Business

Sugar Flower owner creates intricate cake designs in backyard of her Cedar Rapids home

Low overhead has been a benefit

Handmade flowers are on hand in Jennifer Smith's Sugar Flower Cake Design Studio in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, Nov. 11,
Handmade flowers are on hand in Jennifer Smith’s Sugar Flower Cake Design Studio in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2020. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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A confluence of interests and experience led Jennifer Smith to create elaborate, intricately detailed cakes in her Cedar Rapids backyard.

“I dabbled,” Smith said. “I did have a background in graphic design. So, graphic design, food.”

Chicago native Smith worked in restaurants, including a European-style patisserie and cafe specializing in pastries and cakes.

“I fell in love with the baking, and doing cakes and cookies,” she said. “I was dabbling in both things — design and food.”

After operating her own cafe for three years, Smith earned a degree in graphic design from Southern Illinois University in 2007.

She and her husband, Loughton Smith, moved to Cedar Rapids in 2011 and she began working at the Hotel at Kirkwood Center, operated by Kirkwood Community College’s hospitality management program, in 2013.

“They wanted me to work with edible flowers, and I’d never worked with the stuff before,” she recalled. “It just kind of fell into my lap, and I just started helping the pastry chefs with wedding cakes.”

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Smith became an adjunct instructor — “basic, advanced and wedding cake classes” — in Kirkwood’s baking program, where her husband is an instructor.

She started thinking about starting her own business about three years ago.

“I just decided I wanted to steer my own course,” Smith said. “I thought, ‘Well, I’ve got my studio here and I can make it into a little cake boutique.’”

Sugar Flower launched in late 2019. Smith continued teaching but stopped working regularly in the hotel kitchen.

The studio is a small building in Smith’s backyard.

It may have been built as a hobbyist’s workshop or children’s playhouse, but it has stainless steel countertops, plumbing, electricity, and ample natural light.

Smith bakes Sugar Flower cakes in her home’s kitchen, then takes them to the studio for assembly and detailing.

Working out of her home means low overhead costs at the expense of some convenience and efficiency.

“I have to do certain things in one part, certain things in another,” she said. “It can be a bit cramped.

“Eventually I would like to have a bigger space where everything is in one place. I have some very talented students and we’re always keeping in contact, so I definitely know who I’d want to help me out.”

Without a brick-and-mortar store, Smith meets with clients at a cafe or co-working location to discuss design ideas.

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“I go to them,” she said. “A lot of times they have already sent me information and pictures of what they’re looking for. Most of the time they do have an idea.

“Once in a while I have to narrow it down — what are your colors, your style, what’s your flowers, what kind of décor are you going to have? That ends up coinciding with what their cakes will look like.”

Working a customer’s ideas into edible form can mean elaborate designs with lots of floral arrangements and ruffles.

The details are rendered in fondant, an icing made from sugar, water, gelatin, and vegetable fat or shortening.

The recipe can be adjusted to make a consistency like stiff clay or a thick liquid.

“It’s kind of like a sugar dough, and it covers the cake,” Smith said. “There’s usually butter cream underneath, and it keeps it insulated and moist.

“The edible flowers are made from another type of sugar dough. They just dry harder, so they’re a little bit brittle.

“They need to dry a little bit harder because the petal will not have any stability, otherwise.”

Finished cakes are often transported in tiers to the reception site where final assembly happens. Loughton lends a hand on some jobs.

“If there’s some decorating, I will decorate there as well,” Smith said.

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“If there’s intricate decorating on the cake, it’s usually done here and transported and then finishing details (are added) at the location.”

Smith also creates cakes for birthdays and other occasions. And many weddings call for more than one cake as groom’s cakes have become popular.

“I’ve got one this month, and it’s going to have an edible violin and books and trees, just a whole bunch of stuff,” Smith said.

“Those are a lot of fun because it usually is just what the groom really likes, and it’s normally meant as a gift from the bride to the groom.”

Sugar Flower was gaining momentum when the coronavirus pandemic hit Iowa. Smith’s work-from-home model proved an unexpected advantage.

“I was just getting started out to begin with, and having a low overhead I didn’t have any employees to furlough,” she said.

“It was disappointing, but I tried to work with my customers. I don’t have to worry about rent and electric and things like that. So it has worked in my favor, which sounds kind of funny.”

Smith’s home and studio escaped serious damage in the Aug. 10 derecho, which brought its own wave of cancellations. She hopes for a return to something like normal next year.

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“I really hope people start planning big weddings and they’re celebrating,” she said. “I hope that’s where the future lies.”

Know a small business in the Corridor that might make for an interesting “My Biz” feature? Let us know via michaelchevy.castanova@thegazette.com.

AT A GLANCE

• Owner: Jennifer Smith

• Business: Sugar Flower Cake Design

• Address: 248 Drinkward St. NW, Cedar Rapids

• Phone: (319) 491-1938

• Website: sugarflowercakedesign.com

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