Taking the Cake
By Tuija Seipell
By Tuija Seipell
Looking at trends in the world of cake making.
Low-carb, low trans-fat, low-calorie could spell doom to anyone involved in the cake business. But the trends in the media spotlight have not turned consumers away from delicious indulgences. When cake companies talk about trends, “sales decrease” is not one of them.
“‘Diet’ is a four-letter word here,” jokes Nadine Jumelle, co-owner with Alanna Pollock of True Confections Inc. in Vancouver. “People come here for the quality and taste of our desserts, not for reduced calories.”
True Confections opened the first of its three licensed dessert-only restaurants in the West End of Vancouver in 1988. It became an immediate hit, and continues to be known for its foot-high layer cakes, particularly the chocolate cakes and Montreal-style cheesecakes.
All desserts, including the large cakes and smaller cakes for take-out, are baked daily on the premises from scratch. The company prides itself on using pure, fresh ingredients, and promises “no preservatives, no fillers and no compromise.”
“Our cakes are all traditional,” says Jumelle. “Anything low-carb is dead in the water. We had several options available for a while but it all petered out. Our best-sellers are the traditional dessert cakes lodged in people’s memories from childhood.”
Chocolate cakes trump all others year after year by a large margin. In the summer months, however, True Confections offers the strawberry shortcake, which outsells even chocolate.
In addition to the restaurants, True Confections operates wholesale and wedding cake divisions. Interestingly, Jumelle says that the allure of chocolate has faded in the wedding cake market in the past couple of years.
“People want something lighter,” she says, “Lemon is the new chocolate for weddings.”
Jumelle says foodies, such as Martha Stewart, have elevated the North American classics to a new level.
“She has helped people appreciate the quality and care that goes into hand-made products.”
Brothers Michael and Martin Givens operate LaRocca Creative Cakes in Thornhill, Ontario. The company that started in 1986 as a small retail bakery in Woodbridge, Ontario, has grown to a large wholesale-only supplier of more than 40 varieties of LaRocca cakes to hotels, restaurants, cafés and grocery stores in Canada.
On an average day, LaRocca sends out about 5,000 cakes in the company’s 26 trucks. On the busiest days, up to 12,000 cakes are shipped out of its production facility where 200 people hand-produce the cakes. In spite of its formidable size, LaRocca continues to focus on quality, craftsmanship, and wholesome natural ingredients. And, as Michael Givens says, the company “stays away from Atkins and no-sugar and other such things.”
According to Givens, trends come and go but the same traditional signature cakes remain favourites of LaRocca’s customers. These include the company's trademarked Super Caramel Crunch™, Chocolate Truffle and Mixed Fruit Torte.
Like most cake businesses, LaRocca introduces new products and new versions periodically, but nothing seems to out-sell the tried-and-true. Just recently, LaRocca introduced mini tarts – three-inch versions of its famous tarts – and the response has been good, says Givens.
“Quality is still the number-one 'trend' for our clients and the consumers they serve,” he adds. “People will pay extra for quality, especially when it comes to something like a cake which is the centre of a party and the decadent highlight of a dinner.”
Toronto’s “Queen of Cake,” Dufflet Rosenberg, has been baking cakes commercially since 1975. She opened her first retail outlet and café in 1982. Today, in addition to operating two retail locations in Toronto, Dufflet Pastries supplies more than 500 restaurants, cafes, food shops, hotels and caterers with more than 100 products, including wedding cakes.
All Dufflet products are handcrafted from scratch using only premium, entirely natural ingredients. Dufflet promises to deliver “no preservatives, no artificial flavours or colours – only pure and sweet.”
Rosenberg says that low-cal is most definitely not what her company is about.
“Everything we sell is high-calorie, but it is all natural, no preservatives or hydrogenated fats.”
But it is not easy to walk the path, she admits. In a recent interview with the Toronto-based Gremolata food blog, Rosenberg commented that the hardest thing to avoid is sulphites, because most dried fruits have them. And to avoid chocolate with hydrogenated fats, she imports the chocolate used for decorations.
Rosenberg says that no trend has replaced the classic cake flavours such as chocolate, lemon and strawberry.
“People’s lives are complicated, they want quality and clarity and comfort in the decadent desserts they buy,” she says.
So in cakes, that means chocolate, cheesecake and carrot cake. For variety, people buy different “newer” cakes, such as the Margarita Maze Cake and Mango Tiramisu. Mini cakes and mini loaves are also popular.
Rosenberg keeps up with the latest trends and has a long list of favourites. She says visual standards in desserts keep going up and mentions two companies, DC Duby in Vancouver and Jin Patisserie in California, as examples of visually interesting execution.
Husband and wife Bryan and Joanne Yaakov have produced frozen cakes for restaurants, hotels, distributors and other food-service firms since 1982 at their company, Wow! Factor Desserts. The head office is in Sherwood Park, Alberta with branches across North America.
Joanne Yaakov does not hesitate when asked about flavour trends.
“It never changes,” she says. “It is chocolate, chocolate, chocolate. We do bring out new things every year with a new twist on the flavour or exotic fruit and so on, but people love chocolate.”
Three-inch, single-serving cakes are popular and “a wave of the future” according to Yaakov.
Wow! Factor is also a “scratch bakery,” to which Joanne Yaakov is very committed.
“We do not work with premixes that are loaded with chemicals. We use pure cream and butter. We are not yet totally preservative-free, but we are about 85 to 90 per cent preservative-free.”
Yaakov believes consumers deserve better products and she says she has been fighting for a long time to “get margarine off the shelf.” She’s pleased with the trend toward trans-fat-free products.
“I am very health-conscious and incorporate that same philosophy into my business,” she says. “I have felt for many years that manufacturers need to be responsible for the quality of the ingredients they put into their products. Corporately, we all have a great impact on the nation's health, good or bad. I have been a voice saying ‘keep it pure,’ but the majority have been into quick and cheap instead.”
Vancouver Sun newspaper’s food editor recently described the cakes of Sweet Obsession Cakes and Pastries as, “Simple, elegant designs with emphasis on flavour.” Co-owner Lorne Tyczenski says that flavour is the most important ingredient of the cakes in the 12-year-old, single-store, high-end bakery. Sweet Obsession is known for catering to the city’s movers and shakers, to a large Asian clientele, and to customers as far away as Bellingham, Washington.
“People do not come here for ‘healthy’ but they do expect the best ingredients,” he says. “We’ve tried a few low-sugar, fat-free versions but no one buys them.”
Tyczenski echoes the views of the other cake makers that a cake is an indulgence, “not one of the main food groups.” And the best-selling cakes? Triple-Chocolate Mousse Cake and Chocolate Obsession.
Tyczenski says customers are more informed today than ever before.
“They know their chocolate, for example. It is not just any chocolate that they want, they want Belgian chocolate.”
He also says that people used to ask for “birthday cake” as if it were some sort of a cake category.
“Today, we don't hear that any more. People know and appreciate that a birthday cake can be any wonderful cake, or several little ones.”
He also says that people now want special-event cakes – including wedding cakes – that aren't inedible “monuments” but instead taste great and look delicious.