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?
What we've tried to do at all costs is avoid becoming a niche market. I recognize that at some point cupcakes are not going to be the trendy, popular thing. Look at a national company going out of business literally overnight. … We do everything we can to avoid it. The nice thing about custom cakes is people will always celebrate. People are always going to have something to celebrate. Cakes have become so traditional that they're never going anywhere, so that market we promote the heck out of. Everything else, if people stop coming in for sandwiches, we're not going to do sandwiches anymore. If nobody wants to buy ice cream anymore — we take this case out and put something else in. … It's a completely adaptable business. It's constantly changing, morphing. If you saw what we sold on Day One of the business compared to what we sell now, the menu has literally grown probably 12-fold in what we're doing.
You're an avid video gamer; what has kept a controller in your hand after all these years?
I love video games. I'm an old school Mario junkie; I have two Mario tattoos on my legs. Old-school Nintendo is awesome. For me, it's Super Smash Bros., and all that kind of fun stuff. Anything-Mario, really, is what I go for. For me, it's a total blast from the past, like a childhood thing. It's recapturing my youth. I think it's something my generation has in common, too, because I think we all went through that. It was blowing up and fun and totally relatable in that sense.
I feel like such a grandpa saying this but the new systems, the new games, it's too much. I just want side-scrolling Mario. Is that too much to ask for?
Title: Owner and executive chef, La Cakerie
Education: Johnson & Wales University, Bachelor of Arts in baking and pastry arts. Pastry certification, Restaurant School in Vitznau, Switzerland.
Hobbies: Video games, especially the Nintendo 64 system.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun