Wedding cakes can be a profitable niche for supermarket bakeries. Yet operators sometimes fight the perception that supermarket cakes are inferior to those sold at corner bakeries, retailers and industry observers told SN.
A big part of the problem is that these programs often exist in obscurity -- even regular customers may not realize their neighborhood store can whip up an elaborate multi-tiered cake for their special day. And so, with the wedding season quickly approaching, officials at chains with thriving cake programs said they are using the Web, consulting with consumers, training associates, and advertising in bridal magazines to improve cake marketing.
In the Twin Cities, Byerly's and Lunds are old hands at wedding cakes. The Edina, Minn.-based chain started making them more than 30 years ago, and today participates in bridal shows, advertises in bridal magazines, and takes part in two local bridal fairs a year, where cake decorators make sure brides-to-be sample the wares.
Still, "we have customers, long-term customers, who ask, 'Do you do wedding cakes?"' said Paul Supplee, bakery director for the 20-store chain. "You can't scream loud enough. It's a continual process, trying to get noticed."
He acknowledged there's at least a kernel of truth to the negative perceptions consumers have about supermarket cakes. "Grocery stores don't do that good of a job," Supplee said. "I've been battling that perception for years and years. No grocery chain here is doing a great job other than us. We pride ourselves on having moister, more flavorful cakes."
When couples come in to inquire about cakes, they sit down with a pastry chef who walks them through the process. Speaking directly to a pastry chef, rather than a sales associate, prevents misunderstandings about what couples want, Supplee said. Cakes are made to order at the individual stores, which also provide delivery.
During two months in particular, June and September, the chain can sell from 80 to 120 cakes a week, Supplee said, noting they are a profitable category. "You can decorate a beautiful wedding cake in a short period of time," he said, adding that retail prices start at $2.50 per piece.
The wedding cakes in effect serve as an advertisement for the bakery. If customers like what they taste, they'll come back for anniversary and other special-occasion cakes.
"We like wedding cakes a lot because it's the best way to get our fabulous cake in a lot of people's mouths," Supplee said. "There are always people who want to know where the wedding cake came from. If the bride and groom are happy with the wedding cake, we've got cake buyers for life. We give them a free first-year anniversary cake that's six inches. It starts a tradition."
Byerly's and Lunds recently released an elegant album featuring beautiful color photos of various cakes. Some of the most popular ones are rolled fondant varieties. Cakes iced or decorated with fondant are not widely available in supermarkets; rolled fondant, in fact, became popular in the United States only in recent years. A high-end option, fondant is a simple mixture of water, sugar and cream of tartar. When used as an icing, it gives cakes a smooth-as-porcelain look.
"It's different than your mother's cake," Supplee said, noting that fully half of all the wedding cakes the stores sell are rolled fondant. "We were a leader in fondant cakes."
Fondant cakes and other European-style designs represent a growing part of the business at Richmond, Va.-based Ukrop's, where specialists make fondant from scratch. Pastry chef Otto Bernet, a native of Switzerland, introduced fondant a dozen years ago and is credited with establishing the European cake program at Ukrop's. His protege, pastry chef Buntith Chhuon, carries on the legacy, decorating specialty cakes at Ukrop's central manufacturing facility. He was featured decorating a European-style cake in a video played in the stores during cake demonstrations. Jim Goodman, Ukrop's bakery production manager and himself a pastry chef, worked closely with Bernet, and conducts many of the cake demos. He also creates many specialty cakes for community events.
So far this year, the retailer has conducted about a dozen wedding cake demonstrations, more than the usual, an official told SN.
The realistic-looking flowers, made from icing, are what set the retailer's cakes apart from competitors, said Janice Hayes, manager of customer relations for the 27-store chain. Calla lilies, orchids, roses, lily of the valley, magnolias, gardenias and many other varieties have appeared on wedding cakes. This year, periwinkle blue and sage green are the hottest color combo for frosting flowers.
"Our roses look like you gathered them in the garden," Hayes said. "We sell very few ornaments on top of cakes. People would rather have flowers."
Wedding cakes are high-margin items for the chain, which can sell 65 to 70 of them a week, year-round. In general, special-occasion cakes, including wedding varieties, represent 21% of the bakery business, she said.
About 70% of the cakes are traditional varieties, made of pound cake with buttercream icing and available in four flavors. Hayes noted that acceptance of the untraditional, European cakes has grown remarkably, just in the past year. The cakes are harder to make -- and more expensive -- than the traditional varieties.
"They are higher-margin items," she said. "Customer acceptance of this has been unreal."
The company recently rolled out a customer consulting program at the central bakery, located within an hour of all the company's stores. "It gives customers an opportunity to share their vision of their dream cake and us an opportunity to fill that," Hayes said. In recent years, Ukrop's began participating in bridal shows and using its Web site to promote the cakes. About a year ago, the company started delivering cakes to wedding reception sites.
The efforts definitely boosted the retailer's image as a provider of high-quality cakes, Hayes said.
"If you had asked me a year ago, I would have said, yes, we do need to overcome the fact our customers don't realize what we can do and we haven't marketed it as effectively as we should have," she said. "Now we've raised the bar. We've done this by participating in shows and consultations. [Customers] realize Ukrop's provides many specialty cakes. It's turned around in the past year since we've focused on consultations and deliveries."
Now Hayes is focused on training. She wants to identify a handful of key bakery associates who can be trained as specialty cake experts, capable of setting up consultations with prospective brides, and providing them with a comprehensive overview of the program. That's mostly done at store level now, she said.
Elsewhere, Syracuse, N.Y.-based Penn Traffic updated its wedding cake manual for bakery associates in January, featuring a "Top 40" list of the most popular cake varieties. More than half of the 212 supermarkets in the chain sell wedding cakes. Indeed, Big Bear supermarkets in Columbus, Ohio, one of Penn Traffic's biggest markets, has enjoyed a reputation as the region's premium bakery operator for years.
The category is definitely growing, a bakery official with the chain told SN. Chainwide, the company sold more than 600 wedding cakes last year.
"We're seeing an increase every year, especially at Big Bear," said Michael Duncan, Penn Traffic's vice president of in-store bakeries, which operates Big Bear, Bi-Lo, P&C and Quality stores in Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, upstate New York, Vermont and New Hampshire.
Each store has a wedding cake designer, Duncan said. In-store bakery associates draw from a number of resources that includes wedding cake ingredient suppliers, who offer guidance in using piping tips and bags, ornaments, pearl drops, basket weave patterns and other decorating fine points. Traditional, filled white cakes continue to be the hands-down favorite, and most cakes are iced with silk buttercream. Retail prices start at $1.25 a slice for any flavor of unfilled cake, with most custom cakes starting at $1.75 a piece.
Cake designers provide customization services, including color matching. Bakery associates sometimes collaborate with produce and floral department associates to create cakes adorned with fruits and flowers, Duncan said, noting fresh fruits are especially popular on spring and summer wedding cakes. The retailer plans to expand on the collaboration between the bakery and the other departments, Duncan said. Delivery service is also available.
The company plans to rev up promotion by advertising in regional wedding guides, and using the Web to get the word out on the program. Duncan thinks Penn Traffic's wedding cakes don't suffer from an image problem at all, and can compete handily with anybody else in the market, including the freestanding bakeries.
"With 600 wedding cakes for 2002, I think [freestanding bakeries] are having more of a challenge competing with us," he said.