Technology based on ink-jet printers is putting extra frosting onto the supermarket bakery's special-order decorated-cake business.
The patented system uses a regular garden-variety computer and a scanner to reproduce color photos on the tops of cakes -- hence the end product's name of "portrait" or "picture" cake.
A color monitor lends a touch of theater. But what performs the actual grunt work is a decorating cartridge that sprays atomized droplets of edible food coloring onto any pre-iced light-colored surface, sheet cakes being the favored target medium among retailers, but cupcakes and cookies acting like business cards to trumpet the service.
The underlying technology has been around for several years, but the niche has been growing in popularity since a small Lenexa, Kan., company, under new ownership, started marketing the ink-jet version about 30 months ago. Suppliers say the technology is drumming up tens of millions of new sales dollars for in-store bakeries.
With the price half what systems were going for five years ago, there's been a pyramiding of orders for the computerized cake mini-factory, coming mainly from supermarket independents and small to medium-sized chains. Lately, though, some divisions of American Stores Co. and Supervalu have also begun to mine the Midwest market for portrait cakes.
At American's Jewel Food Stores arm in Melrose Park, Ill., vice president of bakery/floral Nancy Chagares said the image machines were set up last year in four test stores, following success at Acme Markets, Jewel's Malvern, Pa.-based sister division.
Strong response since then convinced Jewel to incorporate the units into the souped-up bakery prototype featuring a longer case run (24 feet) that's going into all new stores and major remodels.
"We've made it so that customers could travel no more than about 5 miles to get to any store with one of these machines and be able to use our 800 line to find the portrait-cake stores nearest them," Chagares said. Installation of the picture system in a substantial number of the chain's 188 stores over the next several months will make Jewel the foremost U.S. operator, Chagares said.
Supervalu-supplied independents and a Cub Foods franchise have been quick to try out the units within the past year. Cub corporate jumped into the act six months ago at the home-base Stillwater, Minn., store.
'We are still trying to work the bugs out before we start to launch it," said Keith Heggernes, bakery buyer-merchandiser at Cub's Minnesota division.
Single-store operators like Franklin Shop-N-Save, a Supervalu retailer in rural Franklin, Pa., look at the system as a way to keep their edge in the face of chain competition. In the midst of a major makeover of its food court, the Shop-N-Save is taking advantage of the novelty of the system to go after catering and corporate accounts.
Retailers said it's a snap to get anywhere from a $6 to a $15 premium for an 8 by 10 image scanned from a wallet-sized photo onto quarter- and half-sheet cakes. That more than covers immediate expenses, which include the $60 cost of the cartridge whose output ranges from 50 cents to $1.70 per run-through, and labor to set up the run and finish the cake with borders or hand lettering.
Free TV advertising through newscasts when stores first get the system is commonplace and tends to bring in requests well beyond the supermarket's trading area.
"Ever since the TV exposure six months ago, 35% of the 300 specialty-cake orders we average weekly have been off this machine," said Frank Owen, a cake decorator at a Cub in St. Joseph, Mo., operated by Randall Stores, Mitchell, S.D. "Every order that we've taken so far for graduation business, which is very big here, has been for picture cakes. We'll do as much in a day at graduation time as we do in a week."
Some 750 of the computer cake machines are expected to be up and running in 1998, compared with 325 in 1997. Approximately 60% of those are in supermarkets, according to Tom Hall, general manager and partner of Sweet Art, .... maker of the Sweet Art Jet Decorating System.
That's one new in-store system for every 62 supermarkets with bakeries in them, but's it's much better penetration than one in 144 last year, and the figure does not include the older-technology airbrush systems, 150 to 200 of which are still out there.
The older systems use a computer but not the inkjet cartridge, and are deployed by such chains as Hy-Vee, West Des Moines, Iowa. One of the four Hy-Vee bakeshop store managers contacted by SN said he was considering an upgrade of the system.
Houston-based Fiesta Mart scrapped its older units, replacing them with 13 state-of-the-art systems at $11,000 a pop -- in the nick of time as it turned out.
"We've had that business to ourselves, and now everybody is getting into it," said Ray Craig, bakery supervisor and buyer for the 34-store chain.
Retailers like Kansas City, Kan.-centered Balls Food Stores' Hen House, with eight new machines in its 17 stores, have started to emphasize the system's promotional potential.
"We just got a portable table in that will go to each of our stores that have the picture-cake machine for around a week to promote the service," said Connie Philippeit, bakery manager at the Hen House in Lee's Summit, Mo.
"People stop what they're doing to watch the image right up on the computer monitor screen being sprayed right down onto the cake. It always draws a crowd," observed Keith Heggernes at Cub.