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Business Observer Thursday, Apr. 28, 2022 3 months ago

Tampa bakery, amid rapid growth, rises to the occasion

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Thanks to an unsolicited celebrity endorsement, Tampa bakery The Cake Girl has been on a wild ride. Some frosty obstacles to more growth include inflation and staffing issues.
by: Brian Hartz Tampa Bay Editor

June will mark three years in business for The Cake Girl, a Tampa bakery owned and operated by the husband-and-wife team of Kirby and Kristina Lavallee, and it would be difficult to find a local business that’s experienced more of a rollercoaster ride of highs and lows during that time.

From being forced to shutter for two weeks because of the pandemic and struggling with inflation and shortages, to having one product surprisingly promoted by a nationally syndicated radio personality, the 34-year-olds have experienced the business equivalent of whiplash.

The tumult began soon after the Lavallees introduced the Crave'n Cup — a piece of fresh cake in a sealed plastic jar that could be shipped nationwide. The product, which Kirby says is now “a staple” of The Cake Girl’s offerings, was meant to bolster sales in the early days of the pandemic, when the company was operating on a limited basis and no one was ordering the elaborate, custom cakes that are Kristina’s specialty.

Wikimedia/Gage Skidmore. Conservative talk radio host Glenn Beck is a huge fan of The Cake Girl's Crave'n Cups.

A short time later, it turns out, conservative talk radio host Glenn Beck got his hands on a Crave'n Cup. He fell head over heels for the confection and made a completely unsolicited mention of it on his show.

“The first time he shouted us out, I didn’t even know he had done it, and our website crashed,” Kirby says. “Since then, he's talked about us two or three times. Every time he does that, we get an influx of 300 to 400 orders within a very short window of time. He’s become a loyal fan of our products.”

Kirby has since gotten to personally know Beck, whose father was employed in the bakery business as a cake artist. “He said, ‘This is the best cake I’ve ever had’ and that it reminded him of his childhood and being around his dad,” he says. (Beck also has an historical Tampa connection: he got his radio host start as an afternoon talk-show host on 970 WFLA-AM in 2000.)

So what’s next for The Cake Girl? A reliance on fluky, pure-luck celebrity endorsements isn’t a viable business plan, after all, and the runaway success of the company’s Crave'n Cups — which sell in packages priced from $39.99 to $82 — has customers eager to see what else the Lavallees have in store. A decade after the Lavallees started selling cakes made by Kristina in their home, their next big challenge is to capitalize on their newfound notoriety and momentum, while also being sure to have the capacity to handle a surge in business. 

 

One the Move

With in-person events resuming in earnest last year and the unexpected popularity of the Crave'n Cups, Kirby and Kristina quickly realized they would need a bigger space to accommodate growth.

“We’ve seen a shift since the pandemic hit,” Kristina says. “We were busy before, but now we’re busier and busier. Between then and now, I never would’ve imagined our business being the way it is. We knew we were going to grow, but not to the capacity like we are now.”

"We knew we were going to grow, but not to the capacity like we are now." — Kristina Lavallee, co-owner of The Cake Girl

In November, The Cake Girl moved about a mile north of their original location, to a 2,000-square-foot space at 14851 N. Dale Mabry Highway.

“We were able to increase our kitchen by about three times the size of what we had at the other store and do a different layout,” Kirby says. “We added some walk-in coolers, a 140-quart mixer, more ovens and more equipment, overall, to be able to produce our products on a larger scale.”

A major challenges that comes with pulling up stakes and moving, however, is making sure you don’t alienate existing loyal customers. Independent local bakeries, Kirby says, tend to generate a lot of repeat, walk-in business from residents of the surrounding area, so any relocation, even a short one in The Cake Girl’s case, can be risky.

“November was our official move date, and it’s crazy how people are still like, ‘How long have you been around?’” he says. “Just moving a mile up the road can completely change your demographics and your customer base.”

On the other hand, Kirby says, “It’s been refreshing, in a way, to have a new start and meet new people.”

To minimize the inconvenience for existing customers who don’t want to go out of their way to drive to the bakery’s new location, The Cake Girl added a second delivery van. The vehicles are wrapped in company branding that aligns with its social media channels.

“Deliveries are picking up,” Kirby says, “to the point where we could probably use another van on weekends, based on how many delivery orders we get. Plus, the vans are their own marketing drivers — people are becoming familiar with our brand based on the van wraps and seeing our stuff on Instagram and Facebook.”

 

Customs Office

While the Glenn Beck/Crave'n Cups phenomenon is undoubtedly a compelling pandemic survival story, custom cakes remain The Cake Girl’s best-selling — and most profitable — product category. Kristina, who earned a bachelor’s degree in restaurant and food services management from the University of Central Florida’s Rosen School of Hospitality Management, recently made an eight-foot wedding cake — the largest she’s ever created.

“You could get a decent, nice cake for $85; that would be something on the simpler side,” Kristina says, “or you could get one that costs thousands of dollars. But on average, our customers pay between $200 and $500 [for a custom cake] for 30 to 40 people.”

According to Kristina, hit TV shows such as “Cake Boss” and “Nailed It” have played a big role in the growing complexity — and cost — of custom cakes.

“People request the weirdest things,” she says, “but it might be a good combination, so I’m like, ‘Let’s try it.’”

Kristina says she makes about 50 custom cakes in a typical week. They range from simple birthday cakes to elaborate over-the-top wedding cakes with five, six or even seven tiers. “And that’s not even counting cupcake orders or anything like that,” she adds.

One hiccup in the heavenly cake production process? Because of supply-chain and inflation headaches that continue to plague the economy, custom cakes cost more to produce, so the Lavallees have been forced to raise prices.

“We’ve always tried to stick with the same pricing,” Kristina says. “But with the prices we have to pay, at the beginning of the year, yes, we had to [raise prices].”

Most of the bakery’s long-term customers, around 90%, Kristina estimates, have been sympathetic when it comes to the higher prices. “With everything going on, they totally understand,” she says.

 

Missing Ingredients

Despite the cost increases, The Cake Girl is on track for significant sales growth in 2022, Kirby say; he declines to disclose specific revenue figures. 

Mark Wemple. Kristina Lavallee shows off the bakery's new 140-quart mixer.

“We’ve been up every year,” he adds. “This year, we’ll be up again; we’re going to set new records this year and probably next year, as well.”

The company could likely grow more if it could find enough employees — another big challenge. In addition to the Lavallees, it has a staff of nine, but “this bakery is built to have the ability to have more team members,” Kirby says. “We’re geared up for it. We’ve been looking for people for the past two years, but there haven’t been many applications, to be honest with you. People are looking for those remote jobs rather than the day-to-day grind in hospitality. That’s a shift that everybody’s experiencing.”  

To help offset their labor shortage, the Lavallees have tried to make the bakery more efficient. With the extra space afforded by the new location, there was plenty of room for the massive, 140-quart mixer that can get a lot more done in much less time. Other improvements, such as swapping out incandescent light bulbs with LEDs, have lowered utility costs, which make the aforementioned inflation headaches a little more bearable.

“We’re constantly looking at everything from operational to labor costs,” Kirby says. “Everything is something we have to have on our radar.”

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