Jen Roberts Interview
(Sweet Element)

She graduated from the University of Connecticut with a Bachelors of Science degree in Business Administration.
After 9 years of various corporate marketing jobs in New York City, she decided to enter the French Culinary Institute, where she graduated.
These days she has her own business – Sweet Element of New Jersey.
She is Jen Roberts and we spoke to Jen about the world of custom cakes.

Q – I saw a segment on “Nightline” recently that said the interest in cakes has just exploded in the last 2 years. One baker said the reason is because unlike 40 years ago, you can now design a cake that no longer looks like a cake. Why is that? Does it have to do with the introduction of computers?
A – No. I think there’s just certain people that have pushed the cake envelope and there’s more artists I think working instead of chefs necessarily with cakes. So, they’re looking at a cake as a sculpting medium verses just food.

Q – Was it necessary for someone like yourself to go to a French Culinary Institute?
A – I don’t think it’s necessary, but, it’s definitely helped me. One of the reasons I went was to definitely meet other people that were in the industry and advance some of the skills I didn’t necessarily have. I never worked with chocolate before I went to school. But, there are a lot of people who come straight from art school and they make cakes at home on their own and have kind of taken smaller side classes. So, that’s definitely another route to go.

Q – For 9 years you held down corporate marketing jobs in New York City. Would those jobs have been with food-related companies?
A – No, they were not. (Laughs). I worked in publishing and I also worked in advertising. So, non-food related although everyone knew I made cakes and I was pretty popular in the office.

Q – You were making cakes even then?
A – Yup. I always did it as a side business.

Q – Were you baking when you were a t the University of Connecticut?
A – I did bake then, but, not as much cakes. I always did cookies on like an annual basis and it was more like holiday centric. You don’t really have kitchens in schools. I always lived in apartment style living. But, my grandfather was a baker so baking is kind of in the family. So, we were always making bread and cookies and things like that.

Q – Where do you make your cakes? Do you have a store these days? Do you have a studio?
A – I don’t have a storefront. I have a cake studio. I’m here in Orange, New Jersey. It’s kind of an interesting set-up. It’s an old Johnson And Johnson lab and they’ve all converted over to studios. I’m the only food person here, but, there’s other artists above. There’s a puppeteer, a stained glass artist, a potter. So, it’s a mix of people here. But, I do have a kitchen here.

Q – How do you get the word out about your cakes? Is it word-of-mouth?
A – It is a lot of word of mouth. I do some advertising online through some wedding websites. I also try to use the social media marketing, I’m on Twitter and Facebook and I also have a blog. People have actually found me through Google Image searches.  They find my cakes.

Q – I noticed you don’t make Kosher cakes. Is that because it’s extremely difficult?
A – To my understand, to make Kosher cakes you need to have a rabbi come and like observe your kitchen, so, I don’t have that. There are some bakeries that do. Unfortunately, it’s just me, and I can’t go through that whole process of having a rabbi come in and watching me make a cake.

Q – Is that a request you get maybe once in awhile?
A – It’s a once in awhile thing. I more frequently get asked if I use nuts in the bakery and certain allergens which I do. It’s mainly parents that are calling with children with nut allergies. I know there are some bakeries that do not use nut products, but I do here.

Q – What do you see your future as?
A – In an ideal world maybe 5 years down the line I’d love to keep the studio and also have a small storefront in a nearby town. But, I kind of want to keep it small. I think there’s a beauty to individuality meeting all my clients and having them know I’m actually making the products. It’s not a 20 person or more staff assembly line I definitely view it more as an art medium than food.

Q – What does Sweet Element mean?
A - I came across that name Sweet Elements but that was taken. I focus on all things sweet. So cakes and chocolate are my preferred medium, but, I’ll do cookies and other things. My logo is actually the caffeine molecule which I think goes well with most things sweet.

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