Penny Stankiewicz Interview
(Sugar Couture)

Penny Stankiewicz is the owner of Sugar Couture, a custom cake, cookie, and candy business.
Her work has been featured in such prestigious publications as Time Out New York and the New York Daily News.
Penny talked with us about her sweet success in the world of cake design.

Q – Penny, you were originally a film producer. How did that translate to making custom cakes? Is this something that you were doing as a hobby?
A – Not exactly. My family was always very creative. My grandmother was the kind of woman who could walk by a store, see a dress in a window and go home and make it. So, there’s certainly been a creative ability that’s been passed on in my family. I went to film school thinking I wanted to direct and make movies. I ended up producing because it was a skill set that I found that I had and I liked it. Then as time went on I fell more into documentaries. We could get really immersed into subjects and become sort of mini-experts on it, and then move on to the next subject. That was something I really enjoyed. I’ve always cooked. I’ve always been a passionate cook. We had a production we were doing on the theatre director Robert Wilson. It was almost about 8 years from start to finish. Since I worked for this one particular co. at one point. I got bored. I started taking some small classes here and there and wanted more and ended up taking the full pastry course at the Institute of Culinary Education on weekends while I was working on the film. I didn’t really do it with intention. It was just sort of a passion I couldn’t get enough so I just kept going. And then, at the very end of it we had the section with chocolate and cake and sugar work. It was like every creative thing I’ve ever done in my life funnelled into something that was first of all edible which is great (laughs), but second, and even better you can do a project in about a week, ship it out the door, people would enjoy it, and you’d never have to do it again. After a 7 year documentary on the same person, that was very satisfying to me.

Q – Who did you work for?
A – I worked for an independent production co. called Film Manufactures Inc.

Q – Never heard of them.
A – It was a small co. Director-driven. Projects that were close to the heart. We closely collaborated on all of them. The cake thing really relates because I would be the set photographer or I would come up with visual ideas. The visual always played a part. And now it’s like someone comes to me and says, ‘Can you make me a police hat’? Sure. I now have the skill-set to be able to figure out how to do that.

Q – How long did you attend the Institute of Culinary Education?
A – Well, I originally took a 12 week pastry and baking class that was once a week, a 6 hour intensive class. I completed that and started the professional program on weekends and that lasted about 7 months.

Q – At the end of 7 months, do you get a certification or a degree?
A – It’s a certification.

Q – When did you start your business?
A – Well, I started it pretty much as soon as school finished. I didn’t set out with an intention to create a business. It started with just seeing, what’s the next thing I need to do. I followed my heart to be honest with you. I started getting small projects with friends and a couple of weddings. I just started to build my portfolio. Then I had a point where I needed to get business cards, and I needed to build a website and I started doing all these things. I sort of looked back and thought, I still have a job and I had a business. It just became a passion. I’m a workaholic. So, it’s pretty easy for me to spend all my time in one way or another on the business.

Q – Did you have a store for the business?
A – No. There’s no way to afford that with the profit margin on cakes to start with a storefront, while you’re building your clientele. It’s very challenging. I basically used a friend of mine’s kitchen who was a chef, had a restaurant. In off-hours I used his place.

Q – You got lucky didn’t you?
A – Yeah, lucky, but, once you’re sort of in the world there, you can find your way. There’s also incubator kitchens, where you can pay for shifts, work there. That’s something I did for awhile.

Q – Incubator kitchens? Seems I’ve heard that phrase before.
A – Yeah. There’s one place in particular in Long Island City, Queens and another place in the Bronx. You can have a regular shift there. You pay a certain amount of money and you can keep your things there and basically use someone else’s facilities until you’re able to get your business on a stronger footing.

Q – I see you have a minimum order of $400. Why $400? Is it because less than that it just doesn’t pay you to do a cake?
A – Yes, pretty much. The ingredients and supplies to do a cake are surprisingly pricey and on top of that it’s a lot of time. One cake will take you x amount of hours, anywhere between 8 and 40 hours can be spent on one particular cake. So, because of the time-frame required you’re limited by the amount of hours you have to give your cakes, until you expand your business and hire more employees. And, even then quality control will still be important. So, you have to limit the amount you do, to be able to put out the kind of detailed work that I like to give my clients.

Q – You made a cake for Russell Simmons, the record co. executive. Have you made cakes for any other celebrities that you’re able to mention?
A – I’ve had several celebrities. I was very lucky, very early on. Someone from SONY, in their development section or I think it was their publicity section found their way to me. I’ve been able to do some wonderful cakes for them and I’m able to say it because of the fact that they were publicity in nature to begin with. They presented a cake to Tony Bennett on his 80th Birthday from me. I’ve done cakes for John Mayer which were publicized. I’ve also done cakes for Wyclef on a hundred dollar bill which was kind of fun. Recently I also did a cake for SONY for their singer Adel for her 21st birthday.

Q – Your cake and cupcake prices start at $8 per serving. I’ve heard it said cupcakes are quite the rage in New York (City) these days. Is that correct?
A – They’re pretty big, yes. I would say that.

Q – Does that mean your cupcakes sell for $8.00 a cupcake?
A – That is what it means. But, my cupcakes are not what you’re going to get when you go to a bakery o.k.? Bakeries turn out a mass production, much larger than a small, boutique bakery like mine will do. So, obviously their costs are distinctly lower than mine. And, secondarily, sometimes clients will come to me and they’ll think I’ll get cupcakes because they’re less expensive than the cake. So, what they’re not thinking is that if I’m modeling an initial or some kind of work I do, which is very labor intensive, the price point is the same.

Q – Do you have a shop now?
A – No. We’re just a studio. Everything is custom ordered.

Q – How do you get the word out about your business? The website?
A – The website definitely. I’ve been lucky to get some great clients in the beginning. I started honestly with Google Ad Alerts I have to tell you. I know some people don’t advertise and never have, but, that’s been great for me in helping me build a business that I can control its growth. Now it’s a little different. There’s a little bit more acknowledgement. My work is in magazines. So, people seek me out on a different level than they did at the beginning.

Q – When a paper like the New York Daily News praises your work, does that translate into more business for you?
A – Yes and No. I think everything increases your name recognition so it adds to the list of people who are going to contact you the next time they have a party. On the other hand, not everyone is having elaborate parties that would warrant a cake like this on a regular basis, and it’s not in everyone’s price point. So, I feel that it definitely builds recognition but it doesn’t essentially translate into immediate dollars in my pocket if you know what I mean.

Q – I see you’re also teaching at Sarah Lawrence College. You’re teaching what to the students?
A – I help them develop their Adult Education Cooking Curriculum. I teach pretty much whatever interests me. I teach cake decorating, cupcakes and cookie decorating which are very, very popular, but I also teach some culinary classes as well. So, I teach soup classes as well as specific pastry classes like cheesecakes or decadent chocolate desserts.

Q – There has to be a reason why some people are more successful in your line of work than others. The cakes you make are works of art. I’m guessing that not everyone can get into that kind of detail. You can take a course, but, you need something else. I’m not exactly sure what that something else is, do you?
A – I think its vision. I tell people I have a super power where I find people will tell you what they want even though they don’t know what they want and it’s sort of your trick to decipher that and translate it into a cake, sp when they’re looking at it, they see themselves reflected. I think that’s what I can do. I don’t ever copy someone’s work. I don’t let brides ever bring me pictures of other people’s work. I tell them it’s perfectly fine to explain to me what you liked about another cake and from there we’ll find a way to translate that into something that’s inspired by you and created by me. I find that when you start with something it’s very difficult to move away. I don’t think that everybody necessarily has that same kind of creative vision to originate.

Q – How do you know that the person you’re designing a cake for, will be happy with that cake?
A – You know, it’s always a bit of a risk because it’s custom. But, I do sketch. It depends on the kind of cake it is, but generally speaking, they’ll come in with their invitations and pictures of their dress and all of the other elements they’ve already picked out for their wedding. And, we’ll start from there. I’ll ask them very specific questions about what they were envisioning in the cake and then we’ll start sketching and they’re part of the creative process which is great. With the other cakes that aren’t wedding cakes, some people will come in like I have a client right now that I’m working with right now on a paintball cake. She doesn’t know what she wants it to be. She just knows she’s having a paintball party for her son and she wants the cake to embrace that. What she loves is the splatter of the paintballs. So, that’s going to be the main focus of the cake and then we’ll figure out how we do the other details, throughout the creative process. It’s different for every client.

Q – Paintball cake. That’s weird. I’ve never heard of that before.
A – Yeah. I did a machine gun. That one was kind of creepy to me too, but, it had meaning for them.

Q – What does the future hold for Sugar Couture? Are you looking to expand?
A – Definitely. I’ve always loved to write so I really hope to get the opportunity to get something published that is representative of me and my work. I just want the business to grow. I want to have continued name recognition, continue putting out quality product and continue to have creative inspiration. That’s very important to me, to really feel like I’m making something new every day.

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