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The Sweet Road to Success

Michele Sweeney Baker at 5 years old.
Cupcakes were just the beginning....

Lately, I've seen and heard things in cake groups, blogs and online articles from our baking arts community that have caused me to pause and ponder. I repeatedly hear comments to the effect of “People think they can take a decorating class and suddenly they are qualified to set up a shop or teach classes.”

Michele Sweeney Bakes
Thanks to the easy bake oven I could decorate just like my Mom.

Cake shows have fueled a surge in the number of people interested in baking and caking for a living. With that surge comes market saturation and other issues in the baking community, that could keep me writing for days. However, I can’t help but ponder how many of those people are reading comments as stated above, who have talent and as a result are not moving forward because they feel unworthy. In some cases these comments are made by the very people they admire and have taken classes from. "I mean, didn’t we all start somewhere? And isn’t that true for any profession?"

I hear from virtually every person that's been on a cake show or is known for their skill the same story as to how they got their start. They either took one class and where hooked, had a family member or friend encourage them based on baked goods, or grew up with it.

My story is similar, I’ve been around it all my life and started at a young age. I’m a fourth generation baker and second generation cake decorator. My Grandma who shares a famous name; Betty Grable, was known for her cookies. My childhood memories are filled with delicious pies, sweet and savory breads, preserves and those amazing cookies she use to make. My mom was a professional cake decorator when I was a child. I spent many summers either in the bakery “helping” my mom or riding around with her while she delivered wedding and special occasion cakes. I was always in awe of her works of art and looked up to her not just because she’s my mom, but because of her amazing artistic abilities.

I love baking and decorating. I made my first cake at the age of five with my Easy Bake Oven and by 4th grade had entered my first “contest” – a Cake Walk and Silent Auction at my elementary school. My cake went for $75 back then. Trust me, that was a lot back then. I was hooked at an early age.

While cooking, baking and sugar art have always been a part of my life, it wasn’t my first career. My mother and I often joke how I reverse walked in her footsteps. She learned cake decorating from Wilton yearbooks and her obsession led to a job as a professional cake decorator. When she left the bakery, she worked her way through the ranks in the government which landed her a job in software engineering at Microsoft. I started my corporate career at Microsoft in Recruiting and went on to build some of the most recognized brands in online recruiting as a Marketing and Product Development professional. Yes, I’m proud to say I’m a geeky techno nerd. A skill that has served me while when building my company and e-learning platform.

As with any career, you have to start with a basic foundation to build upon. Mine started as a child with an Easy Bake Oven and a mom who did it professionally. As an Instructor, I feel my job is to encourage every single person that takes my classes. And the encouragement doesn’t stop when they walk out the door or click off one of my online classes. You continue to encourage your students to keep up their passion and keep working on their skills, building upon that foundation you’ve help lay for them. When I had my bakery and retail supply shop in NH, I can’t tell you how many times I had a student call and say HELP! Was I upset that they were selling cakes, when I was operating a bakery too, heck no! I was beaming that one of my students had the courage and drive to move forward for themselves. My response, "bring it here and we will fix it." I’d roll up my sleeves and walk them through what they needed to do to correct it. You never stop giving back.

Technology can be good and bad. The good is that it allows you to keep in communication with your students through social media. The bad is when you forget that your students are following your every move and inadvertently say something damaging.

When I opened my first shop, do you know who one of my first customers was? My first cake decorating teacher Sandra. I had been playing with icing for years prior to Sandra, but she was my first real teacher. Sandra is an amazing, quick witted, hilarious lady. I remember the first class I took with her. She scared me! She was very serious about how you hold the bag and I thought what have I gotten myself into. “Tuck your chicken wings in” she use to pro-claim as she walked about the room, adjusting peoples arms while they worked on a rose. I would feel my breath catch when she would get to me thinking “Please don’t stop, please don’t stop”. I wasn’t really scared of her, I was worried I would let her down by doing it wrong, because I wanted so badly to be able to say “Look Sandra, I did it, just like you taught me”.

Sandra was always honest with me and pushed me to push myself. Why? Because she believed in me. When I took first place at my first cake competition, she said “ I knew you would”! When I opened my shop, she said “I knew you could do it”! When I was cast on Cake Wars, she said "I knew you'd be on one day". She took the basic foundation I walked into class with and elevated it to the next level. Her encouragement and support alone inspired me to keep pushing. She loves what she does and that’s what makes a teacher great.

I became an Instructor because I love teaching. I enjoy seeing how excited my students get when they master a skill or the look of accomplishment on their face when they finish their first cake masterpiece. I understand that excitement, that feeling, after all I too started there. I love how it brings families together or allows a parent to spend some fun time with their child that just beat cancer. The personal stories that bring a person to class are amazing. And yes, from time to time, you might hear me say “My teacher use to tell me to tuck in my chicken wings, you need to tuck yours in”.

I still consider myself a student, I don’t think one could possibly know everything. I’m continually building upon that foundation that started years ago. I still get excited when I learn a new technique. So, if you are passionate about what you are doing and your mission is clear, ignore the noise and continue to focus on your end result. And if your teacher is doing his or her job, they will be encouraging you every step and cheering you on every step of the way.


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