Preparing cakes for special occasions is one of my favorite moneymaking hobbies.
I love baking and decorating cakes. I love being able to make money from home with minimal capital using skills I picked up for free. I love that word-of-mouth keeps me in as much business as I want.
And I definitely love eating the cake trimmings.
I've been selling decorated cakes on and off for 15 years, since I was 14.
I both decorate and bake cakes, partly because I prefer not to ice cakes other people have baked, and partly because nearly all my clients want me to do both for simplicity's sake.
It's a very irregular income.
People seem to get married in batches, so I might do five wedding cakes one year and then none the next. I once created two wedding cakes in a month and made about $400.
Last year, I was in the middle of a horrible pregnancy, so I only did a few cakes and made about $500. I could have done several more and maybe made $1,200... if I hadn't been fainting all over the place.
I've never made a killing from cakes -- I have too little time because of other side gigs and too many children to take on as much work as I'm offered.
But my kitchen table currently boasts a simple one-tier fruitcake -- a 100th birthday cake for a friend's father's coworker's mother -- which is about to net me a profit of $120. Not too shabby.
When it comes to baking and decorating cakes, here are the rules I live by.
Do you have any idea how much a professional wedding cake costs?
Phone a few of your local bakers for quotes. The average wedding cake cost $582 in 2016 -- not exactly cheap.
So, I undercut the competition. But I don't go too crazy, because wedding cakes aren't cheap to make.
A three-tier cake might use eight recipes' worth of ingredients -- which could easily be, say, 16 blocks of butter -- plus eight bricks of almond paste and fondant, three cake boards, three cake tins you’ll probably have to rent, wooden dowelling and a significant amount of electricity.
Add on gum (or sugar) paste, edible glitter, ribbon, gel colorings and so forth. Plus, “tool fund” money for buying handy things like cake levelers and tilting turntables. Then, factor in labor, which will be significant.
My rule of thumb is to charge 250% of the ingredient costs, including nonreusable supplies like cake boards. I may charge more for a time-consuming cake, such as one covered with gum paste roses.
I generally net a profit of about $150-$200 per wedding cake -- and I'm still cheaper than the professionals.
I'm frequently amused by the people who are surprised my cakes taste good.
I've had brides choose a traditional fruitcake for the top tier purely to appease grandma -- who invariably believes a chocolate mud wedding cake renders a wedding invalid -- only to say to me later, “Wow, I thought I didn't like fruitcake, but yours was really nice!”
My other standby recipes – chocolate mud, banana and carrot – get similar enthusiasm.
The fact is, a lot of commercial cakes are geared toward looks, not taste.
I choose great recipes geared toward moistness and sturdiness and use real ingredients. As a baker, you’re even more appreciated if you have a few gluten-free, dairy-free or vegan recipes available.
I once had a bride ask me to decorate a cake her mother made. It was a hard, dry, overbaked fruitcake that had been spread unevenly in the tin, so one corner was lower than the other.
I had two options: even it out by trimming off half the cake, resulting in a very flat cake, or pack the low corner with great wedges of fondant, meaning several guests would get slices that were more frosting than cake. It wasn’t exactly an appealing choice.
Since then, I've only decorated my own cakes. Even a good home baker won't necessarily bake the tiers to the right heights or know how to avoid burned edges and a raw middle in a 12-inch cake.
My favorite rule of cake decorating? The client picks up the cake.
I loathe transporting wedding cakes, and I always breathe a sigh of relief when the cake goes out the door and becomes someone else's responsibility.
Most of the time, firmly gluing a cake to its cake board with frosting is enough. The client can line a well-fitting cardboard box with a towel, then place it flat in the trunk, and that should get the cake safely to its destination. (Yelling at the driver periodically is optional, but soothing.)
A tiered cake may need to be assembled on-site, partly so it won't tip over in the car, and partly because a fully assembled wedding cake can be unbelievably heavy. My own three-tier wedding cake, which I made, couldn't be lifted by a strong man once it was assembled!
Assembling on-site means packing each tier into a separate cardboard box for transportation. You'll want to negotiate with the couple about who puts the cake together -- and you may need to travel to the venue to assemble the cake yourself, well-equipped with extra frosting and fix-it tools just in case.
This is a personal choice, of course. If you want to go whole hog and start up an official cake decorating business, great!
But depending on the cottage food laws in your state -- and they vary even between counties -- you might reach a similar decision to mine.
If you start a home business, you may need to bake the cakes in a registered kitchen, register for a number of food handling and business permits, undergo inspections of your home kitchen and similar hassles.
Personally, I prefer to operate on a favor-to-a-friend basis. My friends know I'm not a “real” cake decorator; I don't advertise, and 100% of my orders come through word-of-mouth. I do pay taxes, but I don't own a “real” business -- which is just how I like it.
As for the future, I plan on continuing this side gig. I'm snacking on fruitcake leftovers at this very moment, and it’s great.
Your Turn: Would you like to make money baking and decorating cakes?
Sarah Tennant lives in New Zealand with her husband, three children and an irritatingly tiny kitchen. She has been selling decorated cakes to friends and family for 15 years. Sarah's other money-making hobbies include freelance writing, mystery shopping, exam supervision and living-room neurosurgery.