Barb Willman began baking professionally 10 years ago, creating cakes inspired by timeless family recipes.
Willman said she grew up with her mother and aunt baking and decorating cakes, so she naturally tended to have a talent in cake creation. She said she began baking simply for family occasions, to celebrate birthdays and other special events, and the idea to start a baking business began when other people began asking for her cakes.
Ten years ago, Willman started her company, Barb's Cakes, and she has been fulfilling customers requests, and seeking to go beyond their expectations, ever since. Her ultimate goal, Willman said, is to go "above and beyond" what her customers expect to see when she delivers a cake. When a customer is completely delighted by the finished product, she said, "that's what makes it fun."
PHOTO COURTESY OF BARB WILLMAN
Wedding cake with fondant
Willman bakes a variety of cake flavors, from traditional to unique, and said she does not consider herself to have a specialty. She said white and chocolate cakes tend to be the traditional "safe" choice for customers who are undecided about a cake flavor, while older customers seem to have a taste for spice cake. Recently, she said, the younger generation, especially teenagers, are requesting red velvet cake. Some customers never vary in their orders, she said, and she has grown to know exactly what particular customers will order.
The most unusual flavor she remembers baking, she said, was a peanut butter cake, which filled her house with the rich aroma of peanut butter.
Since Willman began taking requests and creating cakes to fill customers' orders, she said the business has experienced a number of changes. For example, she said, cakes used to be decorated mainly by icing, in the shape of small raised stars, being placed on the cake to form a design. Over the years, she said, icing has gotten smoother, and cakes are now often presented with such a clean, even finish they appear flawless. A special type of icing, called fondant, often is used to create a dramatically smooth design, she said.
Characters and themes also are constantly changing, she said. New television and movie characters are always being introduced, and keeping up on the changing trends isn't as simple as it used to be. Willman said the Internet is a priceless tool for researching the themes and designs requested by customers.
Requests for recipes involving special ingredients, including those with attention to food allergies, have also increased, Willman said. She said she has baked cakes for customers with an allergy to peanuts, and has the capacity to customize cakes for those who are lactose-intolerant, or for a customer who orders a cake with organic ingredients.
Willman said her many years of experience baking have taught her the value of particular baking equipment and ingredients. For example, she said, Crisco shortening has provided her the best results over the years, and she chooses to buy her raw ingredients on demand, instead of keeping them on hand at home, to help ensure her cakes' freshness. She said she has relied on one Kitchen Aid mixer for more than 20 years, and uses thick rubber spatulas when hand-mixing a recipe.
Willman said she thinks it's important to "give it back" to the community in which she lives and works, and therefore tries to make most of her business purchases locally. Phillips Electric in particular, she said, has provided her with exceptional service over the years for the large appliances she relies on for Barb's Cakes.
Recently, Willman was asked to bake a cake for St. Mary Festival as part of an auction, and said she donated a circus-themed cake decorated with animals, which won the auction. Willman said she was pleased her cake was successful for the festival, and she enjoys opportunities to turn her love of baking into a service or project that benefits others.
The baking business, Willman said, tends to ebb and flow with seasonal activities and holidays, and she sees corresponding changes in the number of orders she receives. Late spring, with the combination of graduation parties and popular wedding months, is very busy, and early fall brings another peak in wedding cake orders, she said.
Willman bakes cakes for a variety of occasions and functions, in addition to weddings and graduations, including baby showers, bridal showers, bachelor/bachelorette parties, company parties, anniversaries, and birthdays. She said most of her orders are for "happy occasions with happy reactions," but she also has been asked to bake cakes for funerals and other more somber occasions.
The logo that decorates her business cards, Willman said, sums up the scope of her baking business. "Every Occasion Deserves a Cake." Willman said her husband thought of the motto to represent the vastly different reasons behind her customers' orders.
While Willman spends up to two days per cake in her kitchen, she said she does occasionally ask for help, especially during busy seasons. Her mother and aunt, who first taught Willman the art of cake-making, are still a strong support system, she said, and her husband and son also help when needed. Her son loves to help in the kitchen, Willman said, and she relies on her husband to help carry large cake orders. Graduation cakes, she said, can weigh up to 45 pounds. Probably her biggest helper are her taste testers, she said, who give honest input about her cakes, helping ensure what she presents to her customers exceeds their expectations.
When asked if she would someday like to open a bakery in the community, Willman said the issue is one she and her husband have discussed, but she likes the flexibility of working from home. Baking part-time from her kitchen, she said, allows her to be available to her husband and kids whenever she is needed, and a decision to open a full-time business would be based on time demands and the needs of her family.
In the meantime, Willman will continue to create from her home bakery, responding to the unique requests of her customers, and seeking to go beyond their expectations with her artistic sweet treats.