Baking a business: a sweet success story
Posted on June 17, 2016
By Jennifer Riley, 31
Photo Credit: Mike Johnston Photography
Hair/Make Up: Nikki Holmwood
A question I am frequently asked is, “What made you get into this field of Cake Art?”
My career as a Cake Designer/Business Owner didn't happen right away—it actually happened by accident.
Throughout my life I was always into art, in all aspects. I was a dancer for 18 years, art was my favourite subject in high school, and I really enjoyed being spontaneous and creative while working with children as an Early Childhood Educator after college. My mother always wanted to put me into art classes after high school, but she also knew I was good with children, so we decided that I would get the best of both worlds as an educator. During my career as an Early Childhood Educator I could always be found decorating the bulletin boards, drawing murals, and being engaged with the children while they painted or created an open-ended piece of art. Witnessing their imagination was so inspiring to me, and I loved challenging their minds.
Throughout college my mother came out of remission and became very sick again with Lymphoma. My world slowly came crashing down as she fought hard and lost her fight days after I graduated in 2004. After her passing our family dealt with her loss in our own ways. I numbed myself, which made coping even more difficult.
Eventually I decided to leave Thunder Bay for a fresh start, so I packed everything up and moved to Calgary, Alberta in 2007. I found a job working as a nanny for a family I adored. However, I was only three months in when my accident happened. I was driving home from work and hit black ice. My car lost control in the middle of a highway (in rush hour), which resulted in a head on collision. This was probably the scariest thing that I had ever experienced (besides the passing of my mother)—thankfully no one was killed. I injured my knee and had to move back to Thunder Bay.
During my 10 month recovery I spent seemingly endless hours at physiotherapy (because I couldn't walk), or with surgeries, lawyers and insurance claims. I became depressed, as I couldn't work and was broke. I had to go on welfare and was selling my clothes to make amends until my insurance settlement came through. With my injury, I now had limitations, and was not able to do the work I used to do; it was time to rethink my life, my career, and my goals.
I had passed the time by watching design shows, and occasionally "Cake Boss," on television. It wasn't until the third time I saw Cake Boss that something clicked with me—it was that "Aha! moment"…the "I can do this” moment. I became fascinated with this new world of cake art, so I researched, googled and watched probably every youtube tutorial there was. This career choice was perfect for me! Ironically, it would put me in the art career path my mother originally wanted me to do.
It wasn't long before I attempted my first (and, at least for a while, my last!) cake. It was harder than it looked; why did other people have to make it look so easy?! I decided that I needed some sort of schooling; I attended The Bonnie Gordon School of Confectionary Arts, located in Toronto, Ontario in July 2011. This was the only cake school I found in Canada that had everything I was looking for. It was a six-week program, full-time, and taught us the basics of all we needed to know to enter into this field. The material we learned, the friendships we made, the experiences we shared still brings me to tears, as this was the first time in a long time I actually felt happy. I found my happy place. Not only was this career about the amazingly good cake and people, but I quickly learned it was therapy.
I stayed in Toronto after the program was finished, as I was offered a job in my new field. The job lasted about two weeks until I was told that I was horrible, in the wrong field, and needed to go back to school. After feeling let down, I later found a job at a bakery production site. This job taught me how to become efficient, how to work with large masses, and what equipment was needed to get the job done. I loved my job, but after a few months my knee pain caught up with me, so I had to cut my hours, which again left me feeling hopeless. About a week later I had received a call from my surgeon regarding my surgery that I had been waiting for (for over two years). He was in Toronto and had an opening (funny how things work out). I decided to quit my job and go through with my last surgery. This surgery was intense and the recovery process was everything I had gone through previously, times 20.
I moved back home to Thunder Bay for the recovery, and during that long process I started to research more about starting my own business. I needed to have a job where I could do things on my own terms and be able to listen to my body when it was hurting. I found a women's organization called PARO, which specializes in helping women start their own businesses. I sat down and listened to my options and was told I would possibly be eligible for the Gateway Program. This program was funded by the government and helped with financial start-ups. I had to sell myself, my ideas, and my work, in the form of a business concept, to the government. Shortly after I received the news I was accepted into the program, I had to write up a business plan and attend weekly meetings to learn about business. Although I didn't drive anymore and had to take the city bus, I made sure I was there for every step needed to achieve my goals. My mentor, Karen Evans, was the best thing that could have ever happened; she taught me everything I needed to know and went out of her way to see myself and others in the program succeed. I would not be successful in this business with out her.
After completion of the program, I now know that all the tears, the “why me's?” and the frustrations on my journey were worth it. I cannot describe how amazingly blessed I feel to be working in a field that is my true passion, and that allows me to honour my mother, and express my emotions in art form. Business is tough; it is dedication, it is sacrifice, and it is a roller coaster of emotions, but I do believe that with hard work and a vision, anything is possible. You just need to have faith, believe in yourself, know that everything happens for a reason, and keep moving forward.