At Cakespy, we entertain a little bit of a fantasy of how it must be like to be a professional baker. Of course, our vision-- which is populated with roomfuls of flour through which bakers wade like in the opening credits of Duck Tales, flavor labs in the style of Willie Wonka, and nary a judging eye to keep us from licking the batter bowl clean--might be slightly unrealistic. However, in talking to Kelly Carver of Carrboro, NC-based special order cupcake and cake bakery Cakewalk, which specializes in straightforward, simple yet completely delicious treats, we learned some of the real tricks of the trade. Ranging from the realistic (running a business) and yes, maybe a magical aspect or two (the real appeal of red velvet!), here's a summation of our sweet talk:
Kelly Carver: Sure. Back in March 2006, a friend and I decided to start a cupcake business in Chapel Hill. She had just graduated from culinary school and I was working as a baker in a local restaurant, and we were both obsessed with the cupcakeries popping up in larger cities. But after about a year, she left the business to pursue other interests, and I decided to continue on but changed its name and structure. I've also kept the menu simple and straightforward, with a focus on classic Southern favorites like red velvet and hummingbird.
CS: Are you professionally trained or self-trained as a baker?
KC: I'm self-trained. I've been baking professionally for about three years now, but prior to that, it was just something I did as a hobby. I've been baking cakes and cupcakes for friends since high school, and sometimes I can't believe that I do this now for a living! (Corny, I know, but it's true!)
CS: What types of cakes did you have for special occasions while growing up?
KC: My mom kept our pantry well-stocked with cake mixes and used them frequently. (She thinks I'm crazy for baking cakes from scratch!) Usually she made sheet cakes - the classic yellow cake with chocolate frosting and sprinkles was a favorite. But for a really special occasion, it was an ice cream cake from Baskin-Robbins.
CS: What are your feelings on cake mixes?
KC: I can understand the appeal of using them, but it's really not that much harder to go out and buy your own dry ingredients. I think that a cake made from a mix will still taste a lot better - and be much more appreciated - than one bought at the grocery store bakery.
CS: You currently only sell by special order, but you do retail through some wholesale accounts. Do you have plans to open more wholesale accounts or to open a retail storefront?
KC: The community here in Carrboro is very supportive of local businesses and I would love to open a little bakeshop in the downtown area. I'm hoping to get something going by the end of the year!
CS: It looks like you mainly do cupcakes and cakes. Do you (or will you) ever bake anything else?
KC: Well, I do plan on offering a wider variety of baked goods once I have an actual storefront. Other things in the "cake-like" category, such as brownies, cookies, and muffins. And maybe cheesecake.
CS: What is your most popular flavor?
KC: Definitely red velvet. With cream cheese frosting and pecans, of course.
CS: Red Velvet seems to have become very popular in the past few years! Any thoughts as to why it is so popular?
KC: I can't really explain the appeal of red velvet cake. I think it's just the shock of seeing that deep red interior when the cake is sliced -- maybe people remember their mom or grandmother making it years ago, or maybe it's just some kind of morbid fascination. All I know is that people get very excited at the sheer notion of it!
CS: Running your own business can leave you tired and exhausted! What keeps you inspired / keeps you going?
KC: It can be exhausting, but it's also really rewarding. And it helps to have an amazingly supportive group of friends, many of whom are also exploring their own creative pursuits, who I can turn to for advice and pep talks when I'm feeling overwhelmed.
CS: You do "cupcake decorating parties". We're intrigued. What happens at a cupcake decorating party?
KC: This was something that one of my customers requested. It's been a big hit with parents looking for a creative activity to have at their child's birthday party. We provide unfrosted cupcakes, a bunch of frosting (tinted a variety of colors), sprinkles, and the tools the kids need to decorate their cupcakes. It's fun to see what the kids create; some really get into it. And some just want to eat the frosting. I'll have to take some pictures at the next party to put on the website!
CS: You're based in North Carolina. What types of sweets are popular in your area of the world?
KC: Hmmmm.... I can't speak for the entire state, but around here (the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill area), I'd have to say that pie is probably one of the most popular desserts, year-round. It's such a classic Southern thing. This time of year, you also see a lot of bread puddings on restaurant menus. Anything with pecans is also popular, especially if they're candied. And in the summer, it's all about local fruit like peaches, berries, and figs. They're in everything.
CS: Has the experience of eating cake changed for you since running your own cake business?
KC: Yes. I am much pickier than I was before. I notice everything about the cake: the texture, temperature, frosting consistency, etc.
CS: What in your opinion is the most important aspect in making a great cake?
KC: Most important aspect: making sure everything is at the proper temperature: the dairy should be at room temp, the oven needs to be calibrated, the cakes need to be completely cool before frosting, etc. It's really important to be patient - you can't bake in a hurry.
CS: What is your favorite dessert?
KC: Well, besides cupcakes, it would have to be ice cream, in any flavor, preferably with lots of chocolate chunks and swirls of caramel. There's a dairy farm a couple miles outside of town called Maple View that has the best ice cream around.
CS: Do you see any emerging trends currently in the cake or dessert world?
KC: It seems inevitable that the cupcake madness will probably die down a little, but I think there will always be a demand for cakes in general. What's a wedding or birthday without one?
CS: What is next for Cakewalk?
KC: Getting started on that storefront!
CS: Any advice for individuals looking to start their own business?
KC: It can be difficult sometimes to stay positive even if not everyone around you believes in your idea(s). Make it your goal to prove them wrong! And try to keep yourself as organized as possible, from the very earliest stage. Get a separate business checking account and save those receipts!
Are you located in the "Triangle" area of North Carolina? Well. You can get treats from Cakewalk by special order (919-260-9416), or at these retail locations: Johnny's in Carrboro, 3 Cups in Chapel Hill and the Nordstrom Cafe Bistro in Durham. Not in North Carolina? Well, you can still enjoy their treats from afar at cakewalkcarrboro.com.