Jennifer Bunce-Timmons is used to making extravagant cakes for weddings. But over the summer, she got a request that was on another level.
Instead of the intricate, multi-tier cakes she typically creates, the order, from a bride’s mother, was for a five-inch version that would feed around 10 people, says Bunce-Timmons, owner of The Hudson Cakery, an upscale custom cake shop in Weehawken, New Jersey. The catch: It should still feel fancy.
That’s a tricky task when you only have a tiny cake to work with.
“Scaling down a three-tiered cake to a smaller five-inch round cake was challenging since there was physically lack of space to add certain elements,” she said. There were some things that just had to be scrapped. “On the original wedding cake, we were going to add a large pair of 3D sugar love birds, but we couldn’t make a smaller replica on the smaller cake.”
For the wedding business, 2020 was a nightmare, with many nuptials postponed or canceled altogether, and scores of businesses that rely on them struggling to survive. Vendors from florists to caterers have had to adapt their offerings, or face the possibility of closing up shop for good.
As people shift to smaller ceremonies outdoors, Zoom weddings, and even elopements, smaller cakes have become the standard — so much so that bakers have termed them “Covid cakes,” typically six inches to nine inches in diameter.
The new shrunken norm creates an added layer of complexity, though: Bakers must test their creative limits to find a way to still encapsulate the intricacy and glam that clients want despite having less surface area to work on.
Piped patterns and fake tiers
In a nod to the original design, Bunce-Timmons added flowers to her shrunken cake to enhance the design but keep it sophisticated. And she zhuzhed it up some more by adding a piped pattern on the sides with the same roses she was going to have on the original cake, just sans the love birds.
“The new smaller cake looked like what the top tier of their three- or four-tiered cake should have looked like,” said Bunce-Timmons.
To be sure, orders for Covid cakes don’t make up for the loss of bigger ticket treats. For instance, Bunce-Timmons charges $50 to $150 for her scaled down cakes, compared to around $1,000 for the multi-tier cakes she used to produce.
And she says she makes less of a profit off smaller cakes when you factor in costs.
Still, for now, Covid cakes are drumming up much-needed orders, bakers say. Plus, the mini-cake trend is likely here to stay, said Kristen Maxwell Cooper, editor-in-chief of The Knot, a wedding planning site.
That’s partly because it’s unclear when big gatherings will feel safe again, she said. Plus, smaller desserts were catching on at receptions before the pandemic.
“Although they’ll be smaller in size, it doesn’t mean the cakes won’t be just as dynamic in detail,” she said. “After all, the cake tends to solidify the idea of a wedding.”
That means figuring out how to sell smaller cakes that are still eye-catching is critical for bakers.
The pandemic slammed Amy Beck’s Chicago-based business Amy Beck Cake Design pretty hard. “I had five full-time employees before, and now it’s just me,” she said, adding that she has shifted to fulfilling orders for six-inch cakes.
While some clients preferred to maintain the simplicity of a smaller cake, for others, Beck has added glamor with figurines and sugared decorative flowers.
Not all small cakes are under $100. One challenge is explaining to brides and grooms why a tiny cake should still command hundreds of dollars in price.
“Some people do not want to spend $200 on a small six-inch cake,” said Beck. “But what people need to understand is that all the same processes go into a small cake that go into a large cake. You still have to bake, stack…make all the decorations, decorate the cake, put [it] on a presentation board, put it into a box and get it ready.”
Some customers are opting for a different solution that’s easier on bakers in terms of design: going big and going fake.
“We did actually book a few clients who kept ‘the dream’ cake by having us create enormous drama with faux cake tiers for display,” said Elaine Ardizzone, owner of Sweet Cheeks Baking Company in San Diego. The cakes were for a small in-person wedding held this year.
‘Just wanted to be married’
That doesn’t mean that couples are forgoing the good stuff altogether. The clients still asked for “rose-designed cupcakes for take home, and even a few groom’s [and] partner’s cakes snuck into the mix,” she said.
Bakers say the cakes are usually met with rave reviews. Really, many couples are just happy to get hitched.
Taylor Porter and her husband Christopher Wilson were set to tie the knot on June 5 in Jersey City, New Jersey. Their wedding would have over 100 guests, many of whom were coming from out of town.
“We went from that to an elopement with just five people attending,” said Porter.
Porter and Wilson were married on April 11 and celebrated with a six-inch round vanilla cake with vanilla buttercream frosting that Bunce-Timmons made and adorned with white buttercream rosettes.
Her original cake would have been a multi-tier traditional wedding cake provided by the wedding venue. But she set her expectations according to the times.
“There are no disappointments whatsoever,” said Porter. “Of course we would have wanted our amazing original wedding with all of our families, but Chris and I just wanted to be married.”