By Laura Aiken
Antonella Cellini’s career in cakes blossomed from a childhood she
describes as deprived – not of love, affection or parental support, but
of anything other than black forest cake on her birthday.
Antonella Cellini’s career in cakes blossomed from a childhood she describes as deprived – not of love, affection or parental support, but of anything other than black forest cake on her birthday. She vowed that when her own children came along she would make them any cake they wanted on their birthdays. However, as it turns out, it wasn’t her own offspring that spurred what is now Artsy Baker cake shop, fondant and cake mix manufacturer, and runner-up for the Bakers Journal 2013 Innovator of the Year awards.
|Antonella Cellini holds her Alice In Wonderland cake inside her delightfully feminine cake shop in Aurora, Ont. Photo by Laura Aiken
Initially, it was her sister who asked her to make a birthday cake for her daughter. Cellini made a 3D roller skate that wowed partygoers, much to her surprise she says. This was the cake that started it all.
Cellini, whose passion for cake design grew while she was a stay-at-home mom to two boys, estimates she gifted over 100 cakes before someone phoned and asked her what she charged. Caught off guard, she put the caller on hold to think about it before deciding to calculate her materials and charge that price to cover her costs. She reaped those fees for a while, and as word continued to spread through friends and family, she eventually renovated her upstairs kitchen to accommodate the number of cakes she was making. Before long it wasn’t big enough and the family’s downstairs kitchen was turned into a full bakery with rolling carts and all. Eventually she decided she needed to move shop to fulfill her desire of becoming a nut-free facility, and now she has a storefront in Aurora, Ont.
As Cellini got busier and busier, she says she grew frustrated with time spent doing fondant repairs. She examined the label on her fondant and decided to try and improve upon it by making her own. She started in batches on a home mixer, and then moved to a 20-quart mixer before needing to up the batch to a 100-quart mixer. Along the way, she discovered the frustrating truth that recipes don’t just double in amounts for the same result when you scale up.
Eventually Cellini landed on a formula that has now landed itself in grocery stores. Her Fabulous Fondant is free of nuts, gluten, eggs, dairy, trans fat and cholesterol. It is sold in select Metro and Longo’s food stores, as well as Winners and HomeSense. In addition, the fondant, which sells in two-pound packages that retail for $13.99, can be used in place of gum paste. She also sells egg-free, vegan and sugar-free cake mixes.
Cellini uses and swears by the fondant herself, and is driven to provide a cost-effective and quality option for people who want to make a cake for the children in their family that is up to today’s standards. She will supply the fondant to other professional bakers in five or 10-pound pails, but her focus is on the home baker.
“I’m more interested in supplying people who started out like me, who are stay-at-home moms who want to save some money and get creative. I know from the cake shop perspective that cakes can be quite expensive as they take a long time to make. If I can offer a product where people can go to the grocery store and buy a mix, get their icing, all they need is oil and an egg, and finish off the cake to today’s standards with my fondant that would be great: A cake for under $25 that would have cost them $200. I would love to keep attracting that clientele.”
Her foray into fondant is just one aspect of the Artsy Baker business that caught the Innovator of the Year judges’ eyes. Cellini is a self-taught cake artist. At the 2013 Canada’s Baking and Sweets Show, her wedding cake, a pumpkin-shaped design, titled “What Happens in a Pumpkin, Stays in a Pumpkin,” didn’t win the competition but it did place first in the Yelp People’s Choice Awards at the show. Show-goers at the Yelp booth also voted her Alice in Wonderland cake into second in the People’s Choice for Alice in Wonderland themed cake competition. She taught herself by reading books, and says the Internet was very helpful. She likes to start with viewing finished designs and then work her way back to figure out how it was done, as opposed to following tutorials.
“I feel if I do it like everybody else, then I’m just like everybody else. So, if I look at the finished product and I like it, I won’t mimic it but I try and figure out how to get somewhere near there and take it to a whole new level…Art for me is math. I’ve always loved math so when I look at art, it’s all math. When I look at it, it’s all symmetry or geometric shapes, and that’s how I process it.”
Math is a great skill for anyone in business, and it’s likely Cellini’s skills are put to the test with the company’s growth rate. Artsy Baker has experienced a 400 per cent growth in sales over the past two years, she says, and that has also meant increased expenses in labour, ingredients and equipment. More sales doesn’t always mean more money, and unfortunately, she says, sometimes it’s meant less.
Her artistic and mathematical skills would perhaps be underutilized if it weren’t for the dogged persistence she has displayed in growing the business. She described landing her first grocery customer, Metro, as a journey that involved a lot of blood, sweat and tears. She works with Metro on a drop-shipping basis, which means she needs to call individual stores to find out which managers are interested in carrying the fondant, and then drops the product off once confirmed. Some stores have done better than others, and she’s faced her share of rejections in trying to get her product on more companies’ shelves.
“You line yourself up for disappointment…Every day is an up and down and you just don’t know, so you go in with no expectations and your fingers crossed, and hope for the best. It’s the ones that you really like and really want that you end up feeling like ‘why they don’t want me as much as I want them?’ ”
|“What Happens in a Pumpkin, Stays in a Pumpkin” was Antonella Cellini’s entry into the wedding cake competition at Canada’s Baking and Sweets Show last fall. The cake earned the top spot with voters in the Yelp People’s Choice awards. Photo by Laura Aiken
The biggest challenge she says she’s faced in working with bigger chains is convincing them that she can supply enough product. Artsy Baker operates with just her, four employees and her husband helping part time. Honesty was the best policy, she says, and it was best to remain truthful about the amount of fondant she could make, package and drop off. Cellini found that having a distributor seemed a necessary step for expansion and helped offer supply assurances to chains as well as professionalize the manufacturing side of her business. Fortunately, at one of cake shop’s kids birthday parties she met another mother who happened to be in the shortbread business and put her in touch with the distributor she was using. Cellini says if all goes as expected, the product will start moving through the distributor in January.
The fondant side of the business is on its way to fulfilling one of her childhood dreams. As a child she recalls telling her father she wanted a big warehouse with trucks going in and out, but when queried what it is she would like to sell, she always said she’d just figure it out. She dreams of building an empire, and like many big thinkers she is relentless in her pursuit, spending the wee hours of the morning scribbling on notepads when the house is quiet. She says she feels like she’s working around the clock, wearing the many hats of business owner, manufacturer, cake designer, wife and mother.
“At the end of the day, some people ask how do you do it, and I don’t know how to answer that. I do what I like to do and hope it goes well. If we all do something we really like and we do it well and we’re consistent, then good things will come.”
Persistence, creativity, a mind for math, and passion have taken Cellini’s business past the decade mark, but being a people person is what has tied all the skills together. She says she loves the one-on-one time spent hearing customers’ stories, and turning those stories into a meaningful cake. Everything is custom; everything is personalized. She’s had people cry in her office, and shared tears in return.
“You have to be sympathetic on this end and be on the same page; you can’t be emotionless. If it were just a cake to me, the cakes wouldn’t turn out the way they are. It’s amazing and I love it. We don’t normally make the same cake twice because I believe every cake should be personalized… Focusing on each individual order is how I got where I am today.”
In the end, for Cellini it all comes back to her family and as the heads of family businesses know, there are sacrifices made by all. Her husband Pino works full time but often lends a hand, she says. Her son Joey is 10 now, and Daniel is eight.
“We’re sacrificing. The kids are there on all our deliveries, with us in the bakery and you hope that one day they will learn and that I am teaching them some values because it’s tough on a family. People say you can’t do 100 per cent of everything – that you can’t be 100 per cent mom and 100 per cent businessperson – but I hope I’m proving them wrong. We talk to them a lot, and they teach me more than I could ever teach them. We talk to them about problems at the dinner table, and they have honesty and give me a reality check; I love it. They are the reasons I continue and I hope one day they are proud of their mom.”