NEW ORLEANS -- Top honors in the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association's cake-decorating competition went this year to Amy Bagen at bigg's SuperValu, Cincinnati.
Bagen competed against two other finalists in the IDDBA's three-day cake-decorating challenge, one of the featured events at the association's Dairy-Deli-Bake '99 seminar and expo held here June 6 to 8.
Second place in the decorating challenge went to Maria Fuhlbrigge, Brookshire Grocery Co., Tyler, Texas; and third to Madeline Fiol, Publix Super Markets, Lakeland, Fla.
The IDDBA announced the winners and presented crystal trophies to them in an awards ceremony on the show floor here on the last day of Dairy-Deli-Bake '99.
"I was just ecstatic. It's something I always dreamed of doing," said Bagen, in an interview with SN after the IDDBA show.
Bagen, 32, who has been decorating cakes nearly half her life (she started when she was 17) sharpened her skills at a Kroger store in Columbus, Ohio. She started her career at that Kroger unit as a bagger at the age of 16, and later joined the in-store bakery staff. She stayed there for the next 12 years. Before joining bigg's a year and a half ago, she was employed by an independent bakery shop, Rinaldo's, Dayton, Ohio.
Each of the three IDDBA finalists is, in effect, a winner. The top three were chosen from more than 50 entrants in the organization's contest. They were selected on the basis of photos of their work which they submitted earlier this year when the association announced its fourth annual decorating challenge.
The IDDBA gave the trio of finalists an all-expense-paid trip to New Orleans, where they worked against the clock to decorate specialty cakes, theme cakes and wedding cakes. Here, they were also judged on their merchandising skills as well as their decorating skills.
Asked if she was excited about competing in New Orleans, Bagen said, "Oh, yes, but I didn't care where it was being held. I was just happy to be going there with the other finalists. It's a national contest. That's exciting."
She said the first thrill came when she was told in March that she had made the finals. Bagen said she had worked very hard to put together a variety of photos of her best work for the portfolio she submitted to the IDDBA and was pleased it had paid off.
Via the photographs, the contestants were judged on attention to detail, neatness, creativity and the breadth of their skills, IDDBA officials said.
"I had included a lot of pictures of cakes with freehand drawings on them. There were also some shaped cakes and several wedding cakes, one that was all rolled fondant," Bagen said.
She does the drawings with a paint brush dipped in food coloring and then fills in the images with an air brush.
The first part of the finalists' Decorating Challenge here, beginning June 6, required them to decorate enough cakes to fill an 8-foot, tiered display case and then set the case for the best merchandising effect. All that had to be done in the first five hours the show floor was open.
Bagen completed 19 cakes, which included a quarter-sheet cake with a rose garden, complete with "cobblestones" made from pieces of gray, rolled fondant. In the rose garden, Bagen placed a ceramic figurine of a little girl. It looked as if the girl were standing on a cobblestone path in a formal garden.
The contestants also were required to complete a theme cake, a wedding cake and a "decorator's choice" cake.
The wedding cake Bagen created consisted of a cluster of three three-tier cakes iced in ivory butter cream. She used ivory rather than white because it's "warm and welcoming and elegant, too," she said.
Indeed, her wedding cake had an elegant look with off-center, stair-stepped layers and flowers of white, rolled fondant.
"I like to offset the layers rather than center them. It gives the cake a different look," Bagen said.
She edged the fondant flowers in gold and then gave their centers a natural look with the help of a writing tip and a paint brush.
"I used a nontoxic gold dust that I liquify with vanilla extract. Then, I used white butter cream in a writing tip for the center of the flowers, and black liquid gel on a paint brush to make the little dots in the center of them," Bagen said.
Among the novelty cakes Bagen decorated and displayed were three shaped standbys that she said sell well at bigg's -- a ladybug, a bumblebee and a turtle. All are created by cutting a double-layer cake in half and standing the half on end with the curved side up. Bagen uses a cupcake for the creature's head and then ices the ensemble in eye-catching colors.
She started creating them at bigg's a few months ago, she said. They take only about 10 minutes to decorate and retail at bigg's for $7.99, and she sells up to 20 of those cakes on a busy Saturday, Bagen pointed out.
"I knew right away they'd be good sellers. They attract attention and they make a great centerpiece or accent for a table," she said.
Bagen said she'll decorate more than the usual number for the Fourth of July weekend, based on booming sales of them Memorial Day weekend.
"They're great picnic cakes and it's the time of year everybody is going on a picnic or grilling outside," she said.
At the IDDBA show, SN noted that the three finalists and their creations attracted a lot of attention on the show floor. The three worked at tables set alongside the Show & Sell Center merchandising theater at this year's event.
Each finalist had her own 8-foot refrigerated, tiered showcase, next to her work table. In the heat of competition, the finalists were fielding questions and receiving congratulations from show attendees. SN overheard attendees commenting on the creativity shown by all three finalists. One big attention-getter was a cake that looked like a huge sunflower decorated by Madeline Fiol of Publix. And attendees commented on the "fine work" Maria Fuhlbrigge, from Brookshire, and Bagen did on their wedding cakes.
"Our cake-decorating contest is becoming a major event. So much so that we're seeing retailers use it as an internal promotion to create interest and sell cakes. For example, Publix ran division contests prior to our competition," said Carol Christison, executive director of the IDDBA, in an interview before the show.
"We had terrific entries. Our biggest problem was selecting just three to compete in the finals at the show," Christison added.
Judges for the competition this year were Sue Walker, Rich Products, Buffalo, N.Y., and Luke Bender, Maplehurst Inc., Brownsburg, Ind. IDDBA officials pointed out, too, that Ray Lippert, from Bakery Crafts, West Chester, Ohio, was on the site all three days to make sure the finalists had everything they needed as the competition progressed.
Last year at the IDDBA's Cake Decorating Challenge in Philadelphia first place went to Diane Moore of Publix. Second and third place went respectively to Vivian Freeman, Cherokee Sunfresh, Overland, Kan.; and Elizabeth McIntyre, Dierbergs Markets, Maryland Heights, Mo.