It’s destroyed the good intentions generations of dieting women as well as inspiring one of history’s most famous faux pas, but as toddlers across the globe will testify: there’s nothing more exciting than a good cake.
And as a cake decorator, whether people are marking a birth, anniversary or wedding, or a company just wants to give its staff a nice reward for meeting a particularly tricky target, you’ll be present to watch people celebrate the most important achievements in their lives.
While cake decorators inevitably attend lots of parties, it’s no trifling business: according to Euromonitor, the British cake market was worth close to £1.8bn in 2007, a figure which is forecast to grow by almost 5% by 2012.
While the long-term outlook is optimistic; as with many industries, certain economic factors have had a detrimental effect on the industry. Unprecedented demand for biofuels, for example, has led to a massive drop in the amount of agricultural space used to grow grain, meaning prices are on the rise, and fuel prices are having a direct effect on this.
“As oil jumped from $60 to $100 a barrel, the price of grain followed it upward. If oil goes to $200 a barrel, grain prices will also keep climbing,” the Guardian has rather gloomily pointed out.
Supermarkets have also had a hugely detrimental effect on the industry. According to a report by the Conservative Party’s Small Shops Commission, around 2,000 independent shops go out of business every year, thanks to anti-competitive behaviour by big chain stores.
If you’re committed to the idea of a cake making business, though, an economic downturn could actually be a good time to get started. As Jane Asher, arguably the UK’s most well known cakestress, has it: “If you can survive now, you’re going to be really successful when things turn for the better.”
Making cakes isn’t all butter icing and hundreds and thousands: as many people who own cake businesses will tell you, keeping your head above water in the industry will require organisation, a good head for figures and a certain amount of artistic flair.
Lynn Oxley, who has been running Oxley’s of Morpeth and its accompanying website, Cake Perfect, since 2003, says a good business brain helps. “Most of the traits you need to set up a cake-making business are the ones you need to be a sole trader in any industry,” she says.
Like any business, hard work and good organisational skills will help it to flourish. “We work very, very long hours and it’s very tiring, because you’ve got to hit delivery times spot on,” explains Oxley.
“We book six to twelve months in advance to make sure we hit the deadlines. You have to be careful because if you’re not organised, a bride isn’t going to be happy when you say, ‘well actually, I want to take a holiday this week, so we’ll do it next week instead’.”
Catherine Knight started her business, Cate Bakes Cake, after she was made redundant from The Times. As one of your jobs will be to deliver to events, she says, a cheerful disposition is a requirement. “You often deliver to birthday parties so you can’t be moody.”
Jane Asher, whose best-selling books on cake making inspired a generation of confectionary addicts, agrees. “You’re at people’s happy moments – anniversaries and weddings and so on. It can be just lovely,” she says.
Similarly, says Knight, it’s not a job for the healthily-inclined. “You need to like eating. You have to taste what you’re making, so you can’t be afraid of eating sugar.”
Cake making is a popular business, so to compete, you’ll need to make your cakes look as professional as possible. Training in all aspects of the industry, from sugarcraft to marzipan techniques, is essential if you want to be able to compete in an increasingly packed marketplace.
There are various qualifications you can aim to do – from NVQs to City and Guilds qualifications – but the good news is, there are hundreds of courses for all levels, so you should be able to find one which will suit your commitments.
Oxley started going to classes to ease the tedium of raising her four children, three of whom were under the age of two when she began. “I started cake decorating at a night class and went on to do the advanced course and my City and Guilds in sugar flowers.
“By the end of that, news gets around and you end up making cakes for friends and friends of friends. I had absolute strangers knocking at the door saying, ‘I’ve heard you make cakes’,” she explains.
Cake making courses start at around £190 for 10 weekly sessions, rising to around £500 for a 30-week NVQ course. Alternatively, The Bakery School has an online course which you can complete at your own pace. A one-year license for the downloadable software costs £250 plus VAT.
The main regulations you will have to be aware of are Regulation (EC) No. 852/2004 on the hygiene of foodstuffs, and the Food Hygiene Regulations 2006. Although this one applies specifically to England, there are equivalents for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
You will be required to register your business premises with the local authority at least 28 days before you plan to launch your business. The premises should be clean and in good repair, with adequate drinking water, pest control, lighting, ventilation, lavatory, hand washing and drainage facilities.
If you’re planning on using your kitchen or another site which isn’t purpose-built, make sure you keep all pets, and soft furnishings, out of the room. The rules also require a separate sink in or near the kitchen so you can wash your hands, and wipe-clean surfaces – so wooden tables are a no.
Lynn Oxley was in the process of redesigning her kitchen, and got around the rules by inviting her local environmental health officer to come in for a consultation. “We had a word with him and he came round before we started the work,” she says.
Food storage is an important part of any catering business, and those who handle food should have some training.
In your kitchen at home, you will need a separate place to store food for the business – refrigeration, in particular, needs to be kept separate.
Any waste you create should be cleared immediately, and stored in a closed-lid container. Dairy products, cooked products and prepared ready-to-eat uncooked food must be stored and transported below 8°C, but 5°C or lower is the recommended temperature.
Any food which you have cooked but will not serve immediately, has a ‘use by’ date, says ‘keep refrigerated’ on the label, or is ready-to-eat must be kept chilled, and you should check the temperature at least once a day.
Once you have registered your premises, an environmental health officer has the right to visit unannounced at any reasonable time. It’s up to you to have any information they may require to hand – this will include the names of the company directors, machinery maintenance records and the ingredients and origin of food.
If they feel you have obstructed them in their duties, you can be prosecuted and fined up to £5,000.
If you decide to employ people to help you run your business, whether they are highly-trained cake decorators or a visiting plumber, you are responsible for their health and safety. In an environment where sharp knives and hot ovens are the norm, it is inevitable that accidents will occur, so make sure you have the correct procedures in place to deal with them.
Before you employ staff, you should carry out a thorough assessment of the health and safety risks your business faces, and create a formal policy based on the assessment. If you have more than five staff members, you need to write this down and make sure they are aware of it. Making sure all your staff comply with health and safety procedures could prevent an accident. If an accident does occur, you are legally required to record and report it.
Cake making requires eggs, and eggs can spread harmful bacteria, so make sure you follow the four C’s of food preparation to minimise the risk of contamination:
Most cases of food poisoning occur when harmful bacteria is spread from food to food, so take extra care when handling raw meat, poultry and eggs – particularly if you are running your business from home. Also, be aware that equipment, pests, cloths, packaging and cleaning products can spread bacteria, so make sure you know what is coming into contact with your food.
Create cleaning schedules which you can follow during the cooking process, ensuring any spillages are cleared up immediately to prevent cross-contamination. Likewise, make sure your staff are clean and if any of them let their standards of personal hygiene slip, you are obligated to address the issue.
For more information, see the ‘Food hygiene – a guide for businesses’ booklet, published by the Food Standards Agency at food.gov.uk. The ‘Safer Food, Better Business’ guide includes templates for cleaning schedules and staff training records.
For information on health and safety and how to carry out a risk assessment of your business, visit the Health and Safety Executive website at hse.gov.uk.
Your start-up costs will depend very much on how big an operation you wish to run. As with all businesses, the fewer overheads you have, the lower your expenditure.
The first cost you will be faced with if you decide to run your business from anywhere other than home is the cost of premises. The price of premises can vary enormously – for a 379 square foot bakery premises in Plymouth, for example, the rent is £10,750 a year – compared to a 1,300 square foot bakery in Upper Holloway, London, which is around £18,000 a year.
Your other option is to start at home, selling your products on the internet. Lynn Oxley started her business, Cake Perfect, as a website back in 2003, and says it was a huge part of the success of the business. “The website is essential for us. If you’re working from home, you don’t have a shop window,” she says.
Websites can vary in cost, but you can do a basic one with a simple package like Mr Site, which costs around £100 and gives you a domain name, PayPal shop, and 50 email addresses for your domain name.
A note of caution, though: the more professional-looking the website appears, the more likely consumers are to buy from you. You need to differentiate yourself from the competition, or you risk undermining the quality of your products. Holly Tucker from notonthehighstreet.com, which showcases and sells products – including cakes – from independent retailers, says your customers will be less inclined to spend if your website’s appearance lets you down.
“If you have something that looks like it’s been photographed on your bed, it’s going to let down the site. If it looks like it could be featured in a magazine, that’s when people will trust the site. People are used to looking at magazine-quality pictures when they consume magazines. The moment someone has to decipher what you’re photographing, that’s when people will lose trust,” she says.
For Cake Perfect, Oxley hired professional models, photographers and designers to create the website – but warns that it cost money. “It’s expensive, but it’s essential,” she says. “It was 100% worth spending the money, every time – even if it did cost me an arm, leg, internal organ and my first born child.”
Your next decision will be whether to employ staff to help out or not. Although casual administrative staff can be hired for relatively little – a part-time receptionist, for example, would start at around £8,000 per year – specialist cake decorators come at a significantly higher cost. In fact, Tim Slatter from The Cake Store says staff account for 45% of the business’ turnover. “It’s a big chunk but it’s what you have to factor in for employees who are highly skilled at what they do,” he says.
When you start up you will also invariably need to invest in equipment. What you buy depends on how big an operation you want to start. CakeCraftShop.co.uk sells starter kits which include a polystyrene cake dummy, a ruler, a side scraper, a palette knife, and a turntable from £19.85. “It’s unlimited as you get more involved,” says Slatter. “You’ll need more colours and more decorating tools. It’s something you’d have to build up over time.”
Pricing your offerings
Pricing cakes is particularly difficult – especially if you are starting from scratch. Jane Asher says she undercharged for her cakes for a long time. “Because they’re things you’re going to take home and destroy and eat, it’s hard to realise how expensive they should be,” she says.
But cakes are often intricate, and take hours to make. “It’s so labour-intensive,” explains Asher. “I might have to have the shop spending four or five days on some beautiful weding cake, and that’s inevitably going to be incredibly expensive, but you have to be realistic and if that’s what it costs, that’s what it costs.”
Asher says she worked out her pricing eventually. “I took a long hard look at it, and I worked out that I was going to be spending this much per hour to be in the shop with this many staff, and I’m going to have to take x much to survive. Now, when someone comes in with a new cake design, I can look at how long it will take and work out a cost from there.”
As a guideline, The Cake Store charges £34.95 for a fairly simple, 10-inch diameter iced sponge cake with a message on it, and up to nearly £900 for an intricate, five-tiered wedding cake.
Most cake businesses deliver their cakes. Lynn Oxley varies her price depending on how far she is delivering. “We have a concentric ring model which we work on – if it’s a 70-mile round trip, we would charge £35 on delivery and setup.”
She adds that sometimes, they are unable to set up the cake. “We don’t guarantee setup because sometimes the venues aren’t ready for us because they’re running behind,” she says.
Catherine Knight says those going into the business should be prepared not to make an immediate profit. “It takes patience, and acceptance that you’re not necessarily going to make the money according to the time you spend,” she says. Lynn Oxley agrees: “You have to be happy with the fact that you’re not going to make any money for at least two years, because everything you make is reinvested into machinery and equipment. Even now, five years on, my staff get paid but I don’t always,” she says.
There are ways to maximise your earnings: Oxley decided to branch out and started a chocolatier alongside the cake making business. She now runs both out of a shop in the centre of Morpeth, Northumberland.
Similarly, The Cake Store will soon be launching a new range of mail-order cakes, which can be sent through the post without being damaged. “We’re going to launch a new website in September. We’ve devised a special cake that can be posted,” says Tim Slatter.
The Cake Store has also used the internet to its advantage by posting videos of its cakes being made on sites like YouTube. “We’ve had over 16,000 views of our fairy castle,” enthuses Slatter. “The more exposure you get, the better, you know?”
The best advice, though, is to stay abreast of developments in the industry. Trends, technologies and materials are constantly evolving, and staying aware of developments could mean the difference between getting a client or not. Knight agrees: “There’s so much to learn and it’s changing all the time,” she says.