No doubt you have perused countless wedding magazines and websites and drooled at the incredible weddings cakes – both because they are beautiful and, frankly, because you want to eat them in their entirety. Just me? Fine. Of course, when you priced out that 15 tiered cake shaped like you in your wedding dress, you no doubt fainted like a Southern Belle on a hot day. I have heard so many people say things like, “It’s just cake! WHY would it cost so much!?!” and, “Fine then. Surely a PLAIN 15 tiered cake would cost like 1/100th the price right?” But my favorite confused confectionery customer’s comment is, “I’ve made a birthday cake. It only cost like $5! It’s just flour and eggs.” Well be prepared to have your mind blown…or at least expanded. Yes, cakes can cost craploads (I am ON it with the alliteration tonight). The real cost of a wedding cake is in its size, structural complexity, premium ingredients, and of course the small fact that it’s edible art! Still not with me? Let’s break it down the value of a wedding cake.
As part of my ongoing series about the value of weddings, I interviewed Kelley Prather of Kelley Kakes in Denver. She has been creating custom cakes for 13 years and boasts many industry awards from the likes of The Knot, Wedding Wire, and Denver A-List. Kelley Kakes has been featured in 12 issues of The Knot and “some times they even spelled [her] name right,” according to Kelley. She is an incredibly talented cake artist with a fresh, funny personality. Her comments are used below to augment my analysis of why a wedding cake costs what it does – and why that’s a reasonable thing. As always, I’m not trying to convince you to take out a second mortgage on your home to pay for your wedding. The idea is to make sure that you are an educated consumer with a deeper appreciation for the hard work that goes into wedding purchases. Hopefully there will be more constructive and realistic conversations between bakers and clients if both sides understand each other’s needs and you can prioritize your wedding vendor list to reflect that.
The Cost of Business:
If you want your cake to look like something you would see in Martha Stewart Weddings, chances are you aren’t working with your basic hand mixer and a butter knife at home folks. Kelley estimate that she’s in about $8000 deep at any point in time for the tools of her trade. As a person who enjoys baking myself, I can say that getting good results requires a ton of specialty equipment. Moving up to a commercial capacity would be quite an investment. Large mixers, ovens, and fridges that can accommodate a huge cake are not exactly cheap. Then you have things like spatulas, lazy susans, piping and fondant accessories, and sculpting tools. And if you’ve ever watched one of those cake reality shows, you know that they get pretty creative when it’s needed. Kelley elaborates, “One cannot purchase all things needed for a cake in one place. Also, frequently I’ll need to build a custom stand. This requires tools and tool skills. This means the husband becomes my employee.” You shouldn’t be surprised to hear that your baker had to run by Home Depot or an art store while working on your cake. Finally, you have to consider the basics of running a business like insurance, delivery costs, etc.
Kelley identifies as primarily self-taught but has studied art history and fine art. She has become the incredible baker that she is through reading, online coursework, and approximately 15 hands-on classes. She said that a typical in-person course runs about $300 a pop. But it is through this dedicated improvement of skills that professional bakers learn the intricacies of their art and keep abreast of the current trends in products and design. Years of experience mean that she can tell you how to make a cake survive a move to the mountains in a way that a rookie never could. This incredible wealth of knowledge results in a high quality product.
As I’ve mentioned in previous For What It’s Worth posts, most wedding related vendors are artists. Even if a methodical lay-person could negotiate the structural challenges of a complex cake, they likely would not be able to create realistic flowers out of sugar or sculpt it into a spaceship. (Seriously, I dare you to pipe a rose out of frosting and not have it look like a swirly mess. I’ve tried and failed. And I’m not completely hopeless at cake decorating even.) If it were easy to make attractive cakes, there wouldn’t be an entire website dedicated to those “professionals” who failed miserably. A good cake artist can create something that is beautiful, sturdy, and tasty to boot. That takes a knowledge of art, chemistry/culinary concepts, a keen sense of taste, and the know-how to move the cake safely (and fix the inevitable blunders). Your aunt’s friend from church, however, will probably deliver you a saggy, melty mess and hide the cracks with flowers plundered from your centerpieces. ;)
How is my time spent— half of it is spent on the details that happen prior to putting anything in the oven. Design, shopping for supplies, etc. There is a lot that goes in to the days before it goes in to a pan. Ingredients must be fresh. Fresh butter, cream, fruits. While it’s baking, I’m making cake boards and fresh icing. I’m sterilizing work surfaces. I’m listening to a lot of 80’s music. – Kelley Prather, Kelley Kakes
The average Kelley Kake takes about 12-14 hours to make. “If sculpting is involved, add another two to three full days [of work],” explained Kelley. Add to that 40-80 hours of additional work per cake in the form of client meetings, baking sample cakes, email and phone correspondence, sketching and design work, purchasing materials, sourcing unique supplies, delivery and setup, etc. A big, cool cake is A LOT of work! Real bakers make their cakes, frosting, fondant, and so forth from scratch. Quality results require chilling the cake between coats of coverings, drying time on detail work, etc. It’s like being a sculptor who has to make her own clay.
Why Wedding Cakes “Cost More”:
The average Kelley Kake will run you about $500-$600. That, frankly, is a steal! I know of one local baker who won’t take orders of less than $2000 anymore. To that end, I hear a lot of smack being talked about how things cost more “simply because they are related to weddings”. That is almost never true. Professionals charge a certain amount for a wedding cake because they are kind of a colossal undertaking. What makes a wedding cake different from your run of the mill boxed birthday cake…on steroids? Or from another cake that a baker makes for that matter?
First of all, it’s big. Have you ever baked a cake that can feed 200 people? It’s a lot of ingredients. And quality ingredients like fresh fruit fillings on a cake that large necessarily come at a premium. That much food actually becomes VERY heavy so you are paying for the structure too. There is literally non-edible architecture in a cake that keeps it upright, un-saggy, and looking spiffy. Knowing how to create that is where a professional earns their salt. Some of this is achieved by dowels and cardboard rounds between tiers. But also, wedding cake is denser than the stuff from a box because it needs to hold up a lot of other cake and decor elements. Take my word for it, a soft cake, when weighted down with icing and fondant details, will sag and crack like an elephant’s skin. Would you want to have a novice find that out on your wedding cake?
Now, have you ever moved a cake? I’ve white knuckled it with a single tier birthday cake all the way to work a function on many occasions. Every bump in the road or short stop at a light made my heart skip about 12 beats and the sweat pour. The mere thought of transporting a 150 lb cake on mountain roads for 60 miles in the blazing heat of summer is the stuff of nightmares. Especially since someone’s wedding of all things is counting on it and fixing a damaged cake is nearly impossible. (Note: Fondant is completely ruined if it cracks and even buttercream forms an exterior crust that is NOT easy to patch without looking dreadful. It’s serious business!) A seasoned vet knows how to move them or assemble them on site and that can prevent whatever friend or relative you would have used to make your cake from having a heart attack because they had to go over train tracks.
But more than just the fact that wedding cakes are large, use premium ingredients, and require a certain level of ninja to transport; there is an artistry that goes into them that is unlike a typical cake at a bakery. It takes a lot of practice just to stack tiers so that they are perfectly centered. It’s a one-shot thing. The amount of detail on even a simple wedding cake is greater than that of a birthday cake because large surfaces are notoriously difficult to ice or roll fondant onto in a smooth way. Even and consistent piping of details like a ribbon around the base of a large tier is laborious and requires a ton of honing as a skill. If you want edible flowers, sculpting, or something else outside of the box, you are paying for an artist to create something magical for you and ensure that it survives through your wedding day. That is a lot to ask of one cake – of one baker. Add to that the stress of knowing that this behemoth of a pastry is one element at the center of a couple’s dream wedding day and you have a product that is worth more. Simply put, these cakes are a huge, sugary pains in the ass with a lot riding on them.
ACC Tip: Wedding cakes are so heavy that they can crush a flimsy cake stand like a beer can. Lots of couples want to make their own stands. (“Oh look, Pinterest showed me how to make one out of a candle stick, a pie tin, and a dream!”) Make sure you check with your baker to ensure that whatever stand you choose can not only hold up the weight, but not become precariously balanced when you are cutting it. You don’t want that adorable stacked tree sections cake of yours to topple. Timber!
Why It’s Worth It:
Well, if a custom cake is important, then I feel it is important to have a professional create it for you. One cannot get a custom cake at Target or Costco. I think a custom cake is a showpiece. A piece of the overall picture that is your celebration. It should also be freshly made and taste amazing. It should reflect your vision/personality/style. I want people to walk up to it, and be wowed by the appearance, and want to stick their face in it, because it smells so good. […] I do not think purchasing a custom cake should be something filled with stress. I keep things light- no nit-picky order forms where I up-charge for every little thing that goes into a cake. I want people to have fun, and feel relaxed when they meet me. I’m frequently told I need to charge more… maybe I do, I don’t know?? I think it’s important to be realistic, though. One needs to understand that we are not the East coast here, and charging a minimum of a grand for a simple wedding cake is just silly. – Kelley Prather, Kelley Kakes
I realize that a really cool cake is not on the top of everyone’s must have list for their wedding. And that’s okay. There are options! But if you are a person who really values the beauty of a custom cake, you should prioritize your baker in your budget to reflect that appreciation. You need to understand that, as with anything, you get what you pay for when it comes to cakes. You are paying an artist to create something special for you out of a very difficult medium. You are paying for an edible undertaking. A great cake is equal parts decor and food. If you play your cards right, you may end up with a major talking point at your reception that tastes like heaven. Plus, this may be your only chance to commission one of these crazy work of art for yourself! To many, that is worth the splurge. I would also add that the taste of a professional cake is simply different…better. I have tasted more cakes than 100 average couples planning their wedding (for research of course). There is a marked difference in the flavor and quality of a “real” cake versus the chemical laden, previously frozen cake you get at a grocery store. I have tasted cakes that make my toes curl. I’d rather give that to my guests than a piece of cake where they have to scrape off an inch of bad icing.
This is the part where everyone seems to have advice, but not all of it is good. Here are some solid pieces of advice:
- “Want to cut costs? Don’t invite 200 people! If you must, get a smaller main cake and a sheet cake…from the same baker,” urges Kelley. “Do NOT try to save a few bucks by getting a slab of gross cake from Costco. There is no comparison!” (And the cost should be similar for sheet cakes across the board anyway. Might as well get a tasty one and not have to involve more than one vendor.)
- Use fresh flowers instead of sugar flowers. Edible flowers are very labor-intensive and exacting work for a really skilled artist. You’re going to pay for that. (It’s only fair.)
- Fondant cakes cost more. Kelly suggests, “Use buttercream icing instead of fondant. It tastes better anyway and a pro knows how to smooth it perfectly.”
- Avoid pricey embellishments like edible gold leaf, lustre, or pearls. Not only are the supplies expensive, application is time consuming.
- With some bakers, certain ingredients are seasonal and can command a higher price at different times of the year. (They may also not be as tasty.)
- Let your cake topper command the attention if a lot of embellishment isn’t in your budget. Or, consider sugared fruit or real flowers for a colorful way to include edible details without having them sculpted of gum paste or marzipan.
ACC Tip: If you are going to use fresh flowers on your cake, make sure to discuss that with both your florist and your cake designer to determine what will need to be done and by whom on the day of the wedding. Your florist knows that some blooms are naturally poisonous and most flowers sold for bouquets are laden with pesticides. A good bet is always an edible grade flower. Another consideration is the water needs of some blooms. For those, you will have to have special vials or other containers to supply them with hydration. If the two vendors work together, they can ensure that you get the look you want safely and with minimal damage to the cake.
The reason I created this editorial series is because so many people have champagne taste on a beer budget. Pinterest in particular is leading us to believe that every bride or groom can have it all and have it all dirt cheap. But when you approach a vendor who makes the equivalent of minimum wage or less at their small wedding business and try to work them down, it’s offensive. These artists’ labors of love should not be met with cutthroat haggling. As you can see from this article, so much goes into a wedding cake and that’s why they command a hefty price in some cases. Rest assured that your bakery is not trying to screw you over and you should return the favor. While cakes in particular are not at the top of everyone’s list, for those that prioritize a killer cake for their big day the end result is worth it.
This post is part of a series:
For What It’s Worth: Letterpress
For What It’s Worth: Photography
For What It’s Worth: Flowers
For What It’s Worth: The Dress
For What It’s Worth: Cakes