Archive | March 2012

Why Do Teachers Cancel Classes?

My friend Becky Rink wrote a great Facebook note about this about a year ago, but I think this subject is important enough to warrant another discussion.

This weekend, I am judging and demonstrating at the Florida Iced Cake Show. I was going to be traveling and rooming with a few cake friends. When the class numbers were sent out a couple weeks before the event, three of my friends made the tough choice to cancel their trip. In each case, the numbers registered for their demos did not cover even half of the cost of their trip. While there was still time for people to register, they could not bank on late registrations. My husband and I made the decision that I would still make the trip even though I will take a loss on it.

Too often I hear people say “I was going to sign up for that class!”. My thought is…but you didn’t. The teacher cannot possibly know that all of you are waiting until the last minute to sign up. My other favorite comment is…”are you teaching that class again here? I wanted to take it, but I had to take so and so’s class.”. Come on, you made your choice. The teachers cannot possibly come back again to offer the same class in the same area any time soon.

When teachers agree to bring classes to you, they have to book flights, book hotels, book a car, gather class supplies, etc. Money starts to add up quickly. Most set their class fees to cover their travel costs and, hopefully, a little something for their time in teaching you.

Why do we procrastinate so much in signing up for the classes? I know that decorators are last minute kind of folks, but this needs to change. The other day, I left town with two people in a class. I got to my destination only to have people start signing up then! I ended up with 11 in the class. Since I supply everything, this meant I was scrambling to make sure I had everything for the students. Yes, we always plan on a couple last minute additions, but 9?

I beg of you, if you see a class you want, sign up early. Tell your friends. Help promote the classes you are interested in so that the teachers will get enough students to make the trip cost effective. Be understanding when a class is canceled. I promise you that no teacher wants to cancel a class!

Crooked Brook Chef Coat Giveaway 1

Hi friends! As promised, my giveaways are here! Many of you know I have been an incredibly huge fan of Crooked Brook chef coats for a long time. They want my readers to look as good as me! They are going to let me give away one coat a week….but you will have 2 weeks to enter before the drawing will be held. Don’t worry about this first coat being in size 8…every week will feature a different size and style. Patience is a zen-like virtue, after all. And free is worth coming to look in each week to see what is offerered!

Although all Crooked Brook chef coats are made to order, they have many chef jackets in various styles and sizes that were accidentally not made according to the customer’s specifications, or have slight imperfections. These men’s and women’s chef coats cannot be sold as new so, I have partnered with Crooked Brook and we offering them as giveaways.

chef coat giveaway 1

closeup of embroidered rose cuffs

Size 8 Women’s Chef Coat Style BSW 104
100% cotton petti point pique; pink & white.
Two curved double welt pockets.
Faux Mother-of-Pearl buttons.
Two rose embroideries; one on each cuff.

Irregularities; Fabric is slightly faded on shoulders

Regular Price: $200.00 including shipping

For question regarding size, please refer to their size chart or contact them at 315-733-1992

To enter, visit Crooked Brook and leave a comment here with the description of a chef coat that you would like to see offered as a giveaway in the future and what you would do with it.

Terms & Conditions:

You must be 18 years or older to win.
Contest ends midnight (Eastern Standard Time) 04/06/12.
Winner will be chosen by sugarzen.wordpress.com and contacted by email.
Winner will have 48 hours to reply or a new winner will be chosen.
Crooked Brook will ship the prize to the winner within 30 days of contest end.
Physical address required for shipping; no PO boxes, US recipients only residing in one of the 48 contiguous states.

Since 1989 Crooked Brook has designed and manufactured chef coats for the world’s most recognized chefs. Each one of their chef coats and aprons is made to order in the USA, and can personalized with your choice of fabric, pockets, buttons, piping and embroidery.

Best of luck to all my readers! This is going to be fun!

What Does a Sugar Artist Look Like?

When I first started decorating cakes at the grocery store, I had to wear the store uniform: black pants and a white shirt. Eventually, the store decided that my friend Andrea and I should wear chef coats on wedding deliveries. The main problem was that the coats were men’s sizes, boxy and only came in white. It was hard to feel feminine in this getup!

One year at the Oklahoma Sugar Art Show, Kerry Vincent introduced a sugar artist uniform. It consisted of high quality scrub tops and long aprons. While they were attractive and very well made, I could not wear the long apron climbing in and out of the delivery van. While I thought Kerry was onto something, it just wasn’t the perfect fit for me. I continued my quest.

A couple years later, chef coats were finally available in women’s sizes! Unfortunately, our only color choices were white or black. One day, I was watching Food Network’s Challenge and saw the competitors in colorful coats. Eureka! I thought! Now we were talking! I Googled the manufacturer and learned that, once again, the colorful coats were in men’s sizes only.

I just couldn’t get this out of my head. One day, I changed search terms and Googled colored women’s chef coats. Pay dirt! I found Crooked Brook chef coats and my signature style began. At first, I chose simply the colors they offered. The great thing was, they tailored each coat for the person. No longer did I look emaciated; I looked like I was wearing something designed for me…which I was.

After a while, as my chef coat addiction grew, I started to crave new designs. I started buying my own fabric, accent fabric and buttons and soon thereafter I began wearing the look you all know today. I have a lot of coats, but I have bought them over many years. I may be a fashionista, but I am still sensible. I invested in pieces that will last for many more years to come.

Why should you care about all of this? Because what you wear to meetings with clients, to wedding deliveries, to cake shows and to teach matters. This is your personal packaging. How many of you fretted over which box to buy or bag to use for your orders? Is this really less important? Why is the packaging of a cake pop more important than the packaging of the face of your business??!!

I am NOT saying everyone needs chef coats. I do not care whether you wear cute t shirts from your shop, street clothes or a chef coat. I only care that you look polished and presentable. I have too often seen people on deliveries and at shows in oversized men’s t shirts (they are comfortable), wrinkled or dirty clothes (I am too busy), or unprofessional choices like pajama pants and message t shirts better for a night out with friends. What message do you send the judges, students, event centers, customers? What is your style brand?

We only get one chance to make a first impression. What impression do you give? Are your competitors getting business that you want? Are others getting asked to demo instead of you? We teach people how to treat us. If we dress as though we do not matter or are not important, why are we surprised when people believe that message?

When I was a baby lawyer, a senior partner told me to dress for the job I wanted. That holds true in almost every profession. What is your goal for yourself and your business? The answers to these questions will lead you to the right outfit for you. I was watching American Idol last night and Tommy Hilfiger said that fashion is for right now; style is timeless. All that I ask is that we each find a personal style that reflects who we are, what we do and where we want to be in our lives. I will tell you right now that few people knew my name before I adopted my style. The coats became recognizable and gave me extra credibility. They gave me confidence as I walked the halls at ICES. They helped people remember me. I created a brand for myself.

And please, consider the addition of color to your wardrobe! I know too many people who only wear black. Completely black. I told a dear friend that I wished she would wear some color instead of only black. Tanveer Walli (Cake Mechanic on FB) debuted several colorful scarves at the Virginia show and was told non stop how beautiful she looked! You don’t need to fade into the woodwork! Regardless of whether you like your height, weight, hair or whatever…embrace yourself as you are. Love yourself as WE love you and dress in a flattering way.

So, is it right that people make judgements about others? Of course not. Is it a fact of the world we live in? You bet. Think about why the high end restaurants plate the food with such care and so artistically. It plants a subliminal message that the food is as good as the presentation. What is the subliminal message you send to the world? The next time you are about to meet with a bride, attend a cake show , etc., take one last look in the mirror and think about the image you want to portray. Then find your personal packaging and maintain it. Let me know if it makes a difference in how you carry yourself and in how people receive you.

Bad Teacher – Hollywood Movie or Cake Reality?

Recently someone posted on Facebook that the teaching field in the sugarcraft world was flooded with hundreds of teachers who range from poor to good. The writer was contemplating joining this flood of teachers to bring some qualified or, in their mind, superior teaching skills to rescue the students being taught by the lesser quality teachers.

This started me wondering…are we really all poor to good teachers (those of us actually out sharing our love of sugar on the teaching circuit), or are there only a few bad apples? What makes a good teacher? How do students know if the class will be worth it or be a huge waste of time and money? As your self appointed sugar guru, I decided to take on the Facebook comments and take a closer look. (In a future blog, I plan to share with you how to start teaching and demonstrating – don’t look for that info in here).

I believe there are several signs of a good teacher. First, the teacher is organized. Whether they provide everything or you have to bring some supplies, the teacher should have everything ready to go for class. If you are working with fondant, it should already be cut and portioned, ready for use. Tools should be lined up for you.

Second, the teacher should have time management skills. They have to know when to push the class or move along with the project. They should have a sense of how much can be accomplished during the class and help keep the class focused on the task at hand. There is always a chatty person who feels inclined to tell all about their experiences the entire time of the class – the teacher has to not lose the class to this person.

Third, the teacher should assist the students. I personally hate the classes I have taken where a teacher never moves from the front table. How can the teacher know if the students are understanding? The teachers should be able to both explain verbally and show physically how to do the technique. The teachers should look for signs of frustration and move quickly to assist those students before the tears start. (Yes, this happens!). Teachers often have to be able to show something left and right handed. Teachers have to watch for language barriers and help the people move their hands in the right way if they cannot understand the teacher’s words.

Fourth, the teacher should be knowledgeable on the subject and related subjects. Students rarely limit questions to the class at hand! Teachers have to be willing to share their experiences and sufficient information to make the class worthwhile.

Fifth, the teacher should provide informative instructions for the students to take home. Step by step instructions are best. A sheet with the teacher’s name and bio is not helpful later. Telling the students the information is in your book (which they can purchase) is just wrong. The students paid for the class and have already purchased that set of instructions.

Sixth, the teacher must be enthusiastic about the subject. Students can tell quickly if a teacher is there to share their love of sugar or there for simply a paycheck. Teachers should happily pose with students, sign aprons and engage the students into the project. The entire class takes its cue from the tone the teacher sets.

Seventh, the teacher should give certificates. Students love them. Reward the students for their hard work in class!

Eighth, the teachers should be available afterwards for questions. Whether through Facebook, email or phone, the teacher should provide at least one line of communication for questions that arise when the students attempt the project again at home.

Ninth, I personally think that teachers should do their best to keep classes affordable. I know that some of the tv personalities who teach can command a higher rate, but I encourage all to make sure that they are giving value for the class fee.

Tenth, I personally believe teachers should supply all or most of the tools and equipment for use in class. This gives every student a level playing field for learning and makes sure that no one is short a vital tool. I believe that no more than two people should have to share a tool.

Eleventh, I believe that being famous does not mean you can teach. I believe that having written books or having designed award winning cakes does not mean you can teach. The skill sets are different. As an education major in college, I can tell you that knowledge of the subject is insufficient. You must be able to teach. Teaching takes practice and understanding of the ways that students learn and retain information.

Twelfth, teachers must keep projects fresh. While some classes are timeless, teachers should freshen up their repertoire from time to time. Do not beat the dead horse. Keep reinventing yourself and your classes. Take classes from other teachers to learn what makes them successful.

Ok, so that’s my main list for what makes a good teacher. How do you know if the class will be good? Look at pictures of students’ work from this class at other locations. Ask for input on Facebook. There isn’t an Angie’s List for cake classes yet, but perhaps there should be.

Back to the comments that started this blog…do I think that the hundreds of teachers are only poor to good? I do not. I have actually taken classes from many of them, assisted others in classes and have watched demonstrations with many more of them. As someone with ACTUAL experience with many of the teachers, I find the comment puzzling. There are very few people that I have experienced as less than great teachers. The ones that I personally feel need work on teaching skills or organization…that is actually unrelated to how I feel about them as authors, personalities or decorators. They just need to hone their teaching skills. Not everyone had the advanced education classes I received. They are doing the best they know how to do at the moment. As they grow and learn (as we all do), they will be better teachers.

How do I feel about the person who made the comments moving in to the teaching world again? I have absolutely no problem with it. I have attended several demos by this person. They have knowledge to share. Besides, anyone can offer classes. The market and demand will bear out whether any person is a good teacher.

People offering tired, stale classes will see their numbers fall. People who fail to teach what they advertise will face demands for refunds. People who do not encourage their students and assist them in class will find their enrollment declining. Like in business, where many companies fail in a short period of time, the best stay in business for a long time.

There is a reason that some teachers are in demand. There are reasons that some people consistently have classes with a large number of students. While less famous people may have to work harder to get known and recognized, teaching skills will always be the determining point. The proof is in the pudding, so to speak. The people you see all over the country are almost always strong in the twelve areas outlined above.

My final word today is, let’s not label people indiscriminately as poor to good teachers. Let’s celebrate the good ones, quietly let our friends know about the not great ones and welcome the new ones. Isn’t that a much better approach?

Just a Cake Decorator – the Dangers of the Word “Just”

How many times a day do we minimize what we do or who we are? The English major in me wants to speak to you about the word we need to avoid whenever possible…the word “just”. In this sense, just is an adverb. If you look in the dictionary, you will find that it means “only” or “simply”. It becomes a word to take away the power of what it modifies.

It is almost as if the decorators are saying that they are not good enough, that they are impostors. Why? Why do we feel this need to beat ourselves up? Shouldn’t we start celebrating who we are and how far we’ve come? If we use a minimizing word like just, our customers will treat us in a minimal fashion. They take their cues from us.

Can’t each of the following statements be better without the word just? I am just a home decorator. I am just a beginning decorator. I am just a bakery owner. Well of course they are better without the just!

The next time you tell people what you do, put it in positive terms and see the difference in the reactions you will get. I am a sugar artist. I run a custom bakery. I am new to the world of sugarcraft.

Step Away From the Super Pearl and No One Gets Hurt

I still remember the first time I discovered super pearl. I was a pretty new decorator and was at a cake show in Kansas or Missouri. Carol Webb was showing off her new (at the time) line of lace and border molds. She dry brushed the super pearl onto the lace and we all gasped. It looked like satin! It brought out all the detail of the mold. It was simply amazing.

Luckily for me, it was a bit pricey in the beginning so decorators used the super pearl sparingly. The most gorgeous accents began to appear on cakes.

Like any good thing, people started to experiment and figured out that by mixing super pearl with vodka or lemon extract, they could make an edible pearl paint. Now people started highlighting brush embroidery and extension work. It was great.

Someone decided that if we watered it down more, we could airbrush super pearl onto cakes and flowers. My favorite of these cakes involved the entire surface of the cake being airbrushed to a strong pearl sheen and then the cake was covered with piped embellishments. It was lovely.

Luck’s and Americolor introduced airbrush sheens and people were ecstatic. Now they could airbrush to their heart’s content. Decorators started spraying every cake entry with super pearl as their finishing step. No longer did we accent certain aspects of the cake; we covered everything in a thin film of pearl spray. Sprayed like that, the cakes almost look dusty. That is not good!

I want you to think of a fashion show on the runway. The designers use the sparkle and sheen to highlight certain aspects of the outfit. How many times on Project Runway do the judges question designers’ taste when they overuse sparkle and bling? A tasteful cake will not be completely covered in super pearl. If you spray everything on your cake, what is the focus? What is the attention grabber?

I have had occasion to judge one cake recently at two different shows. At the first show, the painting on the top two tiers was simply amazing. The bottom tier was not up to the level of the top two and we suggested that the decorator embellish the bottom tier more. Unfortunately, she chose to spray the entire cake with super pearl. All that did was mute her beautiful painting. It no longer popped at all. I could hardly believe it was the same cake! An incredibly memorable cake became an ordinary, almost dull cake. It broke my heart.

One of our certification candidates did beautiful pieces, then finished up in the last few moments by spraying super pearl all over all her work. I asked her later why she did it. She said, “because it is pretty.”. I asked her what she wanted us to focus on with her piece and she paused and realized that she had made everything have the same tone. Nothing stood out now.

I visited with the Odessa decorators after I helped judge their first show. Step away from the super pearl was my main piece of advice that weekend. I am not sure they understood right away, but a group of them went to the OSSAS that year and finally saw what I was talking about! I got text after text of over-super pearled cakes! They got it.

So I beg of you, step away from the super pearl. Use it as it was originally intended…as a highlight. Use it to draw attention to the focal point of your cake. Use it wisely and your cakes will thank you. Your judges will thank you. Your customers will gasp with delight as they focus on what you want them to focus on. See…no one gets hurt.

Who Doesn’t Love Cake?

I have run into a couple of sugar friends lately who tell me that they don’t enjoy doing cakes anymore. They have been considering giving it up. They feel burned out. They talked with me, not looking for answers, but in a private moment of sharing. They just don’t love cake the way they used to!

It reminded me of several times during my bakery career. There were days I thought that I would rather set myself on fire than do another cake. I still would tell people that I was “paid to play”. I still would smile and say that the bakery business was “awesome”. Inside, I knew I was lying.

Each time this happened, I stepped back and took a look at my bakery life. One truth kept surfacing. If I am in control of things, I am happy. Unhappiness occurs when it feels like things are out of control. No one tells you that you will have a serious LACK of control when you start a business. Everyone tells you it will be great to be your own boss. I found that I was often not the boss of my bakery life.

I would get myself into situations where I felt like I had to say yes to customers when my heart and head were screaming no! I would let them push me into taking too many orders. I would let them bully me in to mixing colors for hours trying to match an impossible color swatch. I would let them push me into designs that I did not enjoy.

I know many of you find yourselves in this same situation. You worry about saying no to a customer. You accept abuse from belligerent customers. You take every order that comes in the door, whether you want to do it or not. Today I am going to tell you to take back control. Right now, the customers have trained you to do their bidding. You can, however, train them so that cake can be fun again.

Let’s talk about notice. You need to decide how much advance notice you need to feel RELAXED as you work on that cake. Set that as your minimum notice and hold to it. It isn’t easy to tell someone they called too late this time, but isn’t it easier than going without sleep for two days for someone who called you at the last minute? You might think that they will not call you again if you say no. I beg to differ. The harder it was to get a cake from my bakery, the more the orders came in. People like knowing that your clients mean so much that you will not rush their cakes.

Let’s think about what you liked about decorating in the beginning. Have you moved away from that? I have friends who only do carved cakes. Others only do wedding cakes. Some refuse to do sheet cakes. Set the boundaries for what you enjoy. If you hate drawings or they stress you out, eliminate them. If color matching is your worst nightmare, show them the color guide for your fondant or food coloring and tell them these are their options. Get back to what you love and refer the other customers to someone who enjoys what you do not. When they say “why not? Why won’t you do it?”. Remind them that this is YOUR bakery. My favorite line was “Because it says Ruth’s outside on the sign.”

Let’s talk about the pushy customers…the ones who always demand the most, compliment the least and complain at the slightest opportunity. Fire them. Yes. Fire them. When I had customers that were creating a toxic environment for me or my employees, they would get a note from me telling them that we were sorry we could not make them happy and that we wished them the best at their next bakery. I have to say that firing a customer is one of the most empowering things you can do. If they throw a fit when they come to get a cake, tell them they do not have to take the cake – that you will take it to the children’s hospital. In this reality show environment, many people are just trying to get money off when the cake is perfectly fine. Beat them at their game and keep the cake. You must take back control, even if that means not selling the cake that day.

Last but not least, have some fun each day. Without feeling guilty. Play music that makes you sing or dance. Throw icing. Laugh. Take a day off just for you. Take back control. If you are having fun, magically, making cakes will be fun again. Best wishes in finding your inner joy!