Jason Hisley, executive chef and owner of La Cakerie, works… (Daniel Kucin Jr., Baltimore…)
Customers of Towson's artisan bakery La Cakerie could easily mistake their surroundings for an enlarged dollhouse kitchen; high-pitched strains of pop music bounce off pink walls and the aroma of baking cake batter wafts through the air.
Owner and executive chef Jason Hisley opened the West Allegheny Avenue location seven months ago, relocating from nearby West Chesapeake Avenue and joining La Cakerie's sales location in Mount Vernon. Listening to suggestions from a new crop of busy working professionals, Hisley expanded La Cakerie from its pastry roots. About 30 employees create and sell homemade sandwiches, pretzels and candies, among other treats, while keeping an emphasis on custom-made cakes.
Growing up in Overlea, Hisley picked up the tools of the trade from his Czechoslovakian grandmother, who sold fresh-baked bread to the neighborhood. There he learned the baking fundamentals that would later catapult the pastry chef to a 2011 victory on the Food Network's "Cupcake Wars," which he said attracted initial investors to provide the capital to open La Cakerie.
The 25-year-old pastry chef recently shared all he's learned since realizing he could actually make a living doing what he loves: creating and baking cakes.
When and how did baking become less of a hobby and more of a career for you?
I've been baking ever since I was a kid. My grandmother came over from Czechoslovakia, and I was doing breads right out of her house for the community, which was totally cool. I remember being a 6-year-old kid up on a table kneading big, big bowls of bread. It was something my family was passionate about, something I was passionate about, something I found fun and interesting. So long story short, it turned from this passion to a real hobby and then into something that could be a career, too. At about the same time when I was deciding what career I was going to go into, the Food Network just blew up. All these shows became extremely popular; the idea of a celebrity chef was a real thing, and it was cool. So I was like, "Yeah I want to do that. I want to be on TV and all that fun stuff."
You said you can make "just about any cake imaginable." What do you find customers asking for?
For our customers, we get the gamut of a little bit of everything. It's the nature of what we do here. Whether it's different savory options for lunch or a totally crazy cake with rockets shooting out the top, it's a little bit of everything. What does set us apart is we consider ourselves truly a custom bakery. If you want a cake with rockets out the top, or a cake with a picture of your dog on it or these awesome edible cookies where we take any picture and turn it into a cookie, we do a little bit of everything. Same thing with weddings. Our perspective on weddings is we'll do a cupcake tower, a dessert bar, a doughnut bar, whatever the hell you want. So again, it's that truly customizable option, and people want that.
Not all customers have an exact idea of what they want. Can you walk me through the process of how you turn a concept into a customized pastry?
The most important part for us is almost all of our managers, and even a lot of cashiers we have working, have bakery experience, and our pastry chefs are just passionate about it. So when you walk in and you're talking to somebody, they know the medium. They know what you can do with sugar and what you can't do with sugar. … Talking about a theme is usually what happens, like, "I want a SpongeBob theme or a dog theme. Then we start going, "Well, OK, how much money do you want to spend? How many people do you have?' And then you start backing into a design that way. It really stems from someone being knowledgeable about the product and knowing what you can and can't do with it, being able to work with it and help you. Basically, they come in and we talk about it. We narrow into an idea. A lot of things are custom-priced out. … Then we're doing a little sketch for them so they can see what our vision is. The visions match; it's done, and then we'll make it and have it ready to go for them.
Customized cakes and pastries are a niche market. Crumbs, the nationwide cupcake retailer, recently declared bankruptcy. What are the challenges of maintaining this type of business in a narrow market?