Chatting With: Cake Life

Written by Katharine Warden on March 30, 2018
Chatting With: Cake Life - TableArt and KPW Productions

One of the best parts about working in the event planning industry is the opportunity to collaborate with other businesses and we thought it would be great to speak to some of our favorites and share those conversations on the blog!

We sat down with Lily Fischer and Nima Etemadi, the co-owners Cake Life, to talk about how they got their start, find out the latest wedding cake trends, and, most importantly, see what pastry they call their favorite.

What made you both decide to pursue careers as pastry chefs?

Nima: We both had other careers at the time. We’d gone to college together, which is how we met, afterwards, Lily went back to Philadelphia where she was born and raise and I stayed in the NYC area. Lily was working as a preschool teacher and I was working in publishing, but we weren’t really doing what we loved. We were interested in working with our hands so we started a cupcake business that eventually grew into Cake Life.

Lily: I’d been looking at graduate school, but it was expensive and it was so much testing. I love working with my hands and feeling creative and feeding people. We joked it was our quarter-life crisis. I decided to go to culinary school. At the time I enrolled in the Art Institute right here in Philly which was a year-long program specifically in baking and pastry. If this is something I really want to do, I want to have the education. And really I wanted mentors, I’d never worked in a kitchen; I knew that I was interested in this industry, but where do I fit? I knew I wasn’t going to be working the line at 3am, that’s just not me. Baking in pastry and starting my own business seemed very attractive and felt like if I was going to take a chance, this is the time to do it.

Why pastries? Were you always a little bit of a baker?

Lily: I’d started baking for the Friends Center which is in center city, which is two working parents and kids and they’re pretty wealthy, so they were paying me to bake cupcakes for people. With baking in pastry you can have a more decorative style and I liked that. And I was like, I don’t want to cut raw chicken. I want to bake beautiful cakes and delicious things. And Nima was in NY and didn’t want to be behind a desk his whole life.

Nima: There were a lot of things I enjoyed about living in Brooklyn, but I’d done culinary school before college, and like Lily, I didn’t like being a line cook and the evening-focused lifestyle that comes along with that wasn’t really for me either. Over the years working for publishing, I honed the Type A personality part of me and eventually I wanted to get back to working with my hands. I missed feeding people and I was really drawn to pastry; a lot of those Type A traits are really common in pastry chefs. It was a really good fit.s

When and why did you decide to go into business together?

Lily: I already started Cake Life, but I’m a collaborative person and I knew I never wanted to go into business by myself, I like working with others. We were on a show, Cake Wars, and I was invited to go back for a champions episode and I needed someone to come with me. So I was like, “Who?” And thought “Oh Nima is in NY, I have to get him on this!” So we did the show, we got 2nd place, and it was our third time ever baking together, on national television. And I thought, I think this could work! We were best friends in college and we always like scheming, so I finally convinced him to move to Philly and join the business and from there we changed the name to Cake Life Bakeshop and knew we were growing towards a retail location.

Chatting With: Cake Life - TableArt and KPW ProductionsSwitching to weddings, how do you make sure you’re capturing your clients wishes when ordering a cake? Do most brides or grooms come to you with pictures? What’s that process like?

Lily: Now, with social media, most couples have some idea of what they want. We also offer a look book at our tastings. It really runs the gamut; some people are like “I don’t know anything!” And some people are like, “I want this exact shade of pink.” But I think now most couples have a Pinterest account, so even if they don’t know the cake style they want, we can usually get a vibe for what they’re looking for. During the tasting process is when we really get to ask those questions they might not have thought of. As we grow, our look book just gets bigger and better. So people get to say, “Oh I want this, but do this little thing different.” Which is great for us!

Nima: Every couple is different. The consultation that happens at the tasting is a really important part of figuring out what exactly they’re looking for. Even afterwards, they stay in contact with our custom cake coordinator and it’s really big that we understand what their vision is. Because people communicate differently, and just trying to make sure we get what they have in mind so we can communicate that to the teams properly.

Do couples ever get shocked at how much it costs when they show you a picture of, say a celebrity wedding cake, and you tell them that it’s not easy to create?

Lily: For sure. We joke that sometimes people, myself included, have champagne dreams on a High Life budget. We’re very good at working with people’s budgets. Just because you might not have four grand to spend on a cake doesn’t mean you can’t have a very special, beautiful design.

Nima: There are a lot of options that are stunning but that don’t have sugar flowers handmade petal by petal. Most of that expense, that people don’t necessarily think about until they’re in the process, is the labor. It’s not the flower and the eggs that go into the cake, it’s the time and labor that goes into executing elaborate designs.

Lily: We have a really skilled artist to do it. This is where Food Network TV, bless it, is tough because people see these outrageous things and nobody talks about price. Buddy the Cake Boss is making some elaborate crazy thing, but not telling you in reality that might be a $15,000 cake. It’s very similar to florists, people think “It’s flowers, just throw some flowers on it.” But a truly skilled florist is incredible. I think growing in our brand presence is important. Brides know we might not be the most economical choice, but we’re certainly best, and if you want your cake to look a certain way, you come to the professionals.

Nima: Part of the reputation we’ve tried to grow is that we want our cakes to taste fantastic as well, and that’s something that’s often lacking when you get to elaborate cake designs.

Your industry is very Instagram-worthy right now. Has social media helped you grow?

Lily: Certainly, I think social media has been a great tool and I think it’s a great tool for any small business. We’ve learned a lot, we get people reaching out to us on social media, we have people tell us they saw us or this cake on our Instagram or Facebook.

Nima: In terms of the broader pastry community, Instagram in particular has been a really wonderful tool because we’ve been tapped into this community of bakers around the world, its such an unusual art form you don’t really need to understand the caption. There are so many incredible places to get inspiration from, you see different techniques. It’s been really wonderful.

What is it the most extravagant design you’ve put together, in terms of a cake, pastry or dessert in general?

Nima: Beyoncé.

Lily: Yea, probably Beyoncé’s birthday cake. We got the opportunity to make Beyoncé’s birthday cake and got to deliver it to Made in America. Yea, dreams come true. We did a crazy 3-tiered, exaggerated bottom tiered geode cake, it was black and gold. We did beehive cookies, crown cookies. We did four additional cakes. We did a crown that was reminiscent of her Grammy performance. It was incredible and then we got so much press from it. Talk about the power of social media, we posted a photo we took backstage and that picture went viral.

Was she involved in the design process or did you have free reign?

Lily: She was not [involved], her people were really cool and just said, “Make it beautiful.” It’s actually one of our cakes we sell, our Honey Lavender Cake. We just added some Queen Bees to it, a little rosemary, a little lavender. But yea, that cake was a true work of art. So for right now, I think that was our most extravagant. Hopefully Michelle Obama will call us. I mean how do you top that?

How did Beyoncé find you?

Lily: Philly is small, so the rumor mill starts. Her sister was also performing at Made in America was staying here in Fishtown, and apparently she told them about our shop. But we’ve also done weddings for The Logan and their people really loved our cakes that we’ve done. Apparently Jay-Z and Beyoncé were staying at The Logan and their people told them about our cakes.

Nima: So it might’ve come from either or both.

Lily: A few days after, we got a phone call from a blocked number and it was a man who said, “Beyoncé wanted me to call you to let you know she loved your cakes.” So yea, it was a really cool experience, we were so proud of our team. Talk about dreams coming true. I’m a big Beyoncé fan, so for years I’ve jokingly said one day we’re going to make a cake for Beyoncé and her family, and then to have it happen in the first year we’re open is pretty incredible.

Are there any big trends happening in baking right now?

Lily: I feel like pastry and food are very similar to fashion, what’s in this season and what’s not. We’re still seeing a lot of these semi-naked cakes.

What is a semi-naked cake?

Lily: Semi-naked cakes are when you ice it, but you still see pieces of the cake through it, so it’s barely iced. It’s like when you’re wearing lingerie and get a little nip slip.

Nima: We jokingly call it the semi-nude cake.

Lily: That’s certainly still popular but what we’re seeing a lot of are hand-painted cakes, which are really cool. Our head chef of cakes here, Rebecca Craig, has an art background and is able to paint beautiful florals on a cake or have a watercolor painting on it. I think, too, with the hand-painted cakes it still has that organic, florally vibe, but it’s not so rustic.

Nima: It’s still clean and modern looking. We can contrast the softness of a watercolor with other harder design elements and have it still be really beautiful. So it’s been interesting seeing people play with those trends. A lot of it is people making predictions of what’s going to be in this year and next, and they’re wrong sometimes. But what we’re seeing people come to us with is less emphasis on sugar flowers and more emphasis on hand-painted florals and other natural formations, like geodes.

Are cupcakes still big in terms of weddings?

Lily: I don’t think they’re as big as they were 4-5 years ago. But the cupcake is an American classic, everyone loves an individualized treat. For some of our more budget-conscious brides, we could do a smaller cake but really focus on gorgeous design and we could have cupcakes to accompany that. Years ago we saw more cupcake towers and now we’re not seeing that as much. Moreso, we’re seeing more cake tables or dessert tables. We did a beautiful wedding where they got 8 or 9 single-tiered cakes, but each one was different, and displayed they looked amazing. It was budget-conscious, but still looked so beautiful.

Nima: And sometimes it is more budget-conscious to take that approach and have less elaborate décor on each cake but you end up with this beautiful display anyway. It’s one of the many ways you can have a smaller budget and still have a high-impact look.

Lily: What’s nice about us being a full bakery, not just a cake maker, is that we can do more of these dessert tables. We can do a few beautiful cakes and get a gorgeous, delicious cookie to take home. Or, do you love pie? Not every is a big cake person, and we can do pies and other stuff. In general, weddings are becoming more modernized, so what is acceptable as a “wedding cake” has really changed. There’s a lot more flexibility as to what that looks like, as opposed to this huge crazy cake. And that’s fun for us, as we all have art backgrounds. We’re fortunate that we have really cool clients who are into having a less “traditional” design. That’s really fun for us.

Nima: I think and hope, as people become more familiar with us, is part of what’s growing is the recognition that if you do want something with more elaborate design, we’re a good place to go to get that and have it executed the way you imagine.

What excites you the most about preparing desserts for events?

Lily: Usually they’re for an important moment in life, a birthday, wedding, anniversary, and it’s cool to be a part of that. We have customers and clients who we’ve now worked with for years. And it’s wild to say that we make little Timmy’s cake every year, and we see them grown and see what changes. And like Nima said, we like feeding people. What’s really cool about doing events like Love is in the Air, is we get to see people eating our products. A lot of the time you make this beautiful thing and you drop it off, and then it’s done. But it’s cool to see people react to it. When my husband turned 40, my mother-in-law made a book of his life, and what was interesting was for the first 10 years, there was a picture of him with a birthday cake. They’re these special moments.

Nima: Even the smaller things, someone will come in and get a cupcake after a bad day. You’re part of how somebody treats themselves, you’re a high point in their day, hopefully. So there’s a real pleasure in that, and a weird responsibility. If you’re going to be their indulgence or how they mark something special, you better be good.

Do either of you have a favorite pastry to bake and/or eat?

Lily: Definitely more eating than baking. It ebbs and flows depending on the day and how you’re feeling, but I am obsessed with our croissants. They’re all made in-house. I know we own the place, but I do think they’re the best in the city. Every day I say to myself, “Don’t eat another croissant!” Then 3 o’clock rolls around and I hear them calling my name! Luckily, now I think people are getting hip to them, so when my willpower is gone and I go to grab one, they’re already sold out. Which is a blessing for me because I do not need to be eating croissants every day. But especially because we’ve been doing savory ones as well, I think sometimes we’re so inundated with sweets, it’s nice to say, “Oh, there’s pepperoni in that!” But yesterday I took home a Nanaimo Bar, which is something we make here. Maybe Nima can talk more about it, as it’s a Canadian/Pacific Northwest Classic.

Nima: It’s a bar that has a chocolate cookie base with toasted coconut in it and a thick layer of vanilla custard on top and a thin layer of chocolate that sandwiches it. It’s something just salty, sweet, and crunchy.

Lily: But again, it depends on the day you’re having. The reality is I don’t bake much anymore, but it’s okay because we have incredible chefs and an incredible team and facilitating them has been really exciting.

Chatting With: Cake Life - TableArt and KPW Productions

What do you recommend to couples who don’t have a sweet tooth?

Lily: I would say come try our stuff before you make that decision. We get a lot of people who say, “Yea, I’m not that into sweets,” and we tell them to just try it! And they say, “Oh my gosh, I guess I’m only into your sweets.”

Nima: We do make a different style of buttercream that a lot of people feel is less tangibly sweet. It won’t kick you in the teeth the way some of the crusty, sugary icings do. It can be a lot more palatable for people who don’t have a sweet tooth, it’s a lot smoother.

Lily: I take a lot of pride in that. I think we get a lot of people saying it wasn’t overly sweet, and I think that nuance is important. To those people, I say great! Let’s make you mini-croissants. We also do a Dark Chocolate Dolce de Leche Truffle Tart. It’s not overly sweet and that dark chocolate ganache richness is just so good.

Nima: A lot of the couples that aren’t into sweets, they’ll get pressured by in-laws and parents to have something that looks like a cake, just something to cut and take pictures of. So usually we’ll say, “Okay, what do you need to do to satisfy your mom? Let’s get that together, and then what do you actually want to eat?”

When you guys started, was it hard to step back and let your new staff bake things?

Nima: Yes and no. The person who leads our cake team, Rebecca, is someone we’ve known for four years, so we already trusted her and we thought she was really talented. She was working with us full time as we transitioned into the shop, so that was a lot easier.

Lily: But even that transition, you’d realize yourself, I would scoop the vanilla a little over, and you think, “Okay how do I standardize this to them teach it to someone else?” It’s not enough that I know it just on muscle memory. But yea, I think we’ve been very fortunate with the people we have, especially the managerial roles and the head chefs.

Nima: I think there’s some really talented people here right now that I feel like we’re really lucky to be working with, and it’s exciting to see what they come up with. It doesn’t feel stressful. We don’t have that moment where we think, “Oh God, she’s working on a new cookie, let’s see what happens.” It’s fun to see. The more talented the staff is, the more they contribute. Like Lily said, our roles are more akin to a creative director, so it’s been fun to be in a position to curate people’s ideas. There are still a lot of things that we started out making ourselves in the old kitchen that are still in the case today, one way or another. They may have a little adjustment here and a little tweak there. I still see our vision coming through but I also see how other people have contributed to it.

You semi-recently opened a bakery in Fishtown. Why did you pick that area?

Lily: We had been looking at a few neighborhoods, not a ton, really Fishtown and South Philly were two of the big ones. South Philly was smaller and more expensive at the time. I think that might’ve changed.

Nima: It was more saturated in terms of other bakeries.

Lily: Nima was living in Fishtown, my husband had lived in the area for a while. I think we knew we really wanted a neighborhood. We like being part of a community. We’d been looking at a space in South Philly, but it wasn’t really our vibe and our realtor said they had another place for us to see. We saw this place and thought, “What’s that weird building?” When we came inside we thought, “Oh my God!” At the time, really there was Johnny Brendas, Fette Sau, and Frankford Hall. But really, it ended there. We saw that Fishtown was changing and we wanted to be part of that change. It felt like the right vibe and neighborhoodyness.

Nima: It was important to us to be part of a community, but we also knew it needed to be a reasonably high traffic and visible community for the business to work. And Fishtown seemed like the right mix for that. We always enjoyed having a younger vibe to our business, a lot of bakeries seem to cater to older crowd and more traditional approaches and offerings. Sure we’ll still make those traditional things for people, but we want people under 40, under 30 to feel comfortable and excited by the business and spend time there. That’s not something we really saw from other bakers or other neighborhoods. And Fishtown really had that.

Lily: We both live here, which is so exciting. It’s cool to walk to work and to see your regular customers out and about. It’s nice to live in your community of your business, especially a bakery. It’s really wonderful how much and how quickly it has grown, yet it’s still smaller businesses and you can know a lot of the other owners. It’s becoming a great food destination where everyone is really bringing their A game. It’s great for all of us.