Decorated cakes are a cause for celebration. Bakery executives from different markets around the country told SN they've had "good" or "substantial" increases in cake sales this year compared to a year ago -- and they gave a big measure of the credit for that progress to the special-occasion segment of cakes.There's more worth celebrating. The potential for the category is unlimited, they said, especially

Decorated cakes are a cause for celebration. Bakery executives from different markets around the country told SN they've had "good" or "substantial" increases in cake sales this year compared to a year ago -- and they gave a big measure of the credit for that progress to the special-occasion segment of cakes.

There's more worth celebrating. The potential for the category is unlimited, they said, especially given some specific attention to the details. To keep the cake business growing, merchandisers said they are:

Broadening their selections to include varieties such as smaller sizes and licensed character designs as well as traditional custom decorations.

Promoting the program more frequently and more aggressively.

Finding ways to shave costs and improve product consistency -- for example, relying on higher-quality frozen layers.

Calling attention to the program in the store by merchandising cakes in self-service refrigerated cases, doing more sampling and positioning decorators out in the open.

One bakery executive has seen cake sales for his chain rise 10% over this time last year, and he said the driving force is special-occasion, custom-decorated cakes.

"There will always be birthdays and people are still getting married. You just have to get them to buy their cakes from you," said Charlie Van Pelt, bakery-deli merchandiser for the 96-unit Atlanta division of Winn-Dixie Stores, Jacksonville, Fla.

"Our strategy is to appeal to every market with a wide variety, from very simple to upscale and gourmet. For example, we decorate a single layer that retails for $3.98. Then we have a deluxe 10-inch, three-layer, with fresh fruit filling. It's important to offer something for any occasion," Van Pelt said.

He said his division just this year also has revved up its promotion of wedding cakes with new brochures and signs. People are still graduating, too, and they almost always order full-sheet or half-sheet cakes for graduation parties, said Barb Harner, director of bakery at Steele's Markets, a four-unit upscale operator based in Fort Collins, Colo. "It's a big ring, so we promote them heavily," she added.

Enough people have been graduating in Steele's marketing area, in fact, that on a recent Saturday the company sold 400 graduation cakes.

Riser Foods, Bedford Heights, Ohio, which operates supermarkets under the Rini-Rego banner, is trying this year to get even more out of what is already a big business in graduation cakes. The 38-unit chain broke its ad two weeks earlier this year than last "and it's working great," said Tony Rosati, the chain's director of bakery operations.

"This area also is big on communions. So we figured if we ran an ad for special-occasion cakes early enough, we'd grab that business, too. And we took our competition by surprise. We ran it on the front page of our circular the first week in May," he added. This is the second year the cakes have hit the front page of the chain's circular, too. "It worked well last year, so we did it again."

Riser also is running a small blurb in its bakery ad every week in May and June to remind customers of its special-occasion cakes.

But promotion strategies are not worth much if stores don't have a consistent, ready supply to support the program, said an executive at a large East Coast chain.

"We've gradually gone to a combination of decorating frozen layers and of sourcing some cakes, already decorated and frozen. We completed that switch in the last year," said the bakery executive, who asked not to be named.

"It gives us consistency, for one thing, but even more important is the available inventory of decorated cakes. You can pull one out of the freezer, write a name on it, and the customer doesn't have to wait a day," he explained. But having some products decorated in-store gives the perception of "fresh from the bakery," he added.

Riser's Rosati said his operation is also sourcing its layers frozen, in order to have what the customers want when they want it. "There used to be no compunction in telling a customer, for example, that we only bake marble cake on Fridays." But that doesn't happen anymore, he said.

Riser's cake sales are up 10% over last year. Rosati attributed that increase partially to better merchandising, using some new reach-in cases. He added it was also due to the fact that the chain is improving the consistency of the product from store to store.

"People want to be able to buy a particular type of cake at any one of your stores. We're just getting there with the consistency. We're trying to accomplish it by having a lot of seminars for our associates, and just by following up to make sure each bakery has what they're supposed to," Rosati said.

Daisy King, home economist at Steven's Food Stores, Nashville, Tenn., agreed with other retail representatives that product consistency was important within an organization. But while she acknowledged that "the frozen layers manufacturers offer have gotten better every year," she added that relying too much on frozen layers or licensed characters could also dilute a supermarket's ability to establish a brand identity with its program.

Steven's uses frozen layers, but decorates them in-store. "Since all retailers have access now to such good quality cake, that makes it all the more important to set your product off from others with innovative decorating," she said. "Decorators at Steven's are constantly coming up with something a little different, such as cakes with the state flower rather than just a bunch of roses," King added.

Still, a number of retailers are adding to their programs theme cakes that use Disney characters or popular icons for kids, such as the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.

"We've started using more of the patented items, the kits with edible wafers that you can make Lion King cakes and other Disney cakes from," said Anthony Mondello, bakery director at King Kullen Grocery Co., a 47-unit chain based in Westbury, N.Y.

Riser Foods also has added Disney theme cakes this year, even though it does a huge business with its custom-decorated cakes, Rosati said.

"We do themes with the edible images that are now available. That's what the kids want for their parties," Rosati said.

Adding the "theater" of having decorators working at the front of bakery is deemed very important by retailers, even by those who aren't doing it right now.

"I'd like to do it, but space just doesn't allow for it in most of our stores. In remodels and new stores, though, we'll have decorators working where customers can see them," said King Kullen's Mondello.

At Big Y Foods, Springfield, Mass., John Schnepp, bakery director, said the addition of new lower-profile glass display cases contributed to a good increase in sales of decorated cakes over last year.

The cases not only display the products better, he said, but they're low enough that customers can see associates decorating cakes behind the counter, and that helps sales, too.

Winn-Dixie's Atlanta division will separate the in-store bakery from the deli in new stores and remodels in order to have more and better space for merchandising cakes and other products, and to allow room for some "theater," Van Pelt said.

And Steven's Food Stores in a recent remodel brought the decorator's station up in line with the bakery counter. It had been in the back of the bakery.

Steele's Markets, which usually does not ice or decorate its cakes in-store, will set up a decorating station on particular occasions such as Valentine's Day and Mother's Day.

Probably the biggest obstacle to building a stronger program for many retailers is trouble in finding skilled decorators. "That's a problem everyone is having," said Paul Godin, owner of a Piggly Wiggly store in Mequon, Wis.

"We happen to have a terrific decorator, but we just sat down with her to go over salary, etc., to see what we need to do to keep her," Godin said. Asked if he would consider buying frozen cakes that are already decorated, Godin said the quality available makes it a viable alternative. Harner at Steele's said her company has given up on trying to find skilled decorators in her market. "Instead, we're training people who already work for us and have shown an interest. Our newest trainee had worked in the packaging department of the bakery for two years," Harner said.

That shortage of skilled decorators is one of the reasons the executive from the large East Coast chain has switched to having some thaw-and-sell inventory that is already decorated.

"What if your decorator gets sick or quits? This is a solution, and a good one. These cakes we have are great quality," he said.

What's the best way to deliver that message to customers? "A lot of sampling," he said. "But the stigma is over. Customers are becoming aware that they can get as good a cake in our bakeries as they could get in a corner bakery."

The trick is to get them to try your cakes. "We put our great-looking dessert cakes on special a couple of weeks before a holiday or special event weekend," said Dan Kallesen, bakery director at 28-unit Harp's Food Stores, Springdale, Ark.

"They're iced, double-layer rounds with flavors like Snickers and lemon supreme. Putting them in our ad at $1 off gets people to try them, like them, and then hopefully they'll think of us when they plan a graduation party or for Mother's Day, for instance," Kallesen said.

Service, too, is part of the image, said Kallesen. "I look at custom-decorated cakes as a prime opportunity to show customers what you can do for them. You listen to what they want and hopefully deliver it to their satisfaction. I can't think of a better way to get some interaction between customers and your bakery associates," he added.

Busch's Valu Land, Ann Arbor, Mich., was able to improve the quality image of its decorated cake program and at the same time cut costs, said Dan Courser, vice president of perishables and bakery-deli director for the six-unit operator.

"We heightened the profile of our sheet cakes and we're packaging them differently, in clear-top containers. It definitely gives us a better image. We used to bake them and then sell them in a foil pan, but frankly, that's not the best image. Now the sides are iced; it looks 100% better," he said.

Courser found he was also able to save on costs with the new scratch icing.

"The icing is lighter and therefore adheres to the cake better. It looks good, but we also use less icing per cake because it goes on so smoothly and the icer gets the job done quicker," Courser said.

In a doubly effective new move, Steele's Markets, too, has improved efficiency and quality at the same time.

"We've started using a ganache chocolate icing, which is poured via new equipment over four cakes at a time. It hardens like chocolate on a candy bar," Harner said. It's quicker, and there's no waste, because the cakes are iced on a rack that retrieves icing that runs off the cake, she said. "It also looks great, is easy to decorate and seals the moisture into the cake so it has a longer shelf life."

Riser Foods is cutting costs by having "general bakery helpers" prepare cakes for its decorators to finish. "Then we're not wasting the skilled decorator's time with other tasks," Rosati said. He said there is enough decorating work at each of the chain's bakeries to keep a decorator doing just that for a full shift. "We're fortunate to have some of the best decorators in the market. We want them to use their skills, " he said.

All the retailers SN talked to agreed that consumers' health-consciousness is not impacting on cake sales at all.

"People don't buy special-occasion cakes for themselves. They're for guests. They're not worried about health; they're thinking about quality, a good taste," said Rosati.

Riser Foods did a demo one weekend recently to see how a lower-in-fat iced cake would be accepted. "We had a nice display of them in a reach-in case right beside the demo stand, but they didn't sell," Rosati added.

"For a party, or a special occasion, people are not looking for a healthy alternative," he added.