|This year Pink Ribbon Bakery published a Calendar for the Cure featuring humorous, retro photos such as this one. Proceeds from the sold-out calendar went to the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation. Credit: DARKSTARS PHOTOGRAPHY
“I had no idea what I was doing. I had never baked a cake before in my life,” says the owner of Pink Ribbon Bakery of New Westminster, B.C. Comer is not formally trained in baking – “unless you count watching Cake Boss,” she says – but has a strong artistic streak.
“I started making cakes as a hobby, on the side, working my full-time job in the corporate office of 1-800-GOT-JUNK?,” she says, “and then I decided, maybe I’ll go down to four days a week at the full-time job, then it turned into three, then it turned into two, then it turned into one.”
In January 2012, after a year of creating spectacular, three-tiered art deco wedding cakes and whimsical Tim-Burton-inspired birthday cakes from home, Comer and husband Kurt made the decision to open a storefront shop. With the steadily rising volume of custom orders, it was the natural next step.
“It was – I’m not joking – a bakery in our house, a cake factory in our house . . . it was in our faces. We were making enough money at it that we decided a storefront was our only option. It was ‘do it now or don’t do it at all,’ ” she says of her decision to incorporate.
It was important to be in New Westminster, a city she loves. Fortunately, she found a spot “just slightly off the beaten path” that provides the space to work effectively. Over the year and a half it’s been open, the 700-square-foot shop has become a destination for cake and cupcake lovers. Customers who follow Pink Ribbon on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram come in to try the latest cupcake flavours, while others, drawn by word of mouth, come in to place custom orders or have a private consultation.
The busy cake designer says there is no such thing as a typical day at the bakery. Often, she and full-time assistant Amber will start to prep Tuesday and Wednesday for the weekend. Foot traffic on Saturday begins at 10 a.m., with those in pursuit of their cupcake fix in flavours like chocolate stout cake with coffee butter cream, maple bacon bourbon and vanilla lavender honey. Comer says on a Saturday they might make five birthday cakes and eight wedding cakes. During busy season, as many as 20 wedding cakes go out the door.
The bakery does not have a “target customer”. When she started out, Comer thought it would be women – specifically, mothers ordering cakes for kids or brides – but in reality the bakery serves a broad demographic.
“I have every type of person contacting me, even a child calling me to say that they want me to make their mother’s cake for Mother’s Day,” she says. She has made cupcakes for such celebrities as Snoop Dogg and Kat Von D.
The two have a system going that seems to be working so far. Amber does the prep work and bakes the cakes; Comer decorates most of the cakes, handles customers and keeps on top of social media by updating Facebook and Twitter regularly, uploading photos using Instagram and writing her blog, Sheila’s Cake Hell.
“The biggest concern right now – and a lot of people would say it’s a great problem to have – is just keeping up with the volume,” she says. “But so far, my assistant and I have been able to really rock it,” she says cautiously, but optimistically.
Comer’s husband Kurt, a trucking fleet operator, and brother Brandon, a warehouse manager, help with deliveries on weekends.
Comer describes her style as “retro Alice in Wonderland with a twist of rock ‘n’ roll.”
The 1950s rock ’n’ roll tunes filtering through the store, black and white checkered floor tiling and vintage 1920s cash register atop her grandmother’s sewing machine are evidence of that nostalgic playfulness.
“As far as cakes go, I just want a very whimsical look, but I do want to have a signature look,” she says. “For example, the bows that I make out of fondant don’t look like anyone else’s. I just try to have that signature style so people know who they’re coming to.”
But the entrepreneur’s signature is as much about substance as style. The name itself, Pink Ribbon Bakery, pays tribute to a cause dear to Comer’s heart. The bakery donates a portion of its earnings to the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation, and put out a fun 2013 calendar to raise funds for research.
“I knew that, whatever I did in life . . . I would be in some way giving back to the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation because it’s always been a foundation that I’ve been a part of since I was little,” she says. “My grandma worked for CIBC for 25 years and I was always with her organizing the Run for the Cure and other fundraising events. I’ve also had a few family members beat the disease.”
Comer has a few, well-considered words of wisdom for those starting their own business.
“Mistakes are going to be made,” she says. “Some things are just out of your control.” She recalls how in the early days, she lost a cake when her car was cut off by another driver. She says that, as a cake designer, if you’re good at what you do and it tastes great, word of mouth will sell it. Great customer service helps: “Treat each customer as if they are your first.”
Comer says she was lucky to receive advice and guidance from former boss Brian Scudamore, founder and CEO of 1-800-GOT-JUNK?.
“He was a great mentor,” she says. “He said, ‘if you’re not good at it, delegate it.’ ” Not being a numbers person, she took the advice and hired a top-notch accountant, a move that lifted “a huge weight” off her shoulders.
Sticking to what she does best leaves her free to experiment with style trends. “Reveal” cakes is one craze that has caught her imagination. Following the ultrasound, the parents-to-be hand the baker a sealed envelope from the doctor indicating the unborn baby’s gender. The baker then creates a cake on a neutral theme, filling it with either pink or blue vanilla cake. When the cake is cut, typically at a “reveal” party, the parents are surprised along with their family and friends.
She and Kurt are expecting their first child in mid-December. Will she have a reveal cake for the event?
“We’ll have a reveal,” she confirms. “There won’t be a cake though because everyone knows I couldn’t keep my hands off of it,” she says, laughing.