Reality Check: Interview with Cathy from Cakes Around Town

As my business and I have grown in this industry, I’ve met some truly wonderful and inspiring people. Owning a small business can be a lonely business, so it’s always nice to have people you can confide in who “get it” and can commiserate or celebrate as needed (in real life as well as through blogs.) Most of them started as I did, making a cake or two on their kitchen table. Some have gone on to now have international profiles, some chose to keep their business very part-time, some expanded into other areas but stayed in hospitality. Some own businesses which are in the midst of growth, others have chosen to ‘retire’ – but all of them have interesting experiences of having “been there, done that” in the baking industry. When thinking about who I wanted to interview, I wanted to give you a realistic view into what happens to people in the industry and the different paths they take. This interview is one of those – an example of someone who started out in cake and is still in cake…kind of.

My first interviewee in the “cake but not quite cake” category is Cathy, one of the owners of Cakes Around Town – arguably one of Australia’s largest and most innovative cake decorating supply shops. When I met her, I was still messing about from home, making a cake a month. She was a local supplier of edible images before they became widely used in Australia – but what I didn’t realise at the time was that the image business was her second cake-based business. An immensely talented, dedicated and innovative business owner, over the years she has inspired me (as a businesswoman) and saved my bacon (from a cake point of view) more times than I can count. She’s achieved an enormous amount while having a small child, moving across the globe and back again, and dealing with extremes of weather and fluctuating economies.

Some of the questions I ask in these interviews will repeat, usually because I think it’s great to hear more than one answer to the same question. A great example to this is the final question in this interview. Cathy’s answer is very interesting – because while it shows quite clearly that she is no longer in actual cake making, it reminds all of us that there are often forces beyond our control which can dramatically affect our businesses.

My questions are in bold, her replies (in her own words) are immediately below each question.

I know the story but my readers don’t, so tell me a little bit about how you got started in the cake industry and the path of growth you’ve had thus far? 
I have loved cakes and baking from when I could just read. Devoured books from the library on Sugarcraft.  Have always been interested and very much an avid home baker. I got started in the industry after working in an IT company and realising I could combine my love of cakes and baking with IT by going online and embracing all the new technologies out there.  It first started as a cake delivery business in Melbourne, whereby we bought the cakes from a bakery and delivered them to Corporate Companies in the CBD of Melbourne. Corporates ordered their cakes online through company accounts and had them delivered.  I sold that business in 2006. Due to family commitments,  I went more into decorating products as it gave me the ability to work from home with a young family. 
With the advent of American TV shows like Cake Boss and Ace of Cakes, cake decorating has become hugely popular as a craft. Other than the obvious sudden and huge interest (and therefore increase in sales/interest), has this influx of popularity changed the way you do business? Do you find that your clientele has changed any? (For example: are they more demanding? is it overall a younger demographic?…) 
I think we are generally a more demanding population, all generations! Everyone expects a lot of perfection in sales, service etc.   I think the advent of these shows has definitely piqued interest in people home baking and cake making.  However there has also been the GFC where people want to do things from home, put their own effort in and know what food sources, preservatives etc.. are going into the cake mix as well!  Homemade is once again cool – it should always be that way but everything swings! 

What’s the one thing about being in business you wish someone had told you before you started?  

Stick to your day job! HAHA – I had a really good job before I went into this business and the first years were so, so, so, hard – no-one prepares you for it.  But you learn and what doesn’t kill you makes your stronger and hopefully a bit smarter!
I know that Cakes Around Town is a family business, and a lot of small businesses start that way or end up that way, with either family or friends as business partners or employees. What are the pros and cons of doing it that way? 
If it’s all you, you make all the decisions and you live and die by those yourself and cannot blame anyone else and this can often be good, but it is also very isolating.  However having a good business partner (and they are VERY hard to find) – can also help share the worry, and shared worry is half the worry and you don’t feel so alone. Plus there are also double ideas with 2 or more people and likely double skill sets- which is great! Being family there is an element of trust too, that is very hard to replicate in a business partnership relationship that has not blood ties. But you have to have a particularly good family, family is not a fool proof method either.  I am blessed enough to have the best family in the world. My previous company I worked for had a friend partnership, and it worked brilliantly.  They were so different, they each did their own thing that they specialised in, but shared the big burdens.  I think I learned a lot from seeing this in motion.  Business partnerships are like a good marriage, you have to learn to give in a little even when you don’t necessarily agree and don’t blame each other if it doesn’t work out 100%, work on a solution together.
What do you see as the biggest challenge to running a cake-industry business in the coming 1-3 years?

The biggest challenge will be the Australian Dollar as it is unlikely to stay at this peak and because we don’t produce a lot of local decorating products this could very much affect the pricing of supplies which may not be the best outcome for the cake-industry.  Let’s hope we get more local producers and don’t rely so much on imports.


Thanks, Cath, for the years of friendship, sympathy, understanding (and answering midnight emails) and for taking the time to reply to my questions. It’s much appreciated, on all fronts.

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