WEST LINN, Ore. -- Building a strong wedding cake business takes time and hard work, but the payoff can be big, according to John Smolders, director of bakery operations for West Linn Thriftway here.Smolders vowed eight years ago to make a wedding cake program work for seven-unit West Linn Thriftway -- and it has, to the level where he can reap $250,000 dollars in wedding cake sales in a year. With

WEST LINN, Ore. -- Building a strong wedding cake business takes time and hard work, but the payoff can be big, according to John Smolders, director of bakery operations for West Linn Thriftway here.

Smolders vowed eight years ago to make a wedding cake program work for seven-unit West Linn Thriftway -- and it has, to the level where he can reap $250,000 dollars in wedding cake sales in a year. With a 250% profit margin after the cost of ingredients and labor, that's worth sticking it out through thick and thin, Smolders said.

Patience, he said, has been the main ingredient in a strategy that has involved advertising in bridal magazines, participating in bridal shows, printing and distributing brochures, and sending out a series of follow-up letters to customers after they placed their wedding cake orders.

Now, West Linn Thriftway is selling in the range of 375 to 400 wedding cakes a year. Those results have been particularly satisfying to a company that hadn't previously put a priority on sales of cakes.

Sales of all cakes currently make up 45% of volume at West Linn Thriftway's bakery, which the retailer has branded as the Taste of Holland. That translates into a very hefty margin. Regular cakes at West Linn -- which specializes in scratch baking -- sport a profit margin of 125% to 175%, Smolders said.

"It's the wedding cake program that drives everything in the bakery," Smolders said. "If I could do just wedding cakes, I would, because they're so profitable."

He went on to point out that West Linn Thriftway's expenses are minimal on a typical wedding cake that would retail for upwards of $300. The costs for such a product, he said, would break down approximately like this: cake ingredients, $30; icing, $5, and about two hours of labor to prepare it, $30.

After a program high of 410 units sold in 1995, West Linn had a dip in wedding cake sales last year, down to 375. Wedding cake orders are running about the same so far this year.

But it hasn't always been like that. The first year after introducing the program with an ad in a bridal magazine, West Linn Thriftway received just one wedding cake order. That could have given any retail executive cold feet about a fledgling wedding cake program. Instead, Smolders sought out new ways to promote the cakes.

"I knew we needed exposure, so we had nice brochures printed up, and I hit the colleges and the formal wear rental places, and I took some brochures to florists I knew."

The second year, Smolders convinced his company -- which then had just two units -- to participate in an annual regional bridal show held in January, at a cost of $1,000 for a booth for two days.

"But it was a risk. I knew I was going to have to get at least 10 orders to break even."

Smolders was in for another shock. The show generated 35 wedding cake orders. And in his third year of exhibiting, the retailer drew 210 wedding cake orders.

Sales have continued to grow, to the point that it occasionally puts a strain on capacity.

Smolders is convinced that it was that first bridal show that got the program off the ground. "We've had orders from people two years later, that said they saw us at that first show. One thing you have to remember is that people are shopping for their wedding a year and a half out, sometimes two years."

Smolders said he continues to be amazed at the activity at West Linn Thriftway's bridal show booth each year. The first time, his booth was overwhelmed.

"That first year, we made what we thought would be enough cakes to sample all day the first day and maybe even the second, but to our surprise, we had run out by 2 p.m.," he said.

Smolders now samples four different flavors at the shows, and has instituted a system that he said cuts labor to practically nothing.

The system? He uses little sample cups with lids.

"We put an inch square of cake in those, and people can eat them when they want to.

"Usually, exhibitors hand you a sample on a napkin. It's messy and you have your people tied up for two whole days cutting cake and giving out pieces of it. "

While attendance at the show gave the program a jump start and continues to energize it, Smolders estimates that more than half of his wedding cake business comes via word of mouth. And that's where the retailer's follow-up program comes in.

"I don't know of anyone else here who is doing follow-up to the extent we are. Most of them have samples and a consultation room like we have, but we send out a confirmation letter and an evaluation sheet and a card good for a free first-anniversary cake."

Smolders has also initiated West Linn Thriftway's participation in another bridal show, which is held in the middle of the summer. His latest promotional venture is purchasing a full-color ad on the front page of the July/August issue of a Washington-Oregon bridal magazine.

"That cost $2,000, nearly a third of our wedding cake ad budget," Smolders said.

That is a testament to Smolders' faith in keeping West Linn Thriftway's name in front of the public, even as word-of-mouth advertising grows; so is his persistence in renting booths at bridal shows.

"It's valuable to us to be there," Smolders said. "If I pulled out of the shows and stopped advertising, I'd ruin the business."

What's more, getting exposure for the wedding cake program is important because it adds to the company's upscale image, he said.

Customer service is the major ingredient in the company's success at marketing the program, extending to a consultation room where people planning a wedding can discuss their needs with program staff.

"We have large color photos of some of the cakes we've done on the walls in there," Smolders said. Prospective customers also are shown a catalog of the different styles and sizes of wedding cakes that West Linn's bakery can produce.

Customers can order samples of up to four varieties to taste at their consultation. They also are invited to bring color samples that they want matched by icing or flowers on the cake.

The customer has the say, Smolders emphasized.

"We try not to limit ourselves," he said, pointing out that West Linn Thriftway's bakery will do just about anything a customer wants, as long as it will result in a quality product.

While the catalog shows a variety of designs from which customers can choose, West Linn's decorators also pride themselves on doing custom designs.

"One woman recently ordered a fondant cake with a really intricate, lacy design on its sides. She brought in a photo from a European bridal magazine. I'm looking forward to doing that one,"Shanon Swartz, a West Linn Thriftway decorator who specializies in wedding cakes said.

And customers can come up with some weird requests, Smolders said, like a peculiar color they want matched, or a slanted, tiered cake or a particular shape. "But what's interesting is that after you've told them, 'Yes, we can do that,' they almost always order something conventional, like a stacked, white cake."

Smolders makes sure that such details are made clear to the customer ahead of time, so there are no surprises.

"We send out a confirmation letter that outlines what they've ordered, what it costs, and how much money they still owe," he explained, all of which is part of a meticulous follow-up.

Next comes an evaluation sheet.

"We used to send out a thank you letter before the order confirmation, but we've cut that out. You can go crazy with follow-up things and there's a point at which it's not worth it," Smolders said.

He said he gets a terrific rate of return on the evaluation sheets, and he acts on any reasonable suggestions the customers may make.