wasn’t the only difficult part. “Poor Alice,” she says. “To get her to stand on the cake, I actually had to drill through her little legs and then put in toothpicks.”
A drill may not seem like an integral part of a cake maker’s tool set, but Desiree needs to be able to create unusual cake designs at her customer’s request. “I really like it when clients are creative, and they ask me to do wacky stuff,” she says. In October of 2009 she was in the midst of using her drill to build a skateboard frame for a skateboarder’s cake. “I use a lot of power tools,” she explains, but her favorite tool – a large, off-set icing spatula – can be found in any bakery.
For someone who never went to culinary school, Desiree has an impressive set of baking knowledge, some of which she acquired during her research as an undergraduate. “A lot of the chemistry applies to baking as well. The leavening agents: the baking soda versus baking powder, and how much, and in what concentration. And just understanding how chemical reactions work, and being able to look at a cake and see how it baked, and why it failed, or why it fell in.”
The rest of her skills she picked up along the way. “My grandma taught me how to bake,” she says. “So I rely heavily on things she does, like the extra pat of butter in each pie piece.” She continues to educate herself on advanced cake-making techniques whenever she can. “You’ll see me in the crowd of a lot of the Food Network Challenges,” she says. The show is filmed nearby in Colorado Springs. “I love to just go sit and watch, because I learn so much.”
A baker's dough scale in The Makery
A lot of her recipes, such as “Grandma Mavis’s Chocolate Cake” come from friends or family of friends. Others she develops on her own through experimentation. At the moment, she is working on a new seven-layer cake recipe for a client. “He is really wanting this seven-layer cake he had in New York, and he hasn’t had it for years, and he can’t find it anywhere. So I keep making him renditions of this seven-layer cake,” she says. She plans to keep adjusting the recipe until her client is satisfied.
Because of her attention to detail and her persistent urge to learn everything she can about cakes, Desiree has never had a cake disaster. Well, at least not on purpose. She has had customers, inspired by photos on CakeWrecks.com, specifically ask for a cake wreck. “They thought the website was really funny. They asked for me to screw a cake up on purpose, and it was a going away cake for someone… We ended up doing a pig roasting with a Hawaiian shirt on with flames going up, and it said ‘Best Wishes for the Future,’” she says, laughing.
“One of the key things with making a franchise successful is making sure that you are not the reason why this store is working.”
Desiree has never had a cake transporting disaster, either. She makes sure that she and her assistants always transport a cake with extreme care and attention. Her method is to line the back of her car with egg crates and put the cake directly onto one of the crates. This keeps it from sliding around. If the delivery location is far away, she uses a shelf across the back of the car to protect the cake from sunlight.
When she or her employees arrive at the delivery location, they always check out the venue before bringing in the cake. “We show up and carry in the light things first, find the table, find out where it’s positioned to see if we need anything special first, and then unload those. Then we go back and get the cake out of the car,” she says. She hand-carries each cake from the car to its final destination. “If you use a cart, it bounces,” she says. “It’s amazing. People stay out of your way when you’re carrying a cake.” Except for kids, but to keep them occupied she allows them to participate by asking them to hold the door for her.
Desiree’s cake successes have earned her a place as one of Denver’s premier cake chefs. In 2008 she won the “Sweet Times in the Rockies” sugar arts show in her master cake-maker division, for her children’s cake. This is her third year in business, and she is beginning to enter into profitability. “In foodservice, three to five years is right on average,” she says.
With her success and her business knowledge as an MBA, she is hoping that she may be able to open a second location sometime soon, and eventually franchise her business. “I designed The Makery with franchising in mind,” she says. “One of the key things with making a franchise successful is making sure that you are not the reason why this store is working… And so I want to make sure I have two, three, four Makeries that are functional and running without me. Then, after the whole system is tested, I’ll go ahead and franchise it.”
Although she hasn’t been getting much of a paycheck in the first three years of business, Desiree has no regrets, and no intentions of resurrecting her old plan to go into a higher-paying career in pharmaceuticals or biotech. “I probably am much happier doing this,” she says, despite the fact that she works 10-12 hours every day. “I just think this is fun. It’s a fun job, and I provide fun jobs for other people.” Above all, she enjoys hanging out with her staff and making people happy. After all, the Makery is not all about making cakes. “[It’s about] making happiness,” Desiree says, “and having a good time doing it.”