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3-iddba-cakecontest-vanderheyden-working Photo: Liz Webber
<p>Sara Vanderheyden, a cake decorator at a Hy-Vee store in Ames, Iowa, took home the top prize in IDDBA&rsquo;s 21st annual Cake Decorating Challenge at the Dairy-Deli-Bake show in Houston last June.</p>

Skilled cake designers key to growing in-store cake program

“Focusing on talent and custom cakes has given us double-digit growth, percentage-wise, for three years straight.” – Scott Fox, bakery operations director, Love Cakes by DLM

For many of us, a celebration or special event isn’t complete without a decorative cake that can be shared amongst family, friends and guests. In fact, cutting the cake is a ritual that brings everyone together and tops off a special day.

Regardless of the occasion, cake is important to many shoppers. And as retailers, we’re well aware of its importance in our in-store bakeries (ISB). The dessert category represents almost half of all sales within our ISBs; of that, almost 60% are cake sales.

We can all agree that cakes are vital to ISBs. We also realize that retail food stores are not the only option for shoppers. From independent bakeries and cake shops, to large club stores and discounters, there are many alternatives to their neighborhood supermarket. These channels are competing for the same shoppers, which is why more and more retailers are viewing their in-store bakeries as an image builder for their stores. And, with bakery shoppers who make $100,000 per year looking to the bakery for indulgence and “gourmetization” — new and exciting items — cakes can assist in delivering the “wow!” Which is why investing in the staff of your store’s cake program can be the difference and can help cement your business as the go-to place for delicious, decorative and trendy cakes.

And the key to accomplishing this is through talented cake designers.

I’m ever-amazed by the true talent our industry has, which is showcased each year during our Cake Decorating Challenge held at our seminar and expo. These are exceptional cake-decorating professionals who practice their professions not in an independent bake shop or cake store, but in supermarkets. The concepts they produce match or surpass any cake decorator, regardless of the store format they work in.

We asked Scott Fox, bakery operations director, Dorothy Lane Market, how committing to the cake department affected its business. “Three years ago we made cake a priority. We moved our cake department to a cake shop format, known as Love Cakes by DLM. We have the talent of a standalone bakery and our customers reward us for making the commitment. Focusing on talent and custom cakes has given us double-digit growth, percentage-wise, for three years straight. We’ve built it over time and now we are working to meet the demand.”

So how does a supermarket take the next step for attracting and building cake-decorating talent?

We chatted with Stephanie Dillon, Hy-Vee cake designer, and Danny Lane, a bakery technician with Harp’s Food Stores Inc. — whose stores both feature prominent cake programs — on the positive impact talented cake designers can have on building new bakery business.

Stephanie stated, “A talented cake designer who is trained, supported, encouraged and challenged is essential for a successful cake program. Cake designers are the face of cake programs — they are who the customers see, meet with, and put their trust in to design a perfect cake to commemorate a special occasion. The cakes that designers create are a huge part of the bakery department, and their work can impact bakery sales as well as repeat customers.”

Danny shared with us how Harp’s builds their talented team. “We have made it our mission to hire the best cake designers we can find, but this is not always the case. More often we grow our own. We work side-by-side with new cake designers to make sure they are properly learning all aspects of cake design, and we follow up with seminars and ‘how to’ classes to share new techniques with all our designers. It has been our experience that bakeries that employ these talented designers can show sales increases on a weekly basis.”

He goes on to tell us why: “I find cake decorators are a lot like hairstylists. Most people will go to the same stylist for their hair care needs. Same is true for cake designers. Most would rather trust their special occasion cake needs to a talented, experienced cake designer rather than leave it to chance.”

Just as Stephanie said, cake designers are building trust and loyalty among your shoppers. They are building value, which translates to repeat shoppers.

As an experienced cake designer, Danny has learned, “there is no ‘normal’ cake anymore. Every order is custom and specialized for that particular customer. As the world of cake decorating continues to grow, the need for talented and skilled professional cake designers is a must for any bakery seeking the kind of sales and loyal customer following that can only be created by the talented mind and hands of a skilled professional.”

For some shoppers, a sheet cake with a few flowers and a clean, simple message is perfect. But for many others, their celebration or their taste calls for a more decorative, innovative, and perhaps more decadent option. Supermarkets have done a superb job of providing quick cake solutions for last-minute events or simpler occasions. But not all have taken their cake program to the next level by bringing on professional cake decorators or nurturing the talents and drive of more entry-level bakery associates, especially those who have the desire to build their skill sets.

Investing in your cake professionals need not be a herculean effort. It takes focus, commitment, and the realization that having these individuals on your bakery department teams can turn your store into a cake destination. (Do you have a designer just starting out and in need of guidance developing his or her skills? There are free training classes for various cake design skills available at

How is your store nurturing its cake program? What are you doing to attract, train and retain talented cake designers?

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