Hangin’ with Klecko: A cake decorator extraordinaire
I have to admit, I was nervous. After working decades at the same place, with pretty much the same crew, I was about to embark on my next professional chapter in White Bear Lake at Grandma’s Bakery.
The facility was enormous, and as I made my way across the plant, I smiled for the first time in a while. It felt good to have purpose.
As the day went on, a guy from the cake department welcomed me and offered up comments that indicated he hoped I’d feel at home.
The gentleman’s name was Curtis Studeman.
When I asked him if he had always been a cake decorator, he smiled while explaining: “Actually I started off as an artist that needed to make some money, so I worked at the Marriott. During that time I signed up for a Wilton’s cake decorating course. I enjoyed it so much I enrolled in all three levels.”
“And then you came to Grandma’s?” I asked.
“No, I actually started baking at Lindquist’s Bakery in Minneapolis,” he said, “and ended up owning the place for part of my 14-year stint there, but eventually the final owners couldn’t stay afloat so they had to close the place down.”
“And then?” I asked.
“And then I came to Grandma’s and have worked here 11 years with a team of seven other decorators.”
“What made you choose Grandma’s?” I asked, and Curtis didn’t take long to remember.
“If you know how to decorate cakes, you can always find a job, but I’ve been led to believe some gigs are better than others. In grocery stores, or at least some of them, the decorators are forced to hit hourly quotas.
“Don’t get me wrong, we kick out a lot of product here, but at Grandma’s we are encouraged to personalize the customer’s experience. In many ways cakes are given like greeting cards. They get sent to a special event where the client usually wants to impart a personal message, so I do my best to get appropriate information so I can give our customer something nicer than they imagined.
“Decorating never seems to get boring to me because each day I get to tackle new artistic projects, I really enjoy that.”
At this point I figured I’d try to catch Curtis off guard by asking him how many cakes he had decorated over his career. To my surprise he responded without pondering.
“Over 275,000 cakes would be a cautious estimate. When you make that many, not all of them can be a masterpiece, but on the occasions I end up creating something special, that’s a pretty good feeling.”
As I looked across his workspace, I noticed many cakes were being boxed up to be sent out while many others were being placed into the retail showcase.
When I asked what the breakdown was between wholesale and retail, Curtis flinched for a moment before informing me he didn’t know, but guessed it had to be close to 50/50.
While our discussion continued, I noticed that each of the decorators were working on cakes that seemed to have their own personality, so I asked if they had to follow a template or if each artist was allowed to have their own vibe where one of them could be Picasso and the other could be Warhol.
Curtis actually grinned at this question before responding: “As you can imagine we like to maintain standards, but yes, it is accurate to say that each one of the decorators I work with has their own distinct style. I am fortunate to work amidst so much talent.”
Now that we seemed to be bonding, I asked the question most of you would want me to ask: “Have you ever got to do cakes for famous people or special events?”
With a modest tone Curtis rattled off a list: “When Prince became a symbol and was referred to as The Artist Formally Known As Prince, I got to do the one-year birthday cake celebrating his new moniker. The cake was purple and gold.
“When John Mayer came to town I got to do a gramophone cake for him in honor of the Grammy he had recently won.
"Then there was Jerry Lewis, it’s not like I got to meet him, but I’m glad I got to do his cake.”
It appeared that the celebrity list might go on longer than our shift, and Curtis seemed a bit shy so I let him off the hook by asking what the new wedding cake fads were.
“I don’t do much with wedding cakes, but I have noticed that many of the current ones are naked with a wash of icing. I think these days most people are focused on flavor over ornate.
“But in standard cakes I think it’s safe to say that torte sales are increasing and single-serving cakes have been huge lately.”
Realizing that we both had things to do, I shook his hand and told him that I was pleased to meet him, but as I began to walk away, I turned around and pestered him one final time by asking which of his 275,000 cakes did he enjoy making the most.
The question sparked interest in his colleagues as well. As everybody glanced toward Curtis, the corners of his mouth moved upward as he announced: “Sometimes it’s not just the cake, but the person you get to bake it for. If I had to pick a favorite, I’d pick the large-mouth bass I sculpted for my grandson. It was chasing a Daredevil lure. That was a great cake. I’ll text you a picture if you’d like to see it.”
And with that I departed back toward the bread crew, considering how good it felt to make a new friend.
Purpose had returned to my life.
I felt honored to be on the Grandma’s team.
Until next time …
Dan “Klecko” McGleno can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 651-329-4321.