Before You Book Your Wedding Cake Designer: Some Thoughts

I just had a fruitful exchange with event planner and wedding officiant Janis Flagg. It began when she asked various wedding vendors for their two cents on what a bridal couple should know before they delve into the process of planning their wedding.  I shared my 'advice' with her, and thought it might be useful to share it here on the blog too.

Before I do, and because every blog post here needs a cake photo, I'm sharing a little snapshot of a sweet Stargazer lily birthday cake I made at short notice earlier this week, ordered by a thoughtful guy who knew to choose his partner's favorite flowers as the decoration for her surprise cake, as well as her favorite color (aqua) for the trim.

It's a 7-inch round, 6-inch tall vanilla-chocolate cake with alternating layers of vanilla cake with vanilla buttercream, and chocolate cake with rich truffle ganache. I frosted it with whipped vanilla buttercream (she wanted a 'sugary' frosting rather than a meringue-based one). The Stargazer lilies, blossoms, and leaves are gumpaste, as is the aqua pearl trim and lettering on the board (her favorite color).

Now, we need an ostentatious title:

My Two Cents on What to Know Before You Book Your Wedding Cake Designer

I think that an educated bride and groom are simply better positioned to create the kind of celebration that they envision for themselves and their guests. As a wedding cake designer, I have many ideas to share about what bridal couples should know before booking a wedding cake, but I've chosen four main 'tips' to focus on here.

(1) Know your budget, and also know what is realistic.

I shouldn't have to say it; it should be common knowledge. But I will. Wedding cakes are a LOT of work. Even the 'simple' ones (in which case, extra time and effort are spent getting a flawless buttercream or fondant finish on your cake, in the absence of lots of decorations to conceal any mishaps). On top of this, most brides find their inspiration for a wedding cake from the major bridal magazines (Brides, Martha Stewart Weddings, Seattle Bride, etc). Most of the cakes photographed for those publications range from $8 to $20 per serving. (Yup. Look at those little captions next to your dream cake.) Admittedly, most of the cakes featured in the national bridal magazines were produced by New York City cake artists, like Ron Ben-Israel, Sylvia Weinstock, and Elisa Strauss, who must pay New York City prices to live and to keep their bakeries running, and whose cake prices reflect that. All that said, designer cakes (like designer wedding gowns) are priced accordingly in any city. 

In comparison to that $8-$20 'dream' range, I find that most of my clients (ordering a custom wedding cake from a cake studio on the Eastside) are comfortable paying no more than $5 to $7 per serving. In other words, it may not be possible for your cake designer to achieve the look you desire within your particular budget. It is a good idea to tell him or her what your limits are, at the outset, so that your cake designer can take that into account, and make appropriate design suggestions. When my clients have expensive taste and a small budget, I work closely with them to tweak the design to produce the look they have in mind, while saving on decorating time (which, in turn, saves them money).

(2) Styro (fake) cakes or tiers aren't necessarily cheaper than real cake. 

Styro tiers can be cheaper if the decorations on them are minimal, and if the Styro tier is being used simply to add height to a cake largely composed of real tiers. In that case, the decorating time is relatively little, and Styro itself is cheap, so you end up ahead. Now, if the decorations on your cake are really elaborate, then most of the expense of your cake is related to the artistry in decorating its surfaces, in order to produce a beautiful and unique centerpiece. In that case, it takes the same amount of time to decorate a fondant-covered Styrofoam tier to extravagantly-embellished perfection, as it takes to decorate a real cake tier. So, you'd be better off skipping the Styro. If you want visual impact for your cake, consider a 'cakescape' or table arrangement of several smaller, simply-adorned, one- or two-tiered cakes, perhaps dressed with fresh flowers, which adds variety and really dazzles your guests. This can be a lot cheaper than a massive, ornate, tiered cake. 

(3) It's good to have a vision of your cake, but it's also wise to respect the artistic talents and technical knowledge of your cake designer. 

On other words: be clear about what you want, but also, be flexible, and be willing to trust the expert. If you don't feel comfortable giving your cake designer some artistic license with your cake design, then you should consider shopping around for another one whose aesthetic sense and technical skill you feel you can trust. 

I have had bridal couples bring photos of cakes they like (from magazines, websites, etc) to their tasting appointment, with the request that I replicate a particular cake exactlyI can certainly do that, and have done so in an extremely limited number of circumstances. But what a custom cake designer does is to consider all the aspects of your event (color scheme, floral design, paper goods/stationery design, overall theme, dinner menu, wedding gown design, etc), in order to come up with something especially for you, and completely unique. Also, your cake will be sized according to the number of guests it should feed, so while you might have a five-tiered cake in mind, it could be the case that a three-tiered cake is more appropriate for your guest count. 

Artists like to be original, and cake designers are constantly being inspired by trends in fashion, floral design, graphic design, and so on, so most of us enjoy getting the chance make a cake that no one has seen before.  Another tidbit of advice: Look carefully at the online photo galleries (or printed portfolios) of potential cake designers; don't just look at their wedding cake photos -- look at photos of their celebration cakes, their novelty cakes (if any), and their cupcakes or smaller 'bites' (mini cakes, cake pops, etc). This can give you a very good idea of the level of attention to detail that your cake designer can reach. More importantly, it gives you a sense of his or her artistic range and technical skill. 

(4) Be prepared!

Bring your planning binder to your cake tasting / design appointment, so that your cake designer can get an overall sense of your vision. Color swatches from the bridesmaids' dresses are always welcome, if colors on the cake need to be matched with your overall palette. Also, pictures of floral design ideas (which could be incorporated in the form of sugar flowers on the cake), or photographs of your wedding gown (whose lace could be translated into edible adornments on your cake), are good to have on hand. Bring printed copies of these materials for your cake designer to keep on file, as e-mail attachments can get lost or become hard to keep track of. It's also a good idea to bring photos of cakes you like from elsewhere, to give your cake designer a sense of your personal tastes. However, refer to point (3) above. 

(5)  Remember: Have Fun. Darn it.  

It's cake -- it should be fun. Many couples find the cake tasting one of the most enjoyable parts of their wedding planning process. So, be prepared, know your limits, have a sense of your vision for the cake, give your cake designer some creative license, and then relax and watch the artistic process unfold!