A Piece of Cake- Blog

Personal thoughts, published works, and a little bit of random sweetness

Traveling Cuba- Everything You Need To Know

Posted by on Jun 28, 2017 in A Piece of Cake- Blog | 4 comments

  Cuba had long been on my travel bucket-list for a-typical reasons. I was 17 when I first studied Cuba in my Advanced Placement U.S history class. I consider Cuba the United State’s biggest mistake and the biggest blow to the country’s ego. From botching the Bay of Pigs attack to forcing the country to turn to Russia for help (thus strengthening Castro’s resolve to become Communist) to being unable to take down Castro (though I have some theories as to why this didn’t work out), it was mistake after mistake for the US. Click here to read a brief history of US-Cuban relations. So I’ve been wanting to visit Cuba to see with my own eyes and hear with my own ears what really goes on behind this invisible iron curtain. I say invisible because a typical tourist (especially those who don’t speak Spanish) gets absorbed into what I call the facade. The real Cuba lies just behind that facade and that’s exactly where I wanted to go. It’s impossible to write this blog without delving into politics, but I will try my best to split the blog so that those interested in just travel tips can read that section, and those interested in everything can read it all. I will start with the travel. Traveling Cuba: If you aren’t American, a lot of my suggestions won’t apply to you. I flew direct from Los Angeles using my US Passport and had zero problems in either direction. I purchased my visa beforehand and filled it out with the proper purpose of my trip and off I went!  I won’t lie, watching Europeans use their credit cards made me envious! Which leads me to the “what you should pack” list: 1. Cash, and lots of it. Cuba is NOT as cheap as I expected, mainly because Cubans raised their prices about 100% in anticipation of American tourists. Thanks to Trump’s recent announcement, I expect prices to fall again. If you compare the prices to our American ones, you will still think everything is reasonable. Our first night we got fooled into eating at a tourist famous place called “La Familia” and between the three meals (we invited our host out) and the drinks my cousin ordered, we ended up paying $100 C.U.Cs (roughly $100 american dollars). Comparable to home, but that one night was as expensive as the rest of my trip. We later found more realistic places- full meals for $3. All you have to do is move one or two streets away from the tourist traps, and the real prices  (and tastier meals) await you. But back to the cash topic- since Americans can NOT use ATM machines or credit cards, take enough cash to cover emergency situations. Plan for $50/day. Currently the exchange rate is $0.90 to $1- for every one US dollar you get 90 Cuban cents. Euros are a stronger choice, so if you have any left over from European trips, take them with you. A very unexpected expense was for bathrooms! Leaving change for bathroom services isn’t a foreign concept for me, but I didn’t expect most bathrooms to be 1 CUC! The Cubans would tell you “leave what you want” but brace yourselves for bullshit. One guy tried leaving 10 cents and the bathroom lady angrily pointed to his 1 CUC and said “that one.” Sometimes they don’t care and will let you through, but other times they’ll be angry and give you very little toilet paper to use. Let’s chat a second about currency. Cuba has two currencies: the convertible peso (CUC) and the moneda nacional (CUP). I’m going to try not to get political here, but the exchange rate between the two pesos is heart-breaking. 1 CUC= 24 pesos. Cuba will be much cheaper for you if you opt to exchange money into moneda nacional. Most of their food is 1 peso nacional…. that’s free in CUC because the conversion doesn’t exist. I didn’t exchange money to the moneda nacional because I didn’t mind paying the locals extra CUCs. However,...

Read More

The Cake Life – Why You Want To Quit and Why You Shouldn’t

Posted by on May 9, 2016 in A Piece of Cake- Blog | 6 comments

Lately my social media feeds have been full of posts like these: ” I’m burned out. I don’t want to make cakes anymore” “I am tired of giving up my weekends” “I am tired of not making a profit” Sound familiar? Is that you? Then let’s talk! The number one reason cake artists feel burned out is because they have TOO MUCH WORK. This isn’t necessarily a great thing. Let me tell you why. Ready? There is a huge difference between making cakes for fun and making cakes for a living. The biggest mistake bakers make is under-pricing their work. They do this for a plethora of reasons: they feel insecure about their work, they say there isn’t a market for higher prices, or they just want to be jerks and steal all the customers for themselves without a care in the world as to how they’re cheapening the value of custom cakes (I know a business like that in Los Angeles 🙂 I won’t be a total ass and name it though haha! ) Ok so back to my original statement of you having too much work. I don’t have a doubt that your work is good enough to sell, but WHY are you swamped? Are you that amazing that everyone wants your cakes, or are you too affordable? Think about that one long and hard. When I started my business I quit a very lucrative career to be poor for X amount of years as my business grew and developed. I too started selling my cakes for nothing (my first 100 person cake sold for $60, I made a total of -$120 on that one after my materials were purchased haha) and I slowly raised my prices from $3 to my current $7. I drafted a rough 5 year plan and told myself that I never wanted a high QUANTITY of cakes, I wanted high QUALITY of orders. What does this mean? It means that I’d rather have one $500 order for the weekend instead of 5 $100 cakes. This is why I set minimums and strictly stick to them. Your TIME is more valuable than anything and you need to learn to set boundaries with your customers and yourself. I see people post 6-8 cake orders per weekend and although that’s awesome, wouldn’t it feel better to make the same amount of money by selling 2 cakes? Maybe 3? Unless you live smack in the middle of nowhere there will always be a market for high quality prices. If it’s true that there is NOT, then either change careers or move or figure out a way to diversify your income. Another reason why you feel burned out is because of scheduling. Without a proper schedule this business will rule your life 24/7. When I started off I took phone calls at any hour because I didn’t want to lose customers. I eventually set a boundary by adhering to my store hours (yes, even home based businesses have store hours. That’s part of setting boundaries). Any phone calls that come once my store is closed go straight to voicemail. Speaking of phone calls, a wise idea is getting a business number.I use Google Voice and can screen all of my calls through my cell phone. BOUNDARIES are VERY important. At the end of the day we are selling cake so any late night phone calls aren’t going to be life and death situations… But back to scheduling- you NEED to have a schedule. It’s a fallacy that entrepreneurs and business owners thrive on lack of structure. ARE YOU KIDDING ME?! It’s all about structure! Once you have a schedule you have the freedom to do what you want with your free time. I know what I am doing Tuesday- Saturday and I am CLOSED Mondays. I don’t answer e-mails or phone calls those days. I bake Wednesdays and Thursdays, work on cakes Thursday and Friday and I am DONE by Friday evening just like the rest of the world. This requires being very organized with your orders and prepping...

Read More

How Shakar Bakery Won Food Network’s Cake Wars

Posted by on Mar 21, 2016 in A Piece of Cake- Blog | 8 comments

    It was July 2015 when I decided to apply to the Food Network AGAIN for the LAST TIME. I had applied religiously every year since 2011 each time getting closer and closer to being cast on a show. I knew Cake Wars was the show for me- I am super, duper, UBER competitive and I love the rush of working on a tight time schedule. One month later Super Delicious contacted me asking for a video submission. I was in San Francisco on vacation at the time and I halfheartedly told them “ya, ya, you’ll get a video.” I’ve been through this step many times… A week passed and I totally forgot about it. Again Super Delicious called me asking for the video and I paused and thought “huh… they really want a video from me. Can it be?! Will I get cast?!” So I submitted a video showing off the bruises covering my knees from an aggressive game of air hockey the night before at an Arcade, PROOF that I was competitive. A month later I get the golden phone call ” Congratulations! You will be competing on Season 2 of Cake Wars”   OH EM GEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!!!!! My episode was set to film a month later. I didn’t know the theme, I didn’t know anything. What I DID know is that I wanted to WIN!!!!!! There was no doubt in my mind I was taking my mom as my assistant. When I told her she said “No, Shantal, take one of your cake friends! I’m slow, I’m old and I’ll make you lose!” I told her “Win or lose, I want you as my partner because no one else deserves that spot.” Plus I valued the memory of being on tv with my mom WAY MORE than winning the $10,000. But don’t misunderstand me…I still wanted to win hahaha! https://secureservercdn.net/ These are the steps I took to improve my chances of winning: Step 1: Treat the competition like a COMPETITION. Just like sports players watch previous games over and over again to analyze game plans, I had to do the same. I don’t own a television so I missed most of Season 1 of Cake Wars but I found all the episodes on YouTube. I grabbed a pen and paper and watched every single episode, noting down what the judges said, what they liked, what they didn’t like, what the competitors did wrong in short amount of time, what worked and what didn’t work. I watched each episode at the very least 3 times. Yes, I made time for that. I learned that Ron Ben Israel loved clean, square edges and that his favorite cake flavor was almond. I learned that Waylynn Lucas wanted the central characters to be LARGE on the cake and the main focus. These were very important things to remember!! Step 2: From the moment I learned I was going to be on cake wars I used every and any opportunity to practice baking! With every customer order I turned on the timer in my kitchen and I timed myself with every test, going faster and faster until I met my time goals. If something was taking me 10 minutes, how could I do it more efficiently? WHY was it taking me 10 minutes? How can I maximize EVERY MINUTE of my time?!?!?! Time is money and in this case that’s $10,000! Step 3: This was the trickiest- delegating tasks. I’m used to working alone, with occasional help from my mom (who I was taking as my assistant on the show). My mom and I are like oil and water sometimes…we have epic battles in the kitchen about design, but at the end of the day we are a great team. She knows what I like, how I like it and how to execute it. She does run into problems here and there and most of the time sculpts things out of scale (even when I give her the scale I want it in hahaha) … but on Cake Wars if you...

Read More

Sugar Geode and Agate Chocolate Ganache Drip Cake

Posted by on Feb 7, 2016 in A Piece of Cake- Blog, Designer Cakes | 1 comment

  I created this cake for my mother’s 65th birthday. It’s said the color scheme for 65 is silver! My mom is Uruguayan and I wanted to create something special for her. Geodes and agates are heavily exported from Uruguay and have always been a passion of ours so I decided to recreate them with sugar, fondant and chocolate! This entire cake is edible, simple and...

Read More

Specialty Cakes 102- More Things The Buyer Should Know!

Posted by on Feb 11, 2015 in A Piece of Cake- Blog | 0 comments

      A while ago I wrote a post called Specialty Cakes 101 and now it’s time we graduate to 102! In this post I am going to discuss a few misunderstandings the general public has regarding cake size, structures and price. 1. Cake Servings On the top of this post you will see a serving chart I created. The tiers are marked with their diameters (in inches) and all of them measure at the least 4″ in height. My servings are the size of a wedding serving slice- since my tiers are tall, you don’t need wide slices. The chart is for round tiers only! Unfortunately thanks to television and the grandiose cakes people see at most events, customers think a 5 tier cake is the proper size for say, 60 guests. What they don’t understand is that most of these cakes are mainly faux tiers and that the real servings are in the kitchen in the form of a sheet cake 🙂 I try to inform my customers and potential customers about serving size every time they place an order. I highly, HIGHLY recommend you grab a ruler and visually see what these diameters look like. A lot of cultures want over the top displays and in order to achieve that with the servings you need, we will most likely have to discuss faux tiers (which aren’t that much less expensive than real tiers, but still more cost affordable). Carved cakes are a little more difficult to calculate servings. Usually what we do is start with cake sizes we know servings of and start carving from there. For example, if I start with a 4″ high 8″ square cake it will normally feed 32 people. If the cake has minimal carving, I calculate for 20 servings. Remember, we charge per serving! If you’re wanting a grandiose cake you are going to have to pay for the extra servings to increase the size of the cakes! Sometimes it’s better to sacrifice size in order to afford more detail.   2.  Cake Denseness  Most people expect a really fluffy, angel cake type of texture with specialty cakes. The times you have enjoyed such fluffiness is when you are eating a sheet cake. Otherwise all bakers use a denser cake for tiered, 3D and carved cakes. The reason being is that we need a sound structure. A soft texture will not give the cake the support it needs and the last thing you want is a cake falling apart at your event! 3. Cake Pricing Ahhhh, pricing. The achille’s heel of this industry! Every baker charges differently- it all depends on their expertise, ingredients, their labor, and their designs. What many people fail to recognize is that bakers are running a business. The cost of labor, ingredients, overhead, etc etc all gets taken into account within the pricing of your cake. You can’t expect a white fondant 6″ tier to cost the same as a dragon cake that spits out fire. The more labor intensive the cake, the higher the price! You want real gold leaf instead of gold dust? The price of gold is expensive, so keep that in mind! It is a MYTH that we charge more for wedding cakes. My cake prices are the same for EVERY and ANY event. The only reasons wedding cakes are more expensive is because they have a higher guest count and setup takes longer so the setup/delivery fee is higher than a normal cake.   I hope you enjoyed my two cents on this matter! Customer satisfaction is always important, and part of our job is to educate the masses. Watch my YouTube video on this topic!...

Read More

How I Traveled The Yucatan Peninsula 9 Days For A Total Of $850!

Posted by on Jan 19, 2015 in A Piece of Cake- Blog | 2 comments

Places I visited: Merida, Celestun, Cenote X Batun (located near Uxmal), Chichen Itza, Playa del Carmen, Cozumel, and Tulum   It’s NO secret I suffer from a case of wander lust- I love to travel and do so as often as I possibly can. Many people think travel is a high expense, but that’s not always true. By writing this blog I hope to give you some travel tips that may encourage you to take that trip you’ve been wanting to take! Tip #1: Don’t travel during high season! Easier said than done, I know. One of the most beautiful parts of being a business owner is getting to choose when I get days off, and I take liberties with my vacation days 😉 But if you can, I really do recommend you study what are the high and low seasons of the places you want to visit. Flying during low season will save you hundreds and once you’re at your location your daily cost would be much lower. My trip to the Yucatan Peninsula was in a grey area… high season was JUST coming to an end, so ticket prices were in the $400 range for the January dates I selected. For a Los Angeles flight to Can Cun airport, that’s pretty expensive. In order to lessen the cost, I tapped into my miles and points. This leads me to tip #2! Tip #2: Use credit cards that give you miles! Why WOULDN’T you do this?! We all use credit cards and we should be reaping the rewards from our expenses. Think about it this way- you’re going to spend that $100 whether you pay cash or credit…so why not just pay with a credit card that now gave you 100 miles of credit to use? There are hundreds of credit cards out there that you can choose from. My favorite are the following: 1. British Airways Credit Card: this one has an annual fee, but the avios points are AMAZING for statewide travel. It only costs me 9k avios to fly on the west coast, and the most I’ve spent flying to the east coast was 21k! They are partnered with American Airlines. Plus side: no foreign transaction fees AND they don’t charge you for checked baggage! 2. Barclaycard : This credit card is amazing.  Right now if you sign up you earn 40,000 miles… every 2500 miles counts as $25 credit which means you would be earning $400 credit. I did this last year when I flew to the east coast and didn’t want to pay the $350 RT flight. I applied to this CC got the 40k miles and redeemed the $400 to my flight purchase. The best part is that by using this credit card you are gaining miles while redeeming miles, and on top of that you are awarded 10% travel miles when you use during travel! It’s a win win win all around with this credit card! BONUS: no foreign transaction fees! I use credit cards often so I was able to accumulate another $225 credit to be placed towards my Yucatan Peninsula trip. Combining my miles with the points on my Chase Ink business card ( #3 below) I was able to bring down the total cost of my flight to $96! 3. Chase Ink: Even though I use this credit card for my business purchases, I’m still on the fence about the rewards. This gives you points to use instead of miles, so you don’t actually gain as much as you would from the Barclaycard. But it’s not a bad credit card to check out! 🙂 So how did I combine my cards? Easy… to redeem the Chase Ink credits, you have to purchase through their redemption link. So I went over, found my flight for full price and purchased. At check out, I received the $100 credit that brought down my price to about $330. I used my Barclay Credit Card to make the purchase though so that I could place the credit towards that purchase. I also used my Barclay...

Read More