Customers stepping out of their cars in the parking lot of Kake Korner in North Laurel are immediately greeted with the smell of baking cakes wafting through the air. Once they step inside the pink building, the smell grows even stronger.
Patti McDermott doesn't even notice it anymore.
The cake decorator has been working at Kake Korner — a women-owned bakery on Route 1 that's been operating for nearly 40 years — since April 2010, and in that time has made quite a name for herself, and the bakery.
Kake Korner owner Diane White said business has tripled in the two years McDermott has been at the bakery. And in early May, McDermott's cake decorating skills were recognized internationally when she won five first-place titles and was named grand champion at the annual International Cake Exploration Societe competition in Westminster.
"She's awesome on her own right, but I'm proud of her like she's my own kid," White said. "She came in, quiet as a mouse, and changed the whole place around her. People come in looking for her stuff, and no matter what I put in front of her, no matter what people bring to me, what challenges have come in front of her—she always rises to the occasion. She has never failed us."
McDermott calls White her "cake-mom," while White calls her "Patti Cake."
White, of Randallstown, has owned Kake Korner since 2004, when she bought it from the original owner, Pam Horne. The bakery was originally called JP's Kake Korner — "J" for Pam's sister Jennifer, and then for her mother, Jean. When she bought the business, White brought in her own recipes and her own staff, but kept the building's signature white paint with pink shutters.
McDermott is one of about 18 people who work for White and she has been baking and decorating cakes for about five years. On a recent Friday, she stood in the upstairs room at Kake Korner, decorating a child's first birthday cake: bright yellow, adorned with fondant faces of Sesame Street characters.
"This is my favorite part," McDermott said. "Designing it, and putting it all together at the end, the assembly. Seeing it all come together is the best, and seeing how it's different or similar to my original sketch."
From art to baking
McDermott, 26, is a 2007 graduate of Long Island University, where she earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts. As an art student, she said, she liked doing everything: sculpting, drawing, painting, pottery. The summer after she graduated, she became obsessed with shows like "Ace of Cakes," which feature the world of cake decorating. With her father's birthday approaching, she went out, bought supplies and tried her hand at it.
She loved it.
"I was obsessed from that point on," she said. "I had to make cakes for everyone."
In the fall of 2007, she enrolled in culinary school, and then took an internship — and eventually, a job — with Cakes by Mona in New York City. When her husband, originally from the Eastern Shore, started attending law school in the area, they moved to Annapolis, and she began work at Kake Korner.
Her interest in "everything and anything" at art school, and a sometimes-short attention span, translates to her job now, McDermott said. Her work is constantly changing, and she likes it that way.
"I can work on a cake for a half hour, then I'm on to something new," she said. "This is perfect for me, as an artist: I get to be creative, and then move on quickly."
Pirate wedding cake
White said the bakery makes anywhere from 150 to 300 cakes a week, and McDermott decorates anywhere from 30 to 50 when she's at the bakery on Fridays, the only day she works in Laurel as she and her husband now live in Snow Hill, near Ocean City. On the other days of the week, McDermott is managing Kake Korner's website and her own website, and running her own small business for family and friends.
It's a lot of work for someone who said that cakes aren't even her "go-to dessert," but McDermott likes the process of creating, she said, and seeing how people react to her work.
"I just enjoy making cakes," she said. "I can't think of a time when I've gotten a bad reaction to a cake I've given someone. It's the excitement, and the process, going from sketching it out to putting it all together, and at the end it's really satisfying."
For the ICES competition, McDermott created five cakes: a collection of cupcakes decorated with "Alice in Wonderland" characters; a viking helmet; a Silver Bullet camper at a campsite; a robot surrounded by pinwheels; and a four-tier wedding cake, which McDermott endearingly called "A Pirate's Wife for Me." The cake — on display with the others at the bakery — is decorated like a pirate ship, and the inspiration came from one of McDermott's favorite movies.
"I had just changed my ring-tone to the 'Pirates of the Caribbean' theme," she said. "It was like, why didn't I think of this? This is what I'm doing."
McDermott began sketching ideas for the competition in March, and while she always has her sketch pad, writing down and drawing ideas, she said inspiration is sometimes the hardest to come by when a customer hasn't presented her with a request. Sometimes, however, ideas just come to her, like when a Silver Bullet drove past her and she knew she had to make it for the competition.
'Making people happy'
When people see the cakes that won the awards, McDermott said, they go nuts.
"Even if people don't know what the cakes were for or what the competition was, they're still excited," McDermott said. "It's huge for the shop, and for me, it's just really exciting. Meeting all the people at the competition, getting critiqued by Food Network stars, it's an amazing feeling."
McDermott guessed people liked specialty cakes because such a creation is a centerpiece at a party, an element that draws everyone's attention and thrills them. White agreed, and said the most rewarding part of the job was going home to bed, because she knows that when work is done at the bakery, the party is just getting started for the cake.
"Making people happy is the thing that drives you in this business," White said. "When the cakes go out Saturday, you go home, and the biggest satisfaction is to go to bed and know that there are 85 to 100 parties going on right now, with people eating your cakes, and loving every minute of it. We can almost hear the 'mmmms' and 'aaahhs' as we fall asleep."