Spokane Journal of Business

Even the air smells sweet

Carolyn’s Cake Decorating & Candy Supplies

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From the street outside, the plain-looking storefront at 1705 N. Hamilton seems to be an unlikely place to find a sweet fantasyland of cake-decorating and candy-making tools and ingredients.

Inside Carolyns Cake Decorating & Candy Supplies, however, multi-tiered wedding cakes tower above displays of cookbooks, baking pans, candy molds, cookie cutters, and other tools used to create elaborate confections

Even the air smells sweet.

Its in the walls, owner Carolyn Largent says of the sugary aroma that permeates her shop.

An inventory that includes heaping baskets of chocolate for baking and candy making, mixes for frostings and sweet, creamy substances called fondants, cake fillings, flavorings, and other ingredients no doubt adds to the fragrance that fills the 1,600-square-foot shop. Carolyns stocks a full selection of specialty ingredients needed for cake decorating and candy making, as well as tools and accessories used in those sweet arts, such as piping tips used to squeeze frosting into shape to make borders and flowers, pans to bake specially shaped cakes, a large variety of wedding cake toppers, and plastic figures of athletes and cartoon characters to dress up any cake.

Before buying the business 17 years ago, Largent had worked for years as a secretary and accounts payable clerk at several different offices and had decorated cakes for family members and friends. She used her lunch hour to slip out to numerous specialty shops to get items. It took several days to round up all the necessary things to complete a cake, she says, so she wanted to make things easier for her customers.

If Carolyns doesnt have exactly what a customer is looking for, Largent says she and the shops one other employee have the experience to suggest alternatives or to improvise with what is available. For example, cake pans shaped like the Teletubbies, TV characters, arent available yet, so Largent suggests that those wanting to make a Teletubby cake buy a thin paper on which they can trace the characters from a childrens book, then transfer the design to a cake.

Largent says she finds it rewarding to toss out suggestions and then see a customer develop ideas on how to create the desired effects.

I dont hard sell; I just offer opinions and advice if customers ask, she says.

I want to help people do things, she adds. Im not looking to stock up money.

She declines to disclose the shops annual revenues, but says, I stay in business and live well, which was her goal for the shop when she started.

Largent got her start in the business when her husband, Don, urged her to trade in her typewriter for a mixer after he saw a tiny cake-decorating shopcoincidentally called Carolynsfor sale in a classified ad. She jokes that he may have encouraged her to go into business just to get her cake-decorating supplies out of the familys spare room.

The Largents bought the business, which was housed in a 650-square-foot space at the corner of Hamilton and Indiana, and about three years later moved it to its current larger location several blocks to the south.

Until about five years ago, Carolyns included a bakery where Largent made and decorated cakes and specialty cookies. Now the cakes on display are frosted styrofoam, and she uses the kitchen in the back of the shop to try out products she sells so she can guide customers in their uses.

Teaching the skills

Carolyns offers cake-decorating classes; most meet three evenings a week over a six-week period. Except during July and August, the classes are held throughout the year, and each series covers a variety of topics. Occasionally, the shop has all-day workshops on a special technique, such as working with gum paste, which Largent describes as an edible clay that can be used to create porcelain-looking flowers for cake decorating.

About 80 percent of her students are women who want to learn to decorate cakes for friends and family members; other students hope to build skills that might lead to jobs in bakeries, Largent says. Although she doesnt teach commercial decorating, which focuses on speed, grocery store bakeries and ice cream shops that need decorators often call Largent for referrals to students who have mastered basic techniques.

After learning the basics, a decorator can pick up other skills through observation and practice, she says. Thats how Largent learned to decorate cakes that have earned her awards at judged cake shows, such as the blue ribbon and best of category awards she won at the Washington Cake Decorators show in Spokane in April.

Largent says she had taken only two cake-decorating classes before she bought Carolyns, and took her first class only because a sewing class she had wanted to take had been canceled.

She didnt think she could learn to decorate cakes, but the teacher of that first class told her with the right tools and good instruction, anyone can learn to do anything. Largent says she has found this to be true for herself and for the students she has taught since.

She continues to build her skills and to stay atop the latest trends in cake decorating and candy making at annual conventions of the International Cake Exploration Society (ICES).

Carolyns regular customers include brides and their mothers, who hope to make a unique wedding cake cheaply and to take advantage of the shops selection of tiered cake stands, pillars, bridges, fountains, and cake tops. Boy Scouts and their fathers also visit the shop as they prepare for an annual Scouting event in which fathers and sons bake and decorate cakes that are auctioned off.

Largent discovered in her first year in business that December and January were slow months as other traditional holiday goodies shifted attention away from decorated cakes. During her second year at the shop, she added candy-making supplies, which have turned the holiday season into a boom time for the shop. Carolyns stocks a large selection of plastic and rubber molds used to shape chocolates and mints, and also carries lollypop sticks, candy boxes, and fluted paper cups to hold candy, as well as candy coatings. Cookie molds, stamps and cutters that Carolyns sells also are popular for holiday baking, Largent says.

  • Anita Burke

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