Custom Cakes & Economies of Scale

Written by Sharon Wee at Wee Love Baking. Original blog post here

In a world of mass produced consumer goods and outsourcing, I think we have all come to expect things to be better, faster and cheaper.

Which is true when manufacturing gets done offshore in countries with a lower cost of living and people improve machines to work more efficiently. But in an industry like custom cake decorating, let’s not forget that everything is made with these – Hands. Sure, there are certain elements that can be bought to place on cakes but it is not always possible to get the right size, shape and colour the client wants. Plus, good artists pride themselves in making all the elements themselves. I think it’s true for me to say that with most decorators, the cake and decorations are not made more than one week in advance and every element in the cake is made by hand and totally customisable – from the colours, to the size of the flowers and even how the stripes and dots are laid out. So based on the above it is to be expected that we don’t just have machines or stock on hand to take advantage of economies of scale. Each project is always different from start to finish and unlike a printer (for example) just because a client orders more does not mean it takes a decorator any less time to do the work.

Like everyone else, our work is based on an hourly rate. What a decorator decides to charge as their hourly rate is dependent on their skill level and is their choice. The number of decorators have certainly grown over the last couple of years which is fantastic for the consumer because it offers choice. Choice of different design styles and choice for different budgets. But what concerns me is the growing number of decorating businesses who are not doing the industry and most importantly themselves any justice.

A custom designed cake is not like a printer where you can just turn the machine on and leave it running overnight and when you come back the next day, the job is done. If someone does not physically have their hands busy working on a cake, nothing gets done. Unlike a commercial bakery we are not working on volume and turning over 2,000 generic cupcakes a day (and these still get charged at $5.50 per cupcake). The cupcakes ordered from a custom decorator has been carefully thought out and designed just for each client. And when a client orders 24 or even 100, how is it right that the decorator is charging less then the amount a mass produced bakery would charge?

And when the only thing a decorator has going for their business is the price tag, I believe it won’t be very sustainable at all. When clients come back and tell me they are able to get a cake somewhere else significantly cheaper, it really baffles me. I’m not talking about 5- 10% cheaper, I’m talking about 40 – 50% cheaper. It’s great that the client got a deal, but what really baffles me is that the decorator will end up working for less than $5 an hour. 15 year olds working at McDonalds get more then that and they just operate the cash register – not liase with the clients, send sketches, bake and decorate.

So think about that and be fair to yourself, if I was averaging $5 an hour I’d much rather be spending the time with my family instead. I’ll admit that when I first started I was clueless about how to charge. I assumed that because the bakery is charging $5.50 for a cupcake, I should too. Well… we all learn from our mistakes and I hope this post inspires those decorators out there not to make the same mistakes and to be fair to themselves.

At the end of the day, I understand that everyone has different costs to factor in (some have a shop and employees, others work from home, and some may just do it for a little spare income). But don’t sell yourself short – As everything is made by hand, no two cakes are the same even if it’s the same decorator replicating his/ her own design so comparing it just based on price is not right.

The temptation is to say, well, it’s only october