Icing on the cake turns into a business

  • Article by: TODD NELSON , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 30, 2008 - 10:50 PM

A favor for a bride evolved into Celebration Generation Cakes and an ICON award for New Hope entrepreneur Marie Porter.

Marie Porter, owner of Celebration Generation Cakes, with one of her samples.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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When she found out that the bride was planning to serve sheet cake, Marie Porter could not hold her peace.

Instead, she whipped up a four-tiered, neon-colored, Dr. Seussian spectacle that was the hit of the wedding reception.

She also created a recipe for what would become her latest independent enterprise -- Celebration Generation Cakes.

"The caterer came running up and said, 'I need your card, I need to recommend you to people, that cake was amazing,''' Porter said, recalling the August 2007 wedding. "I said, 'I don't do this for a business, this was a favor.' And he's like, 'You need to go into business.'-''

Two weeks later, she had launched what since has become an award-winning wedding and special-event cake company that promises both delicious and visually stunning wares. Or, as she puts it, "absolutely hard-core sugar art."

Her website, which she put together herself, lists 30 custom cake flavors, including almond amaretto, bananas Foster and chai spice, her most popular.

Her cake designs are custom too, she said, aspiring to "challenge convention, physics and sometimes gravity itself." Examples include her first cake, dubbed the Mad Hatter Acid Trip, a DeLorean (think "Back to the Future") and a standing model of R2-D2.

Porter has received a number of awards for her baking, including a trophy for "Excellence in Cake Design" she won at last month's Twin City Bridal Association's ICON awards program

The Wedding Guys, also known as Matthew Trettel and Bruce Vassar of Twin City Bridal Association, said Porter's victory in the cake design competition came as a bit of a surprise because she is a relative newcomer. The judge was Sylvia Weinstock, a New York City designer known as the Queen of Wedding Cakes whose clients reportedly include Donald Trump and Oprah Winfrey.

"I think what [Weinstock] enjoyed about her work was her creativity and willingness to try something new and different," said Vassar.

Diversifying revenues

Porter aims to diversify her business by selling cake and cookie mixes through her website and, eventually, to retailers and by self-publishing a series of cookbooks. The first, "The Spirited Baker," is due in March and features desserts flavored with liqueurs and other alcoholic beverages.

She and her husband moved from Princeton, Minn., to New Hope earlier this year, putting the company in better position to gain a bigger slice of the Twin Cities wedding market. The move, however, came at the height of the spring wedding season and forced her to turn away potential customers. Sales have grown since: she projects 2009 revenue of $100,000.

The move also shortened delivery drives, lowering a major expense. She has reduced her minimum order to $150 from roughly $500, hoping to provide cakes for birthdays, anniversaries and other smaller events.

As small businesses go, hers is a fairly low-risk, low-overhead operation. She has bought cake pans but otherwise rents a commercial kitchen near her New Hope home and buys ingredients only when she has cakes to create.

Porter has benefited from the popularity of "Ace of Cakes," a Food Network reality show about a custom cake shop in Baltimore. The show has sparked interest in less-traditional cakes like hers, Porter said.

Amanda Ries, Porter's first customer, hadn't thought much about her wedding cake until Porter offered to make one for her and her husband, Charles Ries. The couple had hired Porter to do floral and other design work for their wedding.

"When they walked in with the cake, I gasped," said Amanda Ries, who lives in Minneapolis. "It was absolutely stunning. It wasn't some pretty, lacy conservative wedding cake -- it was hot pink, neon orange, turquoise, plaid, argyle, polka dots and stripes."

Before that August 2007 wedding, Porter had only made cakes for fun. She had made her living for 15 years as a self-employed fashion designer, making custom gowns for brides and other clients. She added graphic and floral design to her repertoire and also got full bartender training.

Experience baked in

Yet her culinary experience ran even deeper. She began baking when she was just 4 years old, learning from her mother, a professional cake decorator.

Porter also concluded at an early age that her future was in entrepreneurial pursuits. She was, in her words, "totally unemployable." She attributes that to a Type-A personality, a short attention span and a diagnosis, much later, that she has Asperger's syndrome. Common symptoms in children with Asperger's include difficulty making friends, eccentric or repetitive behaviors, a limited range of interests and exceptional skills in particular areas such as music or math.

Porter said she has what she termed a "good case" of Asperger's, because she is more aware of it, which has made learning to live with it easier. In her case, that meant recognizing that she was not cut out for the corporate workplace.

"I've got too much attitude for them to deal with," Porter said. "I'm really nice to my brides and I think I've got really great customer service. But I'm really insubordinate when it comes to anything else.''

The expert says:

Mark Spriggs, chairman of the Entrepreneurship Department at the University of St. Thomas' Opus College of Business, recommended that Porter undertake some efforts to improve the visibility of her cakes, both online and in person.

"The biggest piece is figuring out how to get the visual out there so people see it," Spriggs said. "When you see it, you're impressed and you'll want to buy one of them."

Porter might consider managing her website search terms so that her company will place higher on Google searches. Placing pay-per-click ads on search, ad or wedding-related websites would give her feedback about how people are locating her site.

When she is delivering a cake to an event, Spriggs said, Porter should try to capitalize on the visual appeal of her product to capture referral business from attendees.

Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. His e-mail address is todd_nelson@mac.com.

  • Celebration Generation Cakes Business: Makes wedding and special-event cakes in custom designs and dozens of flavors (founded 2007) Headquarters: New Hope Web: www.celebrationgeneration.com Executives: Marie Porter, founder and owner 2009 revenue / strategy: $100,000 projected; build wedding and special-event business from new Twin Cities headquarters, produce food-related books and cake and cookie mixes for online and retail sale
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