I’m a dessert aficionado, but Jen Wasiak definitely has me beat. As the designer, baker and owner of Honey Bee Cakes in Queens, NY, Jen has a dream job for anyone who appreciates the fluffy swirl of a perfectly frosted cupcake, the perfume of buttercream, or the challenge of innovating a new dessert recipe or cake design.
Jen designs cakes for all occasions, from weddings to birthdays to retirement parties, and creates unique and delicious desserts across the spectrum (I’ve tried her chocolate-covered rainbow cookie bites myself and seriously, wow).
Owning a bakery isn’t all dessert testing and sugar flowers, though. Jen puts in long hours in her cake design business and bake shop, often starting her day at 2am. We spoke to Jen about the challenges of small business ownership, the perks of culinary school, and what it’s like to make a living designing cakes for a client’s most special occasions.
Check out Honey Bee Cakes for more, and if you’re in NYC, don’t forget to drop by to sample those cookie bites for yourself!
Tell us a little bit about your early life–what were you interested in?
I grew up in Flushing, Queens. I was a pretty typical middle child- independent and rebellious. As a kid I was never into baking, but always drawing and painting. I went to high school at St. Francis Prep. My husband and I met in sculpture class Senior year. 21 years and two kids later, we’re still together.
How did you realize you wanted to become a baker?
I took a few years after high school to figure out what I wanted to do. After working at various jobs, I decided culinary school sounded like fun. I was a vegetarian at the time, and since a culinary degree meant cooking meat, the pastry program it was! It wasn’t until I was done with school, and doing my internship that I fell in love with cakes. I was placed with an amazing cake decorator, who took me under her wing and taught me to decorate.
Culinary School was awesome. Having a kitchen for a classroom, and tests that involved the proper way to supreme an orange or make a meringue–it was a lot of fun. I got to bring home everything I made, so there were nights I was coming home with 6 cheesecakes and 8 kinds of profiteroles. My friends used to drive into the city just to pick me up and sample that day’s lesson.
After you graduated, did you launch your business directly? Or did you work other jobs first?
After I finished school, I worked as an intern and was then hired by a cake decorator. We did mostly wedding cakes, but birthdays and other events as well. She is a really well known, high-end baker in Brooklyn. Photos of her cakes are published all the time. My main responsibility was prepping and decorating the cakes. I also made sugar paste decorations, like figures, animals and flowers. I kind of hate making flowers though. Its really time consuming and repetitive. I don’t mind the first 3 or 4 but then I’m pretty much over it.
I worked there for about 4 years until I had my first son. I wanted to be able to stay home with him, so I started working on my own. I had an addition built onto my house, and put in a work kitchen. I was able to work while he slept and at night once my husband got home. It started off slowly, but eventually I had some steady accounts, and was busy with cakes every weekend. Last year I finally made the decision to open up a little shop in Whitestone, Queens, not far from where I live. It’s been a dream having my own place. There are still times I can’t believe its really mine.
My favorite cakes are the weird requests–like a Fraggle Rock baby shower cake or cemetery cake to celebrate a recent divorce. I love when a client gives me the artistic freedom to come up with a design.
I’ll usually do a sketch or have a basic idea in my head of what the cake will look like, but it’s hard translate a two dimensional sketch into a real life cake. Things always look different once I start decorating, so if the flowers look better on the third tier and I sketched them on the second, I’ll put them where they look best.
Designing the cake is usually a pretty quick process. Most clients come in with some ideas already in mind. The decorating time varies quite a bit, though. Simple cakes can be done in less than an hour, while a detailed 5 tiered cake can take half the day.
What’s your favorite part of owning your own baking business? Your least favorite?
I love that we get to be part of so many celebrations. The excitement of planning a first birthday or the secrecy involved in a gender reveal cake make getting up at 2am a little bit easier. Time is definitely a challenge–sometimes there just aren’t enough hours in the day. On the weekends especially, emails and invoices go unanswered. I’m trying to get more on top of that.
Interning is a great way to try out different fields and find something you like doing. If you plan on starting a business, take as many classes as you can. Not only culinary classes, but business and bookkeeping as well. That’s one area that I still struggle with. The whole process of opening a business can be long and confusing. There is a ton of paperwork and permits to get, but the Small Business Association can be very helpful. You can call with questions (which I did numerous times), they can help with loan information, and even with expediting the inspection process.
There is so much that goes into owning a small business, but you have to make sure you take some time for yourself. Even if it’s just a few hours a week, do something to clear your mind so you don’t burn out. I go to lunch with a friend or even just grab a cup of coffee and talk about anything other than baking. As much as I love it, I try to leave it at the shop. That way when I get back to it I’m actually looking forward to it.
What is a typical day like for you?
My day usually starts about 2am. I get into the shop and do all the baking for the day, and then prep for the weekend cakes. I have a couple girls that help in the shop, mostly with the customers. I’ve been teaching them to roll out fondant and make buttercream, but right now I do all the baking myself. The shop is open until 4pm, so it’s a long day. I try to be in bed by 8pm, which is earlier than my kids go to bed! My days off are usually spent buying supplies, and doing invoices, etc. It’s a lot of work but I love it.
Is it difficult to spend such long hours on the shop, especially with a young family?
It can be hard working all weekend, missing out on family time. Especially in the beginning, I felt like I couldn’t leave the shop, and was always there. It’s almost like having a child. But now I have employees that I trust and am comfortable leaving them. If the day’s not too busy I’ll sneak out for an hour or two and catch my son’s little league game or go to lunch with them.
Do you bake the same menu every day for the shop, or do you switch it up?
In the shop we definitely have items that are staples, and then I offer different things every week, depending on what I feel like making that day. It keeps people coming in for the favorites and also to see what’s new on the menu. We do a “cupcake of the month.” Like in May we did “The Elvis,” a banana cupcake with peanut butter icing. We also do seasonal items, like peach tarts in the summer, and caramel apple cake in the fall.
How often do you test new recipes? Is there something new you’ve been working on?
I don’t really have time when the shop is open to test recipes so I usually do that on my day off. I’m always trying new things to offer in the store. My husband is very honest, which is helpful. If something sucks I want to know! He’ll sometimes bring things into work and get their feedback as well. I’ve recently been testing out donut recipes. The hands down winner is the Rainbow Cookie Donut. It’s so good!
Bridget Thoreson is a writer and editor in New York City. Her interests vary widely, but she lives for traveling, snacking, reading, daydreaming, and making lists.