It’s been a dizzying last few weeks for Tanya Williams at her cake studio in the Weracoba Park area of Midtown Columbus.
She and her small staff have been grappling with a wave of graduation cakes on top of her typical creations for weddings, birthdays, baby showers and other moments in her customers’ lives.
“Last week was so busy my brain can’t even think about what happened the other day,” Williams joked while flipping through her smartphone to show a reporter a photo of a deer head cake she made for a groom.
Despite the intensity, Williams said she truly loves her job as a baker of cakes at Midtown Cakes, 1815 Garrard St., in a small shopping center near the old St. Elmo school. Since launching the venture more than five years ago, her clientele has grown through a change of location from east Columbus to closer to the city’s center. She also has added a culinary school-trained partner, Kristen Williams, to help carry the load.
The Ledger-Enquirer visited recently with Williams, 36, to discuss her job and its artistry, sweet treats that keep people coming back for more, and her thoughts on what a small business person should consider as they explore a startup. This interview with the Columbus native is edited a bit for length and clarity.
Q. How did you get started with your cake studio?
A. This is our sixth year in business. We remodeled half of The Columbus Times building in the beginning, because right when I wanted to start the business is when industry, business, the stock market, housing, everything basically tanked. So no bank would give me a loan, not one, because they considered this a restaurant. I kept trying to change their mind, that no, this is a cake studio, it’s different, because people are still getting married, they’re still having parties, they still want cakes. Nobody would believe me.
Q. This type of business is semi-recession proof?
A. Yeah, but they really didn’t understand that. With their mindset, when they think of a bakery, they think of Publix or Sam’s. But I wasn’t trying to be a bakery, I was trying to be a cake studio.
Q. So you went with Plan B?
A. My father said, well, we don’t use this part of the (Columbus Times) building. I got an estimate and it was cheaper for me to borrow some money from family and repay that than to try to go out on my own. Then eventually Bitsy (Dedwylder) from Midtown Inc. said, ‘I found a location for you,’ because she knew I was looking for one, and it’s worked out. We’ve been here over a year.
Q. You were thinking outside of the box?
A. In the beginning, it’s better to start small. Businesses will start out and they’ll be in this beautiful shopping mall and have the most beautiful location ever. But that sets you back because you don’t have the income to support the loan that you just took out. So I see that kind of like a gift, to teach me to try to make money (first) for spending to get stuff rather than getting myself in debt and not being able to pay my bills. I guess that helped me in a sense, because the business now has the clientele it needs and it has grown more since it’s been over here.
Q. What got you started in this type of work? Have you always had a sweet tooth?
A. I guess I just liked cooking and baking in general. My grandma always used to bake when she came here, and my father in Germany, his brother was in baking, his mother was in baking. I feel like it’s just in my blood in one sense or another. Like one year, I wanted an anniversary cake and I didn’t find anything that I liked the taste of, so I was like I’ll just make it myself. I made a cake and then it was like now I need to learn how to decorate it. So it was a progression of that. I thought I’m not too bad at this, I should take more classes. And more classes. I never did culinary school because there wasn’t one around here, and I also wasn’t in to $30,000 student loans, so I took decorating classes that I could afford.
Q. Describe the craft or skill of making a wedding cake. Is it difficult?
A. I would say wedding cakes are not as difficult because it’s a routine you can get into and once you’re in that routine, it’s like a groove of doing anything else. Some of the customized cakes, like the groom’s cakes, are a little harder. We may have a wedding cake that’s a naked (plain) cake and it’s simple and with buttercream, while the groom may want a Georgia bulldog. So his cake is going to take more time than the wedding cake sometimes … The custom cakes are what take the most time.
Q. How long does it take to make a wedding cake from start to finish?
A. I would say your typical wedding cake is going to take maybe five or six hours of work. It’s just because you’re going from the baking process one day, and the cake has to sit a day before we decorate it or it’s too soft. And then you have to ice it and the buttercream takes three coats because of the humidity here. And some of the custom cakes can take double if not more time than that.
Q. Is there anything tricky to it?
A. The flowers that go on the cakes. They’re not something you can rush because flowers dry on their own time, and we live in a humidity-prone area that causes things to not dry as fast. Humidity can make or break a cake day. We work with fondant, it’s a rolled sugar, and you’ll see it on a lot of customized cakes. It has a bad rap because people use cheaper fondants. We use a bakery-quality one. It tastes just like sugar. It’s not overly sweet. But when it’s humid outside, it can look great at first and then start to grow air bubbles from nowhere (laughs), so you have to learn to deal with those things. This weather is definitely a challenge.
Q. Do you repair those air bubbles?
A. Sometimes you just have to start over, and other times you are simply happy with the people that order cakes with the flowers on them, and you can put an extra little flower on there. As cake decorators we can look at other people’s work sometimes and know that they had an issue and had to put an extra flower on it to cover it up. (laughs)
Q. Aside from the look of a cake, you take pride in how it tastes?
A. Yes. When I started I wanted to make sure it tasted as good as it looked, and if someone ever has a complaint about taste, I take it personally. Because not one thing leaves this shop without me making sure it was baked right. Sometimes there’s a fluke or something happens that you can’t control because of human nature and the fact that we’re just not perfect yet. So when those things happen I’ll admit to it or we’ll change something to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Q. Do people normally have an idea of what they want decoration-wise?
A. Some people do, they’ll come in with pictures. I try to encourage them to let us change it in a way to make it our own. Every decorator is different and we don’t like to just copy other people’s work. It’s nice to put our own spin on it. If they don’t have a design, we just ask them what colors they want, the theme, what the person likes.
Q. You’re using your artistic talent?
A. Yeah. I feel like I was always good at playdough and that was my way of being an artist.
Q. Did you ever make a playdough cake?
A. When I was little I used to do things with playdough all the time, and my kids even do it now. They both have that artist bug from me and their dad. But, yeah, when I was little, playdough was like my best friend, anything and everything that I could make out of it, I did.
Q. What’s the most unusual cake you’ve ever made?
A. I have no idea. Most people now are into that rustic kind of look. The beer can was fun for us to do with the mug. It’s nice when people let us do something different.
Q. You thrive on the creativity?
A. Yeah, I do, because the artist in me likes to do something new and something different. So whenever people let us do stuff like that, it makes me happy. I’m waiting for someone to order a (Star Wars character) BB-8 cake or some type of Star Wars cake so I can be happy. I can’t wait for that challenge. I guess one of the things that’s a little more challenging are the deer head cakes that we make. Those take a little more time and maneuvering. A lot of times they’re for the grooms that hunt, and the reason it takes a little more time is we have to use a special structure to keep it together. It’s trying to figure out how the antlers are going to sit and keep them from falling down.
Q. This is the season now that makes your head spin because of all the graduations on top of the weddings and birthdays?
A. Yes. This year it like tripled our load, because we took more orders than we probably should have, but we already should have been booked a month ago for last week. But I couldn’t say no to some of our regular customers or people that really wanted a cake that they couldn’t get somewhere else in Columbus. So we took them regardless, and last week I worked from Monday to Saturday just to make sure that everyone could have the cake that they wanted.
Q. Can you fathom how many cakes you’ve made through the years?
A. I would say hundreds if not more. I don’t even count. Someone asked me that not too long ago. I think I had a bride ask me in a consultation, and I don’t even know. (laughs) Sometimes, with our homestyle cakes, we don’t even take a picture because they’re going out for Thanksgiving. We put about 40 or 50 homestyle cakes out for people that just love our cake.
Q. But you do more than just cakes?
A. We do cupcakes, cookies, petit fours (mini cakes). We do pies during the holiday season. People want them for Thanksgiving. And we do little mini pies for dessert bars. We make macaroons. We can do anything. The thing is, because it’s customized, we just don’t bake it every day or have the staff to turn out a hundred cookies and set them out to sell. We make cupcakes and cake slices during the week that people can come and buy. If they’re not looking to buy a party cake or a wedding cake, they don’t have to. They can come and get the flavor and the taste that they love at a (lower) price and just take it with them to eat. Sometimes you just want to please everybody, but you have to find a balance.
Q. Those smaller items are icing on the cake, so to speak, business wise?
A. Yes. We have people who think sometimes that they can’t come to us because we’re a cake studio. But I tell them that we do offer homestyle cakes, because this is the South. Everyone likes a good homestyle red velvet cake (her best seller) or chocolate cake or caramel cake, so I don’t like to exclude anyone because of budget. We try to just work with everyone and let them know: Don’t think that you can’t come here.
Q. Do you see growth for Midtown Cakes, perhaps in production or locations, or are you comfortable with your business and where it’s at now?
A. I’m kind of comfortable where I am now. Sometimes I think about growing or doing more, but then I have a family, and the other girl (Kristen) here has a family, and another girl is pregnant. If we can grow our customer base and let more people in Columbus know what we do, that’s great. But to have another location and put more work on top of myself is not really something that’s important to me.
Education: Earned a general education diploma, some college courses and many cake classes
Previous jobs: Worked at Columbus Bank and Trust and at The Columbus Times Newspaper, which her family owns
Family: Husband, Lito, daughter Halle, 12, and son Jayden, 8
Leisure time: Enjoys spending as much quality time with her family as possible; loves going to the movies; and enjoys her family worship night that “brings us closer to God and makes us a closer family”
Of note: She comes from a long line of entrepreneurs, including her late grandmother Ophelia DeVore Mitchell, a model, businesswoman and publisher, and her parents Helmut and Carol Gertjegerdes of The Columbus Times. Also, Williams says, “I really want to thank my girls who work with me at Midtown Cakes, Kristen Williams, Alison Stiff and Tahira Menedez”