Bakers turn icing into artwork

Cake: Bakeries have found success in turning snapshots into edible works of art, but must deal with potential abuse of the technology.

March 20, 2000|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,Sun Staff

Bakeries around the country are adding a new ingredient to their cakes and cookies: the icing-jet printer.

Melding ancient pastry techniques with the latest digital technology, they're offering customers a chance to turn family snapshots into edible works of frosted art.

The basic technology for photo-cake decoration has been around for years -- right on the shelf at CompUSA -- but improved equipment at lower prices and the opportunity for higher margins are making bakers as happy as the smiling faces on their cakes.

"It's been a real morale-lifter," says Andrea Williams of Vivid Image Technology, which markets a food printing system called PhotoCake to bakeries around the world. "People are coming in with photos and creating cakes for events you would never think of."

The technology is also forcing some bakers to confront issues as alien to the kitchen as copyright law and pornography.

This month, Giant Foods became the latest large-scale baker to install PhotoCake, with systems in several in-store bakeries. After only a few weeks, some stores reported that PhotoCakes accounted for as much as half their cake sales, said Kitty Spangle, a Giant bakery supervisor.

Bakers have actually been working on confectionary printing for more than a decade. Sweet Art Co. of Olathe, Kan., was the first to develop an automated system to transfer an image, and it wasn't easy.

After all, it took engineers at companies such as Hewlett-Packard years to formulate inks that reproduced well on paper. Sweet Art had to concoct edible inks that reproduced well on a gooey canvas of butter, sugar and shortening. The first printing systems produced images as crude as cave paintings and cost more than $30,000.

But that all changed in the years after the introduction of the color ink-jet printer, which does its work by vaporizing ink at high temperatures and squirting it through tiny nozzles to produce dots that form text and images on paper.

It took time to develop edible inks that could stand the heat, but today Sweet Art sells systems that can print at more than 1,600 dots per inch -- eight times the resolution of photos in this newspaper -- for as little as $600, says company President Tom Hall.

Sweet Art has been joined by competitors, most of whom use components similar to those that everyday computer users have at home, only cleaner. Sweet Art, for example, uses Canon and Hewlett-Packard ink-jet printers and an off-the-shelf scanner to convert photos to digital images.

Some systems print directly onto the cake, which passes under the ink jets like an automobile in a car wash. Others decorate a thin, edible paper known as fondant. When the fondant dries, it's applied to the cake like wallpaper.

Using graphics software bundled with their printers, decorators can reduce, enlarge and crop images to fit edibles that range from large sheet cakes to cookies and cupcakes.

Bakers love the technology because it can pump out decorated cakes faster than human hands -- the average printing time is under 10 minutes. Those cakes also bring in more money, says Ed Lee, editor of Modern Baking, an industry trade magazine. Typically, bakeries charge a $5 to $15 premium to make a cake picture perfect.

Most of the images customers bring in are run-of-the-mill: wedding pictures, graduations, baby showers, sports tournaments.

"We tell our customers to be careful of what they put on their cake," says Sweet Art's Hall. "It can come back to haunt them."

Bakers must also worry about copyright infringement. So forget a cheesecake shot of Britney Spears or a Mickey Mouse cookie. Most also forbid anything that might leave a bad taste -- such as pornography. But there are exceptions.

"We don't refuse anything," says Dave Lentz, manager of the Erotic Bakery in Seattle, where 95 percent of the customers are women and the best-seller is a hand-molded marzipan penis cake.

Cultural differences also create problems. Jeff Barkhimer of Vivid Image Technology recalls hawking PhotoCake technology at a trade show in Japan. He knew the culture placed great emphasis on saving face -- but didn't know that it also extended to eating face. When he set out cakes decorated with snapshots of his boys, "they wouldn't touch it," he says.

Portrait cakes are also a hit in the business world.

Imagebakers, a Mountain View, Calif., company that caters to companies who want edible memorabilia for trade shows, shareholder meetings and office parties, has taken orders for cakes decorated with blueprints, company logos and business cards. One firm celebrating its initial public offering had a chocolate cake emblazoned with the regulatory paperwork, right down to the fine print.

Last year, Herman's Bakery, a Baltimore bakery institution, filled an order from a pharmaceutical company for a batch of cookies with an image of its new line of birth control pills.

"It kind of looked like an edible birth control package. It was kind of weird," says Harry Herman, who runs the operation.

Food industry suppliers have other technologies in the oven. Some are working on systems that link directly to digital cameras. Thus armed, a maitre d' could snap a picture as guests arrive and have a custom cake ready for dessert.

Others are working on the ultimate computer peripheral for the cook in the family: a home cake printer.

Martha Stewart would be proud.

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