(Above) Woodland & Roses, created by Sierra Stollenwerk of Sierra’s Cakewerks; Photo by Alyssa Michelle Photography
Many of us know the basics: eggs, butter, flour, and sugar. Add a pinch of salt and baking soda, finish with frosting and – voilà – cake! But the devil’s food cake is in the details. From the baking to the decorating, local businesses create more than just a pretty cake. Chattanooga’s cake designers balance precision with artistic vision tier by tier. And at the heart of their custom desserts is the love of filling an integral role in celebrations across the community. With special touches of taste and artistry – and personal charm – these cake makers turn delicious ideas into life’s memorable centerpieces.
BY HOLLY MORSE-ELLINGTON
(Left) Photo by Cassia Owen Photography, Courtesy of Sweet Angel Cakes; (Right) Photo Courtesy of Cakemakers, Etc.
A custom wedding cake is a labor of love that involves creative collaboration and a keen eye for detail.
When it comes to custom confections, passion can develop early. In fact, for some cake artists, dabbling in baking began during childhood. Toni Doster Repko, owner of Sweet Angel Cakes, recalls making cakes for her mom’s Bunco games and church activities when she was seven. “I would just follow the recipes, mix it up, and make it,” Repko says. “I can even remember going to her – this is how young I was – and saying, ‘Is this how much 3/4 of a cup is?’ And I would point to a line on the measuring cup.”
For others, enthusiasm can arise unexpectedly. Sierra Stollenwerk, owner of Sierra’s Cakewerks, discovered a passion for pastries while in college working part-time at a bakery in San Diego. “I’d already changed my major three times,” Stollenwerk says of vacillating between sociology and criminal justice. “When I was working at Flour Power I thought, I love this job and I want to learn, but I don’t want to change my major again – that will be a big waste of time.” Even so, Stollenwerk fed her desire with additional on-the-job training.
Sometimes, a profession can even grow out of a misunderstanding. Dan “The Cakeman” Carey started a cottage industry from his apartment. At the time, he was working at his mother’s supply store, Cakemakers Fantasyland, which sold cake-making tools and accessories. “When we answered the phone, instead of saying the full name, Cakemakers Fantasyland, we would just say, ‘Cakemakers,’” explains Carey, owner of Cakemakers, Etc. “So people thought we made cakes even though we didn’t.”
Carey proposed a solution to callers. “What if I just made you one from my apartment? You can pick it up here tomorrow,” he’d say. And just like that, his journey as a cake maker began.
Even when passion is present, there is a transition period from craft to career. In terms of bakers, you may think culinary school and years of formal pastry training are official requirements. But similar to artists in other fields, many cake designers are self-taught.
“It’s one of those things where you think you can just make a cake for a relative and it will be no big deal. That’s until you actually start running into problems like why is my icing lumpy or why is the top of my cake domed?” says Amy Landry, owner of Next Tier Wedding Cakes. “I’ve run into every problem that you can run into, but you just work on solutions until you perfect it.”
Landry, who has fine-tuned baking techniques through research, blends in her background with graphic design, painting, and photography to create her showstoppers. “Graphic design makes you have spatial awareness,” she says. “That helps me think outside of the box with sizes of tiers and placement on the plane, like a sculpture.”
Songbird by Amy Landry of Next Tier Wedding Cakes
“I was thinking of romantic themes, something like music or traveling, that couples share. The idea began as a practical solution, but I love the dramatic, effortless effect of it.”
– Amy Landry, Next Tier Wedding Cakes
While developing skills, there will always be trial and error, but sometimes working to overcome hurdles can lead to special ‘aha!’ moments. “At one point, I was having trouble making cakes look perfect on the outside. I thought, maybe I can print really cool designs on edible paper and wrap cakes in those,” Landry says of her Songbird wedding cake scrolled with sheet music. “I was thinking of romantic themes, something like music or traveling, that couples share. The idea began as a practical solution, but I love the dramatic, effortless effect of it.” (See picture above.)
Happy accidents also help cake makers evolve. “I wasn’t formally taught, so I did a lot of playing with the process,” says Kenya Brooks, owner of Yellow Cake Co. “Sometimes I’d try something that didn’t turn out as the desired effect I was going for, but it was a really cool effect I learned to use in another way.”
Looking back on humble beginnings evokes some laughter, but also instills confidence that practice pays off. “It’s cringy to look over your first work because you see so many funny things about it. I have this picture of me holding up a little six-inch tier, the first time I covered cake in fondant,” Landry says. “It looked like a potato because it was round and lumpy, but I was so proud of it, I posted it to my Facebook.”
Stollenwerk agrees. “I wish I’d taken more pictures of my first cakes because I could have a pretty great throwback Thursday,” she says. “One of my first cakes was a wedding cake. It was a three-tiered cake, and the couple had their wedding in the desert. By the time they cut the cake, the whole thing was melting and was just everywhere.”
Known for her bold sculptural cakes, Kenya Brooks of Yellow Cake Co. was featured on a 2019 episode of the Netflix show “Sugar Rush” with Georgia-based baker and teammate Jenniffer White of Cup a Dee Cakes.
Starting a Business
In addition to sharpening their baking and decorating skills, cake entrepreneurs build business foundations before official grand openings. For example, Brooks created a website and social media presence that featured pictures of her cakes before launching Yellow Cake Co. “I also did some print marketing, but it was really the face-to-face that gave me the best results,” she says. “You’re actually meeting people, and they’re getting to taste your product.”
The learning curve for establishing a business model can be steep, but achievable. Stollenwerk says, “I feel like I can do the baking and creative part with my eyes closed. But actually running it like a business and understanding the finances was kind of a leap.” She consults with experts and entrepreneurial podcasts for strategic advice.
Previous experience can also come in handy when starting a business from scratch. “I’d worked in restaurants for a long time, so I had access to pastry chefs,” Landry says of waiting tables. “I also had access to how kitchens keep inventory and just the industry itself.”
Prior to setting out on her own with Sweet Angel Cakes, Repko was the first female district manager for Krystal in Chattanooga. “My background as a multi-unit manager running eight different restaurants got me in the mindset of the business management part,” she says. “You have to have that business end if you’re going to open your own place; it can’t just be that you’re good at making cakes.”
Of course, opening a business comes with inherent obstacles even if all the tools are in place. “You have to be willing to take risks; that’s the only way to start a business,” Repko says. “There’s always 50 million things you never anticipated that you just have to deal with as they come.”
Sometimes those challenges include balancing the demands of personal life with business commitments. “My mom always told me, ‘Son, the show must go on,’” Carey says of balancing life’s natural course of events with running a business. “She was a perfectionist, and I get my perfectionism toward my cakes from her.”
Building a trusted reputation garners success, which equates to new and returning customers. “A few Octobers ago, I had 19 weddings, and most of them had bride and groom’s cakes,” Brooks says. “First thing in the morning, my feet hit the floor, and it’s just run, run, run until I get into bed around midnight or one o’clock.”
Next Tier Wedding Cakes’ Amy Landry balances color and texture in her custom creations.
As with any artistic endeavor, inspiration drives innovation and quality work. For some, browsing photos on Instagram and Pinterest prompts many ideas. “I’m not going to lie, I do a lot of research on Instagram,” Stollenwerk says. “But that’s how you learn what’s trending. Plus finding a creative process has to start with imitating somebody else’s art, and then you make it your own.”
Cake designers also broaden their horizons by exploring various artistic forms. “In the beginning, I saw things just strictly in the cake world, so I would try to recreate those things. As I got more comfortable and felt at home in the cake field, I took the risk of trying to recreate textures, colors, and techniques that happen in other fields,” says Brooks, who holds a fine arts degree from the University of Georgia. “I follow anything creative from installation artists to painters and even needlepoint artists and try to transfer that inspiration into buttercream or modeling chocolate.”
Similarly, painting techniques and aesthetics inspire Carey. “I’ve probably tagged myself many times as an Impressionist cake decorator,” he says. Instead of oils or acrylics, his medium is butter cream. “I can make a butter cream iced cake be so slick and so smooth that people think it’s rolled fondant.” To form the impression of faux fondant, Carey got inventive and designed several tools with sharper rolling edges.
Not only are inspiring new designs important; they also have to win over taste buds. Bakers look to other local businesses for twists on the traditional chocolate or vanilla base. “In terms of my flavors, I’ve been trying to include companies like Mad Priest Coffee, Chattanooga Whiskey, and Wildflower Tea Shop to incorporate Chattanooga flavors into my baking,” Stollenwerk says.
Consultations with prospective clients also generate a collaborative vision. “It’s so much fun to hear about the whole event so you know how the cake will fit in better,” Repko says. “If they show me a bunch of pictures, I’ll ask what’s their favorite part about the cake. I’ll start drawing sketches and playing around with options while we’re sitting there.”
These intricate florals were created with a palette knife and edible paint (Photo by Wild Wren Photography, Courtesy of Sierra’s Cakewerks)
While the creative process is a give and take, ultimately cake artists strive to meet client expectations on many levels. It may seem counterintuitive, but business owners suggest ways for their customers to cut costs. “Sometimes they bring very high-end, difficult concepts,” Carey says. “I’ll say, ‘There’s more than one way to skin this rabbit.’ If we do this and do that, it changes the output financially and still results in the look they want.”
And though it may be difficult to limit orders, bakers want to stay true to quality. “I like connecting with the brides and our customers,” Repko says. “We could do a lot more than we do every weekend, but I don’t want to just be sending cookie-cutter cakes out.”
Receiving positive reviews and feedback is a hard-earned bonus. Milestone moments in particular can bond vendors and clients. “More than once I’ve had brides call me the day after their wedding and leave a gushy message about how much they loved the cake. And I’m like, ‘Girl, go on a honeymoon. Call me later!’” Repko laughs.
After long nights and weekends spent in the special events business, a job well done renews energy. “After all the stress of building and designing a cake, getting everything right from the drawing board to the actual cake and making the delivery,” Landry says, “you feel on top of the world as you drive home.”
It’s the dedication behind-the-scenes, quiet observations where cake specialists feel the most fulfilled. “When I am setting up a wedding cake, the band or DJ practices, flowers go out – the wedding magic is in the air – and I’m privileged to see the couple taking their pictures with their bridesmaids and groomsmen,” Carey says. “I’m honored, for that day and then in pictures looked back on in the future, to be a special thread in the fabric of their lives.” CS