Archive | July 2012

Certifiable

On August First, a room full of decorators will attempt to become Certified Master Sugar Artists at the ICES Convention in Reno, NV. (If you are not familiar with ICES, please check them out and consider joining – http://www.ices.org). When people see CMSA after my name, they often ask what the letters mean and what it means to be Certified. I thought this was the perfect time for a blog post on all things related to certification.

Let’s start with a definition.
Adj. 1. certifiable – fit to be certified as insane (and treated accordingly)
certified
insane – afflicted with or characteristic of mental derangement; “was declared insane”; “insane laughter”
2. certifiable – capable of being guaranteed or certified; “a certifiable fact”
certified – endorsed authoritatively as having met certain requirements; “a certified public accountant”

Clearly, the second definition is the one we are really using, but I find that people use the first almost as often when speaking of the Certification Program. When I took the test, the program was truly in its infancy and people thought that I had lost my mind to try for my CMSA. After all, wouldn’t I be embarrassed if I didn’t make it? Did I really want to be judged in a live situation? Isn’t it better to do the cakes without being under a time limit? Sometimes people look at the certification cakes and think that the adjudicators must be crazy to give someone CMSA status for those cakes. Sometimes we adjudicators think we must be insane to take on our role and several THOUSAND emails. I will tackle all of this and so much more! Please note that these are my opinions only and that this post is a quick overview of the program. I could not possibly put everything in this blog….well I could, but it would be really LONG! Here’s my cliff notes on Certification:

1. What is involved in becoming certified?

Certification testing only happens at the ICES convention. You can sign up about a year in advance. You must pay a fee and fill out an application form. It is first come, first served – we do not make a judgement call as to whether you are ready. You decide if you are ready. You will have to file a plan by a set date. The adjudicators will review your plan and notify you whether – on its face- the plan meets the minimum requirements.

On test day, you have 8 hours to complete a three tier cake, a single tier cake and a non-cake display piece. There are several dozen techniques divided into four technique levels (1-4) and you must do one from each level. The technique levels are assigned point status the same as the level – a level one is worth one point. You have to do a total of 8 techniques during the test and those techniques have to be worth 21 points. You get to choose the ones you do. You are judged on how well you perform every aspect of that technique, by its traditional standard. You receive a score from 1-10. If you receive lower than an 8 on ANY technique, you cannot be a CMSA. ( You can achieve Certified Sugar Artist, CSA, if you do not score lower than a 7 on ANY technique, but fail to achieve CMSA status).

It isn’t enough to do your chosen techniques well, you have to also cover a cake in fondant, ice a cake smoothly in buttercream, have a clean work process and – perhaps hardest – put together attractive pieces that do not look like you randomly stuck 8 techniques on them. Please understand this isn’t going to look like a major cake show competition piece most of the time…unless you are incredibly fast, that simply isn’t possible!

2. How hard is it to get CMSA?

It isn’t a cakewalk…no pun intended. On any given year, 16-24 people attempt certification. Our lowest year, only two people became certified masters. On our highest, it approaches half. Those numbers might seem daunting, but the scarier number is those that fail to complete the process. Every year, we lose several people during the plan approval process. Every year, by the lunch break on test day, we have several tell us they are so far off track that they will not finish in time. Every year, the conditions in the room are tough and it affects almost every candidate.

You have to remember that you are in a new environment. It might be too hot, too cold, too drafty, too dark, too anything for you that day. Although we warn them not to do this, someone always finds themselves working with a different type of fondant, royal or buttercream icing, often with disastrous results. You could have won every major cake show in the USA or your country, but that doesn’t guarantee you certification. As adjudicators, we have to look at only what you do on test day. We cannot compare your work that day to work you have done in the past. It is just your work done that day!

You are also not judged in comparison to anyone else. The adjudicators do not compare one person’s lace points to another’s…only to the recognized standard. It does not matter who else is taking the test when you are. You only have to do YOUR personal best, in relationship to the standards for the techniques.

The test is hard enough that some people have taken it two to three times before achieving certification. Some have received CSA status, but keep trying again for that elusive CMSA. Does that make them “certifiable”, as in crazy? I think not. I think it shows how very badly they want certification and how incredibly dedicated they are to achieving it.

3. How do I get ready for certification?

First, you need to go to ices.org and download all of the information on the test. Read everything you can get your hands on. As an adjudicator, I find that people often put together plans that show that they have not fully read the handbook. There is nothing as frustrating to an adjudicator as to have to directly quote a rule from the handbook to a candidate who designed a plan that does not meet the rule. The plan must be written with the complete guidance of the handbook. The handbook isn’t perfect and cannot possibly tell the candidate everything, but it tells them so, SO much. Every year, the handbook is revised and tweaked in an effort to make everything as clear as possible.

Second, you need to have an arsenal of skills that you can do at MASTER level. That often means taking classes with the best teachers on the subject. That means that you have to be able to do more than the minimum standard for that technique. A master does more than the minimum. This is not the time for “It’ll do”.

Third, you have to put together an achievable plan. I recommend that you design one that will take seven hours, not eight. You need that cushion because, invariably, something is going to go wrong. For me, it took almost an hour for me to get my extension work strings to stop breaking. If I had made an eight hour plan and lost that hour, I would not have finished the day I tested. I would not have those pretty letters at the end of my name.

Finally, you have to practice. A lot. And then some more. And then again. The adjudicators are surprised at how often we can tell that people did not sufficiently practice. This is especially true for people who work at a leisurely pace. Working against a clock is incredibly difficult if you are not used to it. I will admit that I did not practice my entire plan before I went. But, I worked in a very busy commercial shop and was used to playing “beat the clock”. This could have gone poorly for me and, looking back, I see that I was really lucky and blessed that my lack of practice did not bite me in the butt!

4. Do I really need to be certified?

That is a question that only YOU can answer. For me, it was important. I wanted to be the first from Oklahoma. I knew I was working to become a respected instructor and I felt like those letters gave me validation for that career path. Did I NEED it? No. Do those letters earn me any more money? No. Did achieving a CMSA mean that the cake tv shows wanted me on their shows? No. Did I WANT to be certified? Yes. Do I believe in the program? Absolutely. Do I think that having CMSA after your name will come to mean more as the program progresses? You bet.

5. Who are the adjudicators?

There are two types of adjudicators. When the program started, someone had to be able to decide who passed the test and who did not. The ICES Board approved six Honorary CMSAs. These six ladies carried the program the first year. As people achieved CMSA status, some have moved into the role of adjudicators. The Test Administrator and the Certification Committee Chair for the Board have selected the CMSAs they believe are qualified to adjudicate. Not every CMSA has the background, skill or desire to adjudicate.

Three of the Honorary CMSAs no longer adjudicate. It now takes nine adjudicators to handle the load on test day, so that means that six people are ones who passed the Certification test. There was a working thought that eventually the Honorary CMSAs would not be needed as adjudicators. Whether that happens or not does not matter much to me. I respect ALL the adjudicators and am excited that this year we are starting to train Apprentice Adjudicators – people with CMSA certification who have not judged as much as the current adjudicators. We are hoping to build such a large, talented pool of adjudicators that we could test more people or at more than one time during the year.

The adjudicators travel at their own expense to convention, two days early. They answer hundreds and thousands of emails about the Certification plans. They help edit and write the handbook. They are currently working on an adjudicator’s handbook. They are part coach, cheerleader, counselor, advisor, judge, jury and role model for what it means to be a CMSA. They are often the face of the program. I am honored to be part of this group.

6. When do you find out if you passed?

The announcement is made Saturday night of convention during the awards banquet. No one reads the names of those who fail to achieve certification. First, the Certified Sugar Artists are introduced. Then the Certified Master Sugar Artists take the stage. YOU would know if you did not meet your goal, but ICES will never announce that. No one wants to embarrass anyone. You can fill out a confidentiality agreement and you will be told before the banquet where you tested. You cannot tell anyone or talk to the other candidates about how you did. You are not told how anyone else did.

7. I think I want to take the test. Now what?

Come watch this year’s test! Spectators are allowed and we want you to see what is involved before you take the test.

Email me. I wrote a Girlfriend’s Guide to Certification. I am happy to share it.

Talk to everyone you can find who has taken the test and get their advice. Listen to their information. They may save you from committing a costly error.

8. Applaud those who take the test and honor those who achieve certification on any level.

The people taking the test on Wednesday are brave and deserve our respect for reaching for their goal. This will be a long, tiring day for everyone involved in the certification process. When you see the cakes in the Cake Room…think to yourself -could I do all that in eight hours? The next time it takes you hours to decorate a zebra stripe cake at home, think about people trying to do extension work, plus seven other skills in that amount of time. It is truly impressive that people are able to work under pressure in a foreign environment and be able to create master level work. I am incredibly proud of the candidates and wish them all the best of luck. I hope that some of you will consider going for certification. It won’t be the easiest thing you ever do, but it will be one of the proudest. Are you certifiable?

The Answer is in the Shoes

You put your heart and soul into your competition cake. Your family says it is your best work ever. Your friends swear you should have your own tv show – you are better than Buddy. You proudly set your cake out for judging. You surreptitiously watch the judges as they evaluate your cake. You check out your competition and are sure that you have won. You can point out the flaws in every other cake. You are, simply, the best.

The next day, you show up at the cake show, ready to revel in the glory of your win, only to discover that you placed lower than you expected…if you placed at all. Why didn’t you win? Why did those imperfect cakes beat yours?

I have a PowerPoint presentation that I give on What Judges Look For that I give at Days of Sharing. I will also be giving this talk at the ICES Convention in Reno. I will be posting my tips, but not the PowerPoint on my web page soon (www.RuthRickey.com). In the meantime, I want to share with you a story from one of my dear friends, Scott Ewing, from ISAC.

Scott is a talented, award winning photographer, among many other skills. He entered a lot of photography competitions and could not seem to get the requisite score to move onto the national level of the competition. As he expressed his frustration to a friend in the industry, his friend said, “It’s no wonder, look at the judges’ shoes. There’s the answer”. Scott scopes out the shoes and tries to figure out where this is going. Finally, he shakes his head and tells his friend that he doesn’t understand. “One is in loafers, one in tennis shoes and one in dress shoes – what does that show me?”. “Simple,” says his friend. “If they cannot agree on the type of footwear that is best, what makes you think they are all going to agree on something as subjective as a piece of art?”.

From that day forward, Scott kept in mind that he was shooting the photos first and foremost for himself. There was simply no way to guarantee that any group of people will react to the piece of art the same way as you. On any given day, you could win or you could lose. Create the art for yourself, for the joy of seeing your dream come to life.

The next time you attend the cake show competition, steal a glance at the judge’s shoes and remind yourself that art is subjective. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The joy isn’t just in a win; the joy is in the journey.

(Oh, and my shoes are almost always cute when I judge!)

Crooked Brook Hoodie-Hooded Sweatshirt Giveaway 1

Happy Tuesday everyone!  This is my third giveaway for this week. This is the first  Hoodie-Hooded Sweatshirt that Crooked Brook is giving away.   You will have 2 weeks to enter this contest.  Crooked Brook does embroidered hoodies,  in addition to all the great chef coats.  Crooked Brook wants to give one of you one of these, too!!  When I ran my bakery, I had one that I loved to wear.  It had my logo on the back and always got comments!  The picture below is with one of their stock designs, but this will have YOUR shop name on it!  Isn’t that exciting?

Hoodies or hooded sweatshirts are another great wearable promotional item although they are more expensive than t-shirts. Custom hoodies embroidered with the logo or name of your business is a way to identify employees and when given as gifts or giveaways they are great way to get your name out there and tell the world about your goods or services.

Therefore, Crooked Brook and I would like to announce Hoodie-Hooded Sweatshirt Giveaway 1.
These giveaways are first quality, hooded sweatshirts from Crooked Brook’s inventory. The brand and color of the hoodie will be determined by what they have in stock at the time the winner is announced. Crooked Brook will try their best to send winner’s a hoodie as close to their request as possible.
The winner has the option of getting the hoodie blank or with their business name embroidered on the left front chest with (as pictured) or without the cupcake or cake.

(Crooked Brook is working on expanding their cake and sugar art embroidery designs)

If the winner would prefer to have their logo embroidered instead, that would have to be discussed with Crooked Brook.
The winner will be chosen randomly, from those who post a comment with an answer to this question;

What color, gender and size hoodie would you like to win?

You must be 18 years or older to enter. Contest ends midnight (Eastern Standard Time) 08/07/12. Winner will be chosen by SugarZen 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.

To enter, please leave a comment below.

The winner will be chosen randomly…

Terms & Conditions:

You must be 18 years or older to enter.

Contest ends midnight (Eastern Standard Time) 08/07/12.

Winner will be chosen by SugarZen and contacted by email.

Winner will have 48 hours to reply or a new winner will be chosen.

Winner’s artwork must meet requirements for Crooked Brooks DTG printing.

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.

Crooked Brook T Shirt Giveaway 4

Happy Tuesday everyone!  This is my second giveaway for this week. This is the 4th  T Shirt that Crooked Brook is giving away.  I get to give one of these every week.  You will have 2 weeks to enter each contest.  Crooked Brook does custom printed tshirts in addition to all the great chef  Crooked Brook wants to give one of you one of these, too!!  The picture below is the blog logo, but this will have YOUR logo on it!  Isn’t that exciting?

Custom t-shirts are one of the most inexpensive yet cost effective marketing tools available. One of the advantages they have over other promotional products is that wherever people wearing t-shirts with your logo on it go; your brand goes. It is a great way to convey your business image and build brand awareness.

In response to this, I have teamed up with my friends at Crooked Brook to sponsor another custom t-shirt giveaway.

The prize is a White, Gildan, G200 6.1 oz. Ultra Cotton® T-Shirt made in 100% preshrunk cotton, with the image of the winners logo printed on the front or back.

Although the most popular method of printing t-shirts is screen printing; Crooked Brook t-shirts are printed using Direct to Garment Printing (DTG printing or digital garment printing) which is the process of using inkjet printers to print an image directly onto a t-shirt without the use of screens like with silk screening or screen printing. DTG technology uses eco-friendly, water soluble ink, unlike some screen printing methods that layer Plastisol (a suspension of PVC particles in a plasticizer) on top of the t-shirt. The only thing DTG printing requires is for the image to be high resolution resulting in photograph quality printing with no setup fee or minimums for custom t-shirts.

To enter, please leave a comment below.

The winner will be chosen randomly…

Terms & Conditions:

You must be 18 years or older to enter.

Contest ends midnight (Eastern Standard Time) 08/07/12.

Winner will be chosen by SugarZen and contacted by email.

Winner will have 48 hours to reply or a new winner will be chosen.

Winner’s artwork must meet requirements for Crooked Brooks DTG printing.

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.

Crooked Brook Custom Polo Shirt Giveaway 5

Happy Tuesday everyone!  Are you getting ready to go to ICES?  What will you be wearing?  You could be in one of these the next time you attend a cake event!  Crooked Brook is giving away another embroidered polo shirt.  So, just like my dear friend LaMeeka Howard, who had Crooked Brook design a polo shirt with her bakery logo on it, Crooked Brook wants to give one of you one of these, too!!  Right now, the cake images are part of their stock image files, but you can talk to Crooked Brook about having your entire logo put onto the shirt.  Otherwise, they will stitch on your logo name with their cute cake!

Polo shirts are another inexpensive yet cost effective marketing tool. More casual than button-front shirts and dressier than t-shirts, embroidered polo shirts are part of the uniform for many businesses.

Polo shirts are also called “polos” or tennis shirts and they became so popular on golf courses, people started calling them golf shirts. Although the words “polo shirt” and “golf shirt” are used interchangeably, the term “polo shirt” is more popular.

Polo shirts embroidered with a company logo given as gifts or giveaways are called promotional polo shirts or golf shirts and are great way to get your name out there business and build brand awareness.

With that said, I have teamed up with my friends at Crooked Brook to sponsor another embroidered polo shirt giveaway.

Please Note:  The winner has the option of getting the polo shirt blank or with their business name and a cake embroidered on the left front chest (as pictured). If the winner would prefer to have their logo embroidered instead, that would have to be discussed with Crooked Brook.

These giveaways are first quality, polo shirts from Crooked Brook’s inventory and the brand and color will be determined by what they have in stock at the time the winner is announced. Crooked Brook will try their best to send winner’s a polo shirt as close to their request as possible. The winner will be chosen randomly, from those who post a comment with an answer to this question;

What color, gender and size polo shirt would you like to win?

 

You must be 18 years or older to enter. Contest ends midnight (Eastern Standard Time) 08/7/12. Winner will be chosen by SugarZen 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

The Cake Guru

In every career I have had, I have been blessed to have someone that was always ready to offer advice and guidance when I needed it. These mentors have spent time with me and shared with me the benefit of their experience. Many times, they saved me hours of heartache when I would have been doing something twenty times if not for their well timed information rescue. Sometimes, they helped me to focus my energies on the right task or in the right direction. Occasionally, they told me I wasn’t ready for something. In every case, I was better off for having them in my life.

I am writing today to encourage you to find one or more mentors. Look around your cake club or city and see if there is someone who can be your guide. It is possible that you will have one or more Facebook friends who act as mentors. There is no right or wrong person to use as a mentor. The person does not have to be older than you…they just need different or more experience than you on the subject.

You may not even need a mentor from the cake world. If your friend is great at using social media, let him advise you on ways to improve your use of that form of advertising. If a friend is a great writer, see if they will help you rewrite your web pages for better impact. If your friend is great at numbers, ask for their help with your budget.

The perfect mentor for me might not work for you. Think about who you can speak honestly with, who you can trust and who offers realistic encouragement. Remember that if everyone of you seeks out Mike McCarey ( who is a great mentor, btw) or someone “famous”, know that they might be pretty busy and unable to get you quick answers. I know I get questions a lot and try to always answer each to the best of my knowledge, but I am rarely instantaneous about it these days. The best mentors are going to be people who see you regularly and know your situation.

I almost wish that there was a cake guru at the top of a multi-tiered cake mountain somewhere who had the answers to every cake question, but I am realistic enough to know that no one in this industry knows it all (although some act like they do!). We all have strengths and weaknesses. Find the balance for your weakness by finding your mentor.

How do you get a mentor? Remember when I said that you needed someone with whom you could be honest? This is part of why. You need to feel comfortable asking your questions and, more importantly, in asking for help. Be brave and reach out. I promise you that there are mentors all around you right now. Who will be your cake guru?

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One Bad Apple

“My five year old could do a better job!”. “That is the ugliest cake I have ever seen!”. “I was so embarrassed, I could not serve the cake.”. “No one could believe I paid $xx for such a terrible cake.”

I have read countless Facebook posts by people hurt to the core by comments like these. I have endured more than a few over nearly 20 years in retail. Sometimes, I could tell that the customers had overspent and were trying to recoup some money. Sometimes the customers were having problems completely unrelated to the cake, but you were close and it was easy to take out their frustrations on you. Sometimes, the cakes truly aren’t great.

When you get a complaint, it seems like the end of the world. You worry that your business is doomed. You begin to doubt your talent and wonder if you made a mistake going into cakes. Your insecurities grow and you start to second guess every design choice. Occasionally, you get angry and defensive. Your next several cake orders are stressful and anxiety producing events.

We drive almost every day, but very rarely are in traffic accidents. If we have one, do we instantly lament that we are the worst driver in the world? Do we consider giving up our cars? Of course not! We understand that in life, accidents happen. We need to take that approach with our cakes. Admit the mistake. Accept it. Move on.

There were weeks at our shop where I had a couple hundred cakes go out. We could have been told that 199 were “perfect”, “awesome”, “beautiful”…but the one negative comment would be what stuck with us. We would replay the comment and my employees and I would be in a funk for the rest of the day about that order. My sleep that night would be an endless loop of the conversation with the unhappy customer.

Why do we believe the negative comments more quickly than the positive? Why don’t we savor the compliments the same way we stew over the criticisms? I read a quote the other day that made me think of a lot of the young decorators who are so easily hurt by the complaints. It said: ” There are 7,012,472,832 people in the world. Don’t let one bring you down.”. The longer we are in business, the more we start to realize that one bad (or so so) cake doesn’t define who we are. The longer we are in business, the more we can tell which complaints are real and which are crap. The longer we are in business, the more confidence and experience we have when handling these situations.

I wish I could write down some magic words to tell you how to handle this situation. To some extent, I gave advice about handling the caketasrophes in my blog When Bad Things Happen To Good People. The key is to hold your temper, apologize, offer whatever you think is appropriate and maintain your professionalism. If you did do something wrong, learn from that mistake and work on preventing similar mistakes in the future. If someone who works for you screwed up, you still have to accept ultimate responsibility. (Yes, that sucks).

If you believe that you did nothing wrong, then you have to stick to your guns. Tell the customer that you are sorry that they did not like your recipe, or the way THEIR design looked or whatever. If you feel that they are not entitled to a refund, then do not give one. Be aware that they may complain on a social network, but that could happen any time any day, regardless of whether a customer talks to you about an issue. Know that your core customer base will stay the same and that this one incident will not make or break you.

Post the happy comments somewhere that you can see them when you work. Let the positive notes keep you company as you work. As soon as you can, get that negative incident out of your head. Do not let one person crush your spirit. Remember, we are all artists, but not everyone likes the same art. Believe in yourselves and the joy of decorating. Make today a great day to be designing cakes!