As a long time baker who worked in corporate and private bakeries while in college, I was making not purchasing the products and hadn't really considered this concept before, after all, your typical college slave labor is making not much over minimum wage anyway, irregardless of what the bakery is getting paid for your labors. Having raised 6 daughters, I had to purchase 3 wedding cakes over the years as I was too busy to make them myself (I thought was the reason) and was shocked at the amount I had to pay. 10 years ago I paid 3.00 a serving for a wedding cake and thought it was an outrageous price to pay for flour and eggs, as Steve Martin so eloquently puts it in "Father of the Bride". I assured myself when beginning my own business that I would provide extremely affordable wedding cakes to the masses. What a shock I was in for. To even get started in the business requires a minimum investment of say $2,000 in mixers, pans, decorating equipment, etc. This is without any ingredients or specialty equipment. Then, if you want to stay good at what you do, you have to keep up with the trends in the business which requires taking courses when available, subscribing to Bridal magazines, etc. and you have not even made a cake you have been paid for yet. Then, ah ha, the big day comes when you have your first cake order. By now you have made countless cakes. Let me assure you, if you have not practiced every possible cake you might have to make you will be in way over your head when you try to make a wedding cake, the most important cake a person ever orders, without having done more than one run through first. Now, your customer places their order. There are designs to be drawn up, and then redesigns, and redesigns, as many brides change their minds as they see new things while they are doing their wedding shopping throughout the 6-9 months between when they place their order and when you make their order. There is uncountable hours put into color matching run throughs to be sure you can make the perfect match to that bride's maids dress and then copy the pattern of the lace in the dress in piping. None of the hours, by the way, are paid. If you get lucky enough to have a bride that knows exactly what she wants, these hours are decreased significantly; however, new challenges come in. A single life size rose made of gumpaste takes about 2 hours. That is after uncountable months of practice. Every petal must be pressed in a silicone mold to vein it perfectly and each layer of petals must be lightented in color so that it looks like real rose petal fading as they bloom out to perfect fullness. Each petal is hand glued on (with edible hand mixed gumpaste glue) and shaped and curled to look just right. Then the calyx and leaves must be added which means mixing another color of gumpaste.
A wedding cake also requires something perhaps most don't know exists, an entire internal structure of dowels and supports to keep each tier perfectly level and structurally sound that it is square or round or heart shaped and perfectly level all the way up. It is similar to being a cross between an architect and a baker. There is so much math involved it is indescribable and known only by those who have attempted those cakes that teeter above the 15" height or so.
And then there is the waste. Every cake must be cooked in a 2 inch or 3 inch thick pan; however, it must be cooked so that the absolute lowest part of the cake reaches the minimum height necessary for the final product. Every tier must be trimmed and leveled to make building this magnificent structure safe. A typical housewife's cake pan is a 1 1/2 inch deep, 8 or 9 inch round which takes 5 cups of batter to make two of. Your typical wedding cake is make of multiple layers of 2 or 3 inch deep pans which much grow above that height to be trimmed perfectly level and require a minimum of double the amount of batter for the same size pan in diameter. And of course, this is not batter from a box. These are handmade cakes of the finest baker's sugar, specialty ultra fine sifted cake flour, real butter, etc.
Next come the fillings. The chocolate ganache made of nothing but the finest chocolate and heavy whipping cream or fresh fruits at the peak of quality, cream fillings or lemon curd hand made from endless egg yolks and lemon zest.
Then comes the frosting. No bakery worth its name is using shortening in its frosting. It is pure butter or whipping cream or both, some, like mine, to get the perfect white icing, beat the whipping cream into butter so that I do not have to deal with coloring added by the butter company to make the butter look yellow instead of white, its natural color. Over the frosting is the fondant. Any good fondant is made from scratch with inverted sugar, natural gelatin, cocoa butter, etc. and takes a great deal of time to knead, roll, and apply to a perfect surface to achieve the beautiful sheen that only a fondant cake airbrushed with pealizer can achieve.
So, did I say $2,000 dollars, hah, I have nearly $10,000 invested in all the necessary equipment to accomplish every task at the quality I desire and can't imagine when I will be in the green in my budget. My gloriously patient husband, an Executive chef, understands my passion for perfection and pleasing my clients; however, every time I walk in a Michaels, a custom bakery supply store, or go online to Sugarcraft or some other specialty supplier he still cringes.
So, the next time you cringe at the price quoted you by the baker for the price of your wedding cake, think of the poor baker's husband and realize that more often than not, your cake will have so many hours of planning, r and d, and construction put into it, that that baker is lucky to be breaking even, if they are. And if any of you out there are, please write me and let me know how it’s done. Or perhaps I am too much of a perfectionist...