Archives

Rubbing Salt in a Wound

The things you see on the internet these days!  It is certainly true that social media has changed our world. People say and do things now that would have been unheard of just a decade ago. 

The other day, a friend had someone copy her paid tutorial. The copy was by a much lesser known artist. Once she found out about it, she contacted YouTube to get the copy taken down. This has happened to several of my friends who offer online schools or paid tutorials. It is a difficult and time consuming process to try to stop these idea thieves. 

The real kicker came when folks who paid for my friend’s tutorial then demanded a refund because it was out on the Internet for free. Talk about adding insult to injury!  What the actual hell??


If I buy a Coke, but someone steals the recipe and posts it online, in what scenario am I entitled to a refund on my Coke??  These purchasers clearly agreed to the price of the tutorial, paid it, watched it, and then months later tried to get it for free?? I’m sorry, but that isn’t how the world works, nor should it be. 

And why on earth do you want to be THAT person?  The one who tried to weasel out of an obligation once something “better” comes along?  Do you do this in all your relationships? 

I was so shocked at this behavior that I felt I needed to stand up and say “STOP”. Stop being a dick. Stop being mean to someone who is already struggling. Stop being ungrateful for what you receive. 

And stop redoing other people’s tutorials just to try to get fame. It isn’t cool.

Advertisements

Side Effects

They say that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Often, as we hope, wish and strive to accomplish our goals, we forget that there will be A downside to reaching any of them. Let’s think about medicines for a moment. Commercials are rampant these days for every disease out there. After it tells you how it will help you, an announcer quickly glosses over all the bad things that medicine could cause. 

One day as I watched a commercial with friends, one of them asked why anyone would want to take that medicine. I answered that the benefits to the person had to outweigh the risks. Take me, for example. When my last leukemia medicine failed, I had to switch to Tasigna. I’ve been on oral chemo for 15 years, so I didn’t figure it would be a big deal to change. The doctor say me down and told me that I needed to fully understand the potential side effects of this drug. The number one side effect?  Sudden death. Let that sink in. SUDDEN DEATH. 

I told my doctor that I had always said that I didn’t care if the medicines made me grow two heads, I was taking them. I wasn’t through with life yet. But it still gave me pause. I remember holding the first two pills in my hand, wondering if I should take them. I documented the dose on Instagram, just in case it was the last thing I ever did. Clearly, my heart didn’t react badly to the medicine and I am very careful to follow all the rules with it. 

I see similar things in the cake world all the time. We dream of success, without thinking about its cost. If you are dreaming of more customers, you will find that invariably you are going to have less time for yourself. Those lazy days can disappear. Those weekends at the lake?  Gone. 

Many of you dream of owning a retail location. You will definitely find that your schedule is now ruled by the business. You may find that as your business grows, so do the headaches with employees, taxes, vendors, etc.  you might look up one day and realize that you aren’t even decorating the cakes any more because your day is filled with the operation of the business. To give it your all, you have to give less somewhere else. Often, I see marriages crumble and fail in this situation. 

Maybe you want to travel and teach. And then you find that you never have a date, because it is hard for someone to handle the life you’ve built. Do you board your pet?  Do your relationships at home suffer?  Do you find that you hate airports, or driving, or hotels?  

It is so easy for us to think that “if only x happened, my life would be perfect”, but that is rarely the case. The person whose life you are idolizing could have a lot of side effects that you cannot see. Remember, most of us only show the world what we want it to see. 

So as you map out your dreams, be sure to think about the side effects. Taking fewer orders gets you more free time, but maybe less money for yourself. Taking more orders gets you money, but less sleep and time with family. In the end, we have to look for the balance that works for each of us. Don’t try to live anyone else’s life. Pick your goal and the side effects that make your life happy. 

And because I haven’t said it yet in this blog:  I believe in you. You’ve got this. 

Lines Drawn in the Sand, an open letter to Cakes Decor

My heart is heavy right now and this is a very hard article to write.  An editorial appeared on Cakes Decor recently and has divided my little cake community in ways I never thought possible.  You can read that editorial here.  I am going to address each of the points made in the editorial giving my opinion on them.  And it will be just that:  my opinion.  I also intend to discuss the MANNER of the editorial.

Before I start, I guess I better give my background…just in case you haven’t read the “About Ruth” page or don’t know who I am.  After all, I was told today that I am just a writer and an attorney, not a “real caker.”

I started cake decorating around 1994.  I worked for Quail Plaza IGA, first as a cake decorator, then as the bakery manager.  In 1999, I was named top Bakery Manager in the world for all the IGA’s.  I then opened my bakery.  I started with just me in 400 square feet and it grew to 16 employees in 4000 square feet.  We made hundreds of cakes a week.  I closed my bakery at the end of 2011, to travel and teach advanced cake decorating.  I have made real cakes.  I have baked them.  I have made styrofoam cakes.  I have baked from home, worked for others and run my own commercial shop.  I truly have been in most every bakery/caking situation you can name.  I am a Certified Master Sugar Artist, one of very few in the world today.  I have won a ridiculous number of medals at cake shows.  I have been published in numerous magazines.  I’ve done the tv cake competitions and won.  I’m incredibly far from perfect, but feel like I have sufficient background to talk to you about this editorial.  Oh!  And before someone brings it up, yes, I practiced law for years.  I AM A CAKE DECORATOR.

fake

To begin, I want to talk about the tenor of the editorial.  This is America.  We have the right to free speech and to express our opinions.  I love that about America.  In law school, we were taught that our rights extended to the end of our fingertips, but not so far as to touch someone else.  And that is paramount.  Yes, we can say whatever we want…SO LONG AS WE DO NO HARM.  For instance, if I walk into a crowded theatre and yell “fire!”, inciting a panic and someone is harmed running out of the theatre, I would be liable for those injuries sustained.  It only makes sense.

In today’s world, cyber bullying has become all too real.  I wrote about it previously in my blog called Unsweetened.  The editor chose to use derogatory labels such as “faker caker” to put down people who do not offer cakes for retail sale.  Apparently, you are only a “REAL” caker if you sell your cakes.  Does this mean that your grandmother is not a real caker because she decorates just for family?  Does this mean that a retired bakery owner is no longer a real caker?  If your state or city prevents you from selling, did you just become a fake decorator?  And how many cakes does it take to be real?  If you get one order a year, are you real?

This happens from time to time in the athletic community.  People will say that you aren’t a real runner if you can’t run a certain time per mile.  Or you aren’t a real triathlete if you haven’t done a full ironman.  In the end, it is just an effort to put someone else down and to raise yourself up.  Here’s the problem with that:  when you try to make someone seem like less, you never ever make yourself look like more.  This is why I belong to several Facebook athletic groups that are inclusive of those #pathetic triathletes or #backofthepack runners.  If you run, you are a runner.  If you decorate cakes, real or styro, you are a cake decorator.  If you decorate cakes for the sheer joy and delight of it and make no money, you are a cake decorator.  If you teach cake decorating skills in person or online, you are a cake decorator.  Please, do not let this editorial make you feel unworthy.  You decorate.  Let’s celebrate that!!

Now to address the fallacies in the article.

Decorating a styrofoam cake is easier.

Sometimes, it IS easier.  Sometimes it is way harder.  The thing is, styrofoam is light and moves around on you.  The edges can be very sharp and tear your fondant.  Generally, I think it takes about the same amount of time to decorate the outside of a real cake vs. a styrofoam cake.  The decorating part is unchanged.  As we always told our customers at my shop who looked at our styrofoam displays…they were styro inside so that they could stay on display without drawing bugs, but every item on the outside was exactly as if we were decorating their cake.  It is true that the styrofoam cakes won’t bulge and are generally pretty stable when stacked.  If you work with the right cake and stacking techniques, the same is true for real cakes.  I have friends that have stacked real cakes 6 and 7 tiers high and driven with them on back country roads in Texas and Louisiana without any problems.

Classes should be taught in real cake.

Sure, when possible.  But it is not always possible.  Let me give some examples.  At many mini class events, they are held at facilities that have in-house food vendors.  Teachers are not allowed to bring in their own cake.  You must purchase cake from the vendor.  Those are often not the type of cakes you would use to carve and create structured cakes.  For that reason, a teacher may choose to use styrofoam.  Sometimes, students fly or drive to take a class.  Taking home a real cake on a plane, or shipping it home, is not always realistic or desired.  The better question is, did the teacher demo or provide info on how to do the project in real cake?  I have first hand knowledge of many teachers who teach structures and know that they do.

A few teachers, including the one who said I wasn’t a real caker,  posted that they only teach with real cake.  That is great!  I’m so glad it is something that you can do where you teach!  My Wilton classes always used real cake.  I am glad I learned with it…at the beginning.  Would I need to have it in real cake now to understand the process?  Probably not, but I’ve been caking for a long time.  If you are newer and NEED to see it done in real cake, then by all means look for those classes!  Read your class descriptions carefully and choose the ones that are right for you.

Designs done in styrofoam are not realistic to be done in real cake.

Didn’t we learn anything when a certain decorator belittled another on his gravity defying cube cake??  She said it was a nice piece of styrofoam, but couldn’t be done in cake…so he cut into his cake and proved her wrong.  I remember when the Topsy Turvy cakes were all the rage.  Colette Peters and Polly Schoonmaker pioneered these and everyone said it couldn’t be done in real cake.  But it could.  And across the country, it was!

I always think of cakes for competitions and photo shoots as your couture runway shows.  This isn’t the ready-to-wear commercial line of cakes…these are the dreams, the fantasies, the desire to explore the ultimate in possibilities.  While it is highly rare that one of those cakes is practical to be recreated for a customer, it is also true that many of our trends arise from them.  There is a difference between commercial cakes and competition cakes…I covered that before in this blog.  I know that sometimes it is hard to explain the difference to a customer, but that is part of your job:  educating your clients.  I had competition cakes in my display window and was always able to design a commercial approach to it for my customers.  That is your creative challenge.  If it simply isn’t possible or feasible for any reason, just be upfront with them.  Your customers deserve your honesty.

The fake cakes aren’t realistic to be done for customers.

You might think this is the same as above, but not really.  The editor said that the class designs were so “wonky” that they weren’t realistic for a customer’s budget.  The editorial implied that people should not take classes for cakes that they can’t turn around and resell.  I addressed the factors that help me decide whether to take a class here.  Many people do not take a class solely to recreate that project for retail sale.  Sometimes, they take class to meet the instructor.  Sometimes, they want to learn the techniques from that class to use on a different project.  Who really cares if a class is realistic for retail sale??  What if it is my child’s dream cake?  Can’t I take that class?  The project, in the end, is just the embodiment of the techniques taught in that class.  Let each student decide if it is right for them.

Cake shows should require all cake designs to be real cake.

The editor probably doesn’t know this, but one show tried that.  Cakes had to be real and you could only spend a limited amount of time working on them.  Awesome.  Then the cakes arrived.  And the work was very limited and commercial looking.  The show organizers were surprised, I think.  Those viewing the cakes were disappointed.  They didn’t want to see the cakes they could get at their local shops and grocery stores; they wanted to see the magical side of our art.

There are shows overseas that require the cake to be real.  There are chef organizations that require real cake.  There are divisions at cake shows for real cake.  If that is what you want to make, then please…enter those!  There are rarely enough sculpted cakes at shows.  If you do enter that division, grab my tips here.  I’ve looked at class projects and thought “I would never make that in a million years!”, but others looked at the same class and saw a project they couldn’t resist.  Who am I to say that they shouldn’t take it?  Often, they don’t recreate THAT project…they take the skills and knowledge gained in class to create something else.  And isn’t that what education is all about??!!

Fake cakes should be labeled as such.

So, this has been the biggie in all the Facebook groups.  Don’t act like it is a real cake if it is a fake one.  I honestly don’t recall anyone trying to mislead the public on this.  I’m not sure I even care.  I can look at a design and determine whether I personally am able to do it in cake or not.  I can’t look at it and determine whether or not YOU can do it.  I’ve seen cakes that seemed almost “too perfect” to be real, but then a slice was cut out of it and my jaw would drop.  There are people with skills far beyond mine.  I’m not threatened by that.  There are people with skills below mine.  I’m not better than them because of that.

I’ve seen work by many highly talented sugar artists and I cannot tell whether it is one of their real cakes or their fake cakes.  Why should they HAVE to tell people one is styrofoam?  What does it matter?  So many cake decorators said they felt better by the editorial because it made them feel ok about their work.  People, I want you to feel better about your work regardless!  You are creating an edible artform and doing it to the best of your ability today!  Don’t stress about whether someone else’s cake edges are sharper or their buttercream is smoother.  If you personally aren’t happy with how something looks, that’s different.  Take a class or practice on a dummy to improve.  No other artist’s work makes yours less.  Your customers, friends and family all love YOU.  They love your cakes.  Don’t be distracted by things outside your business or hobby that have no means to hurt you.

Don’t do fake cakes if you can’t do a real one.

This is where I felt like the editorial really missed the mark.  Are there actually a bunch of cake decorators running around making magnificent fake cakes who don’t know how to make a real cake?  I cannot think of a single one.  Not ONE.  Is there a community of cake artists out there teaching classes but they don’t know how to bake a cake?  Seriously??  No.  I can think of several decorators who work on styrofoam for projects, but also have numerous baking tutorials.  I would trust any of them to make me a cake.

Why was I hurt by this article?

This is a tough industry.  The hours are long and the pay really isn’t great.  As artists, we already second guess ourselves and our work every single day.  We know that when we post our work online, it is being judged by every set of eyes that sees it.  We need to find ways to build a strong, supportive community.  Dividing people into groups, especially with a derogatory term like “FAKER CAKER” is just a means to make someone feel less about themselves.  Why, oh why, would you want to try to hurt someone?  I know when the decorator told me today that I wasn’t a real caker, I was shocked and hurt.  I’m sad for her.  I left her group, so she won’t know that I have a really good background of information and could have been a helpful adviser in that group.

Today, I would like to celebrate all of you who make cakes.  Thank you for keeping this beautiful art form alive.  Thank you for sharing your talents with the world.  Just thank you.  

 

Video Killed the Radio Star

I remember the 80s when MTV debuted. It was huge. People sat for hours on couches watching videos. We didn’t turn on our radios. We didn’t play our albums. We got sucked into the video world. Radio began to feel the pinch. Advertisers switched to video channels. We put aside our imaginations about what a song should mean and we took the given video version of a song as gospel. A great video could make a bad song a hit. A bad video or (gasp) no video for a song meant that it did not make money.

Lately, I have been receiving a lot of messages about the online world of cake decorating. Some sing praises. Some hate it. Some think that people are being led astray. As with most things, there is truth in all of it.

Theory: online classes are hurting in person classes
Reality: true.

The advent of classes by Craftsy and all of the other online classes has been greeted with open pocketbooks and joy from decorators world wide. The simple truth is that many young decorators could not afford to take in person classes, nor could they afford the time and expense of traveling to do so. The online classes let someone gain exposure to techniques, instructors and methods that they would not receive without such courses.

Meanwhile, some folks who normally would travel to take a class now decide to stay home and “study”. They cannot justify taking a class with the big name instructor when they can get that person’s knowledge on their iPad for $20 or so. Can you blame them? It is this group of folks who are not taking in person classes.

There is a group of decorators with a huge stash of online classes, who also take all the in person classes they can. Every time a teacher posts pictures from class, I count how many folks attended. The numbers, for all teachers, have been steadily dropping. The teachers blame the video groups. The students blame the rising costs of the classes. The truth is, both. Some classes are probably priced too high. Some online sales are impacting the in person classes.

For my own experience, I have not filmed with any of the online schools. If you want to study with me, you must do it in person right now. While I have experienced low numbers in some places, I am finding that my student counts are climbing. Why? Because I have held my prices. Because I supply everything. Because I constantly come up with new classes. In short, because I am doing my job as a teacher. I am seeing numbers start to climb for other teachers, too. It doesn’t seem to matter if they have videos nearly as much as it does if they give a good price on a new or different project.

Theory: free tutorials and videos are worthless
Reality: sometimes

Oh, how I cringe when I see someone advertise a free or nearly free tutorial for something that is, quite bluntly, done wrong. It would not pass muster at a cake show and would be blasted at certification testing. Unfortunately, there are no restrictions for someone to put out a tutorial or video. Anyone can do it. Many “anyone”s are. I want so badly to tell people not to believe everything they see. Not to pay. Not to follow these folks. But I say nothing.

Why? Because I honestly think that people will think it is sour grapes…that I am afraid of losing students or something. I worry that I will get pulled into one of those online drama battles I see too frequently. No, thank you.

In this instance, I think it should be Buyer Beware. If you get something for free, you should expect that value to be worth just that. While sometimes it will be like Liz Marek’s recipes and be worth more than you can imagine…I think those instances are rare. Some of the bloggers out there legitimately want to help their fellow decorators. I find those easy to spot. Some are simply trying to gain fame. I find most of those equally easy to spot.

In a recent blog, I talked about folks who watch decorator Darla’s online class or attend her class, then make their own tutorial for sale based on Decorator Darla’s work. A new decorator asked how the newbies can know who to trust. What an excellent and perplexing question. I forget that you guys haven’t been doing this as long as me. I forget that you don’t know the folks on the teaching circuit. I recommend that you take a look at the ICES Approved Teachers list. Here you will find the well respected, internationally known and proven teachers. The list doesn’t cover everyone, but it is an excellent place to start.

Do a little research on those names. You will be impressed with what many of these people have done. They are the foundation of our industry. Then look to see who teaches at the major mini class events in the US. There is a strict screening process for those. If someone teaches there, you KNOW they know their stuff.

Does this mean that new folks cannot be trusted? Of course not. It only means that you need to do your OWN research on them. They have not been vetted by ICES or Cake Camp or whomever. There are some newer decorators that I think are outstanding teachers and demonstrators. There are some who are great artists, but have not learned how to TEACH effectively yet. Teaching is a developed skill just like decorating. One does not beget the other.

Theory: online classes teach as well as in person classes
Reality: false

I wish this could be true, but it just cannot be. The online instructor is speaking to a camera and a producer. They cannot see you furrow your brow when you do not understand. They cannot see you hold the piping bag at the wrong angle. They cannot talk you out of beating yourself up when your first attempt doesn’t look like theirs.

They can be excellent sources of information. I think of them like a documentary, explaining and showing all the process behind a project or technique. You can chat with someone, through the chat portal, but it will never replace live interaction with that teacher.

They are not, however, bad. The videos serve a valuable purpose for our industry. They expose people to numerous aspects of sugar art. It is likely that you might not try something but for that video. They help the person miles from classes learn…just not to the full potential possible. I am glad that people have this resource, but want everyone to understand that watching something is not the same as doing it.

Watching the Emmys the other night, Seth Meyers said that tv was like the late night booty call whereas movies were the dates. What?? He said that tv was available any hour. Movies, you had to plan to get to the theater at a certain time. They are very different experiences.

Online cake videos certainly are the late night booty call of decorating. You can be in your pjs at 3 am, stuck on a technique and can visit your friendly decorator through their online class or YouTube tutorial. How glorious ! The videos don’t judge you for being a procrastibaker. They just give you information.

Final Thoughts

Online classes are not a bad thing. While they are impacting in person classes today, I think that their use will fade over time and people will go back to studying with live teachers.

I think we are blessed in this industry to have so many options for learning. I think that the cream of the teachers will rise to the top and they will survive every new challenge. A great teacher is a great teacher, whether in an article , in a video, in a book or in person.

IMG_6831.JPG

Hang ‘Em High

There’s a new breed in town. I call them the Cake Rustlers. They are a smarmy breed of folks. You will recognize them as the folks who attend your demo then do a tutorial on your exact demonstration. They are the ones who scrub off your logo and replace it with theirs on cake photos. They buy your video, then do a knocked down version as a free or paid tutorial.

In the old days, there were similar folks in the Wild West. They were cattle rustlers and the good people of that era considered cattle theft a hanging offense. Remember, they had to go grab someone’s cows, alter the brand to be theirs and then sold the other person’s property to line their own pockets.

I feel much the same about some of the activity going on right now. A photo of your cake, with your watermarked logo is a sign to the world that it belongs to YOU. For some reason, people don’t think taking a photo is stealing, but it IS. I actually fired an employee for setting up a competing web site using photos that belonged to me. Because that was blatant theft, she was not eligible for unemployment benefits.

I’ve had a friend discover that her custom designed logo was being used by another company. I’ve had a friend do a video and someone copied it almost verbatim to create her own for sale. I had a friend get video taped as she gave a demo and the person then made their own you tube video using her words and process. I’ve seen countless friends have their photos stolen and passed of as the thief’s work.

Until the law really catches up with the internet revolution, we have to be vigilantes. I don’t like doing it, but we honestly have no other recourse right now. I see friends share the names of the crooks and then a “posse” of deputized citizens take action. It truly seems to be effective and about the only thing that works!

There will always be thieves. There will always be trusting souls who share their work with the world. Maybe someday the law will help us fight these cake rustlers. In the meantime, keep your eyes and ears open. And DO NOT support these thieves financially…no matter how good their prices are. A knock off will always be just a cheap imitation. You are all officially deputized. Let’s clean up this industry!

20140806-102255-37375684.jpg

The Forest and the Tree

I started a new leukemia medicine about four months ago. As with each of the leukemia drugs, I turn out to be allergic to it. My entire body is covered in an itchy, bumpy rash. And new for me, this version has caused my hair to start falling out. It is dramatically thinner, so my hairdresser cut it shorter to minimize how that looks. Every time I look in the mirror, all I can see is the rash on my face and the thinness of my hair.

I was at a meeting for my marathon charity event (Www.teamintraining.org) the other day. I’d been having quite the pitty party lately about how this drug was affecting my looks. At the end of the meeting, one of my girlfriends came over and told me that I looked amazing and that my skin looked great. She hoped I was feeling as good as I looked. You could have knocked me over with a feather.

On my way home that day, I realized that I was guilty of not seeing the forest for the trees. I was so focused on something that most people don’t even notice, that I could not see that I really did look healthier on this new medicine. And, even worse, I wasn’t looking at myself with love like my friend was. I was looking with the expectation that something was wrong.

I then realized that this is what so many of my students do in class. It is what so many decorators do while working on our cakes. We judge ourselves harshly. We critique every single thing we do. We look at the sub parts of the cake or class project so closely that we totally miss the beauty of what we are creating.

I was teaching in Louisiana a couple weeks ago. One of the students was totally hating her lace work. I took the project from the table, told her to close her eyes, then stepped back a couple paces. When she opened her eyes, she exclaimed “oh!” She could finally see the beauty in what she was creating.

Often we need to look at our work with fresh eyes. I used to make myself do this in competition work, but I totally forgot to do this in classes and in my personal life. So my words of wisdom for you today are to look for the forest. Look at your projects with love. You might be pleasantly surprised!

20140622-162050-58850875.jpg

20140622-162050-58850998.jpg

The Power of Words

The other day someone was talking about an upcoming cake event. A person posted that the classes sure were expensive. I went to see if they were higher than normal and found that they were actually on the lower end of class prices these days. What if I had not been curious enough to look? That one person’s comment could have caused me not to take an affordable class.

This is part of why word of mouth is so crucial for a business. If you hear from a friend that a place has good food, you are more likely to eat there. If you hear that someone is a jerk, you will usually avoid getting to know that person. We take advice given to us by people we trust.

Recently a tv show conducted an experiment on words. They took a group in and told them they received a half portion of pasta. That group ate everything on their plate and wanted more. The second group was told they got a full serving of pasta. They ate everything on their plate. The third group was told they received a double portion of pasta. They all left pasta on their plate. All three groups received the same amount of pasta. What did this show? Besides a lot about how we eat, it showed the power of words.

I always would hear people say that they didn’t like the taste of fondant. I would tell them it was because they hadn’t had my fondant yet. I would give them a piece and tell them that I loved it because it wasn’t as sweet and because it reminded me of Lucky Charm marshmallows. 99 percent of the time, they would flash back to happy childhood memories of eating cereal, the joy of catching a marshmallow in your spoon, and would declare that I was right and my fondant was great. I used words to plant an emotional response. I never felt like I was cheating because I DO think fondant is less sweet and because I DO think it tastes like Lucky Charm marshmallows.

I found that how I described something often determined whether a customer would buy it. I was so grateful to have an excellent vocabulary and a flair for descriptions. Even if you don’t feel particularly strong in this area, you probably know someone who is. Ask them to describe your chocolate cake or lemon bars. How you word things on brochures and websites truly makes a difference. Look at the menu at a restaurant and see what I mean. Dessert menus are especially descriptive.

I found that if I told a bride that clean, elegant lines were in, that is the style they chose. If I said that the trend was alternating shapes, they had to have that. You have the ability to shape the orders you take. I just caution you to use your words for good, not evil. And please, remember that an off the cuff remark could cause more harm than you expect. Savor your words and choose them wisely.