DECORATING CHAMPS ARE RETAILERS' ICING ON THE CAKE

MINNEAPOLIS -- It takes courage, and plenty of talent, to compete on an open exhibition floor, in a strange city, while people watch.That's why there's so much industry regard for competitions like the one the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association holds every year during its annual convention.This year, first place in the sixth annual Cake Decorating Challenge went to Eileen Grady, Publix Super

MINNEAPOLIS -- It takes courage, and plenty of talent, to compete on an open exhibition floor, in a strange city, while people watch.

That's why there's so much industry regard for competitions like the one the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association holds every year during its annual convention.

This year, first place in the sixth annual Cake Decorating Challenge went to Eileen Grady, Publix Super Markets, Lakeland, Fla.

Jeffrey Forster, Harp's Food Stores, Springdale, Ark., came in second, and Linda Flindt, Fuller MarketPlace, Chehalis, Wash., took third place.

Publix Super Markets, which puts a chainwide focus on its cake decorators, holds intra- and inter-division competitions prior to IDDBA's competition, and then enters the best of the best in the Cake Decorating Challenge. Twice previously, the chain -- which has more than 400 units in the Southeast -- has taken first place in IDDBA's challenge. Then, in 1999, the chain's entrant placed third and last year their entrant came in second.

This year, Eileen Grady took first place by the narrowest of margins, barely edging out Forster for the top spot, according to the judges.

In fact, the two were tied with total points accumulated in the final competition. So the judges went back through results posted by the two in each category of the challenge to see who placed first in the most categories, including creativity and merchandising. Based on that examination, Grady was declared the winner.

"We knew the Cake Decorating Challenge was going to be extremely difficult to judge this year because the talent level was so high," said Carol Christison, executive director of IDDBA.

"The contestants were all so well matched. I was glad I wasn't one of the judges. I don't think I could have picked one," Christison added.

SN was rebuffed by Publix officials, who refused to permit Grady to be interviewed after her big win. The runners-up, however, were allowed to share their victories with industry colleagues.

Harp's Forster said the most difficult part of the finals -- which were held on the show floor during open exhibition hours -- was decorating enough great-looking cakes fast enough to fill a display case the first day.

"You wanted the cakes to be your best and still you had to get them done in time to fill the case, and make it look good," Forster said.

The finalists were required to decorate enough cakes to fill an 8-foot pastry case. Their merchandising skills, as well as their decorating skills, were then judged.

Forster, who has been decorating cakes for less than four years, acquired his skills on the job at Harp's, he said. He gave much of the credit to bakery managers at Harp's who enabled him to develop his ability and for encouraging him to enter IDDBA's challenge.

"It was great competing in Minneapolis. We were well matched, I think. Any one of us could have won. Just getting there was the big thing," Forster said.

For his decorator's choice cake, Forster created a castle by constructing a double layer cake and building its tower with cupcakes. A princess at the top of the tower, threatened by a dragon, was being rescued by a knight.

"I thought it was a theme that would appeal to everybody, and it was fun to do."

For her decorator's choice entry, Flindt chose a theme that commemorated one of her favorite places -- White Salmon, Wash.

"It's just an incredibly beautiful place," Flindt said.

For the feature on her cake, she molded a salmon -- a big one, about 4 inches by 8 inches -- out of white chocolate. Against a blue "waterfall" cascading down the side of an 8-inch, double-layer cake, the giant salmon stood out.

Flindt grew up watching her mother decorate cakes, and has been decorating cakes for people's birthdays, anniversaries, weddings and other special occasions for years. After working for several independent bakeries, she joined Fuller MarketPlace a little over a year ago.

Flindt called the Cake Decorating Challenge "truly a challenge, but a rewarding one."