Ruth Drennan Interview
(Ruth Drennan Cakes)
Ruth Drennan is one of the most recognized names in cake creations in the United States.
Her cakes have been featured in many national magazines.
Maybe you’ve seen her and her cakes on the television program “Amazing Wedding Cakes”.
In this interview we endeavour to tell you everything you wanted to know about Ruth Drennan and----More!!
Q – Ruth, 10 years ago you were working at a copywriting desk. Was that an advertising agency or a newspaper?
A – Ten years ago, I worked for a communications company. So what we did primarily was create websites and advertisements. Things like that for pharmaceutical cos. Those were our primary clients. I would write web copy. I would write and copy. That sort of thing.
Q – And so when you were sitting behind your desk, you found yourself pre-occupied with wedding cakes. What does that mean?
A – I used to sketch wedding cakes. (Laughs). I had seen a cake by Sylvia Weinstock when I was in college and I remembered at the time thinking it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. At the time I thought well someday when I get married I want to have this. I went to have this woman do my cake for me. And then gradually over time it became I want to do that. (Laughs).
Q – Did Sylvia Weinstock in fact make a cake for your wedding?
A – No. No. No. I had just seen it in a magazine. That’s it. A friend of mine, in my first year of college was getting married. So, it was the first time I had ever seen a Bridal magazine.
Q – How did you know you would be good at making wedding cakes?
A – I actually had no idea whether I would be any good. I always enjoyed baking, but, I had never tried making a wedding cake for anybody. I had never done anything very complicated. I really just thought I have to give this a try and if it doesn’t work and I’m no good, I can always go back to copywriting. (Laughs).
Q – As I understand it you attended the French Culinary Institute, but didn’t graduate?
A – Oh, no, I did graduate. I graduated from the French Culinary Institute with a Certificate In Pastry. I also attended their Restaurant Management Program that was run jointly with Cornell School Of Hotel Management. So, I actually have two Certificates from the French Culinary Institute.
Q – Did that really help you in starting your own business?
A – Its really funny. I felt at 30 when I was thinking of changing careers that I needed to go to Cooking School in order to get my foot in the Front Door and honestly at my age that was necessary. It was how I first came in contact with Ron Ben Israel and that’s how I got my internship. Most people who go into this field start at 18, 19 something like that. If you’re starting out then you don’t even need to go to school. You can learn on the job. For someone my age, they would never let someone learn on the job that way.
Q – I’ve noticed that people with non-food backgrounds seem to be getting more involved in the cooking and baking field. Ruth, what do you think is going on?
A – I think a lot of people take jobs because they need to pay rent or mortgage. It’s a good living, especially in my case because I have a Masters Degree and well-educated I was expected to go a certain route. I think a lot of people do the things they’re expected to do to raise their family and support their family. But, I think a lot of people have that yearning to follow their dream. Not everyone can do that. I really feel like I was very lucky that I was in a position to do that. But, I think that’s where that comes from. That and all those shows out there that have people making crazy cakes and things like that. I think that makes people want to get out there and do that too.
Q – Since, you were a career woman and no doubt had some of your own money to invest in the business, that made things easier didn’t it?
A – Well, I think one of the reasons I was able to successfully transition from the other career to the one I have is that I had paid down pretty much all my debts except for some of my student loans before I moved here to go to cooking school. So, I was single. I didn’t have much debt. I was able to live with my brother who was living in the city at the time. I also had a really strong support network and my family was very supportive of what I was doing. I was also willing to pretty much just go whatever had to be done. When I was mopping the floor or washing dishes or doing any other grunt work I always felt like I was paying my dues and that was what was necessary. Not everyone recognizes that that is an integral part of having a food business, or any business really.
Q – You had a good attitude. You didn’t mind starting at the bottom and doing the grunt work.
A – It didn’t bother me to do grunt work although when I worked for Gail Watson several years ago I would joke with her about this. I’m a Fulbright Scholar. I would say to her, ‘Here I have this fancy title, but I’m mopping your floors’. (Laughs). But, you know what? I just did it because that’s what needed to be done. But, I actually never had any sort of financing. I’ve been pretty much doing this – bootstrapping. When one order comes in that pays for something else. It’s just been building from there for the past few years.
Q – How long did you intern with Ron Ben Israel and Gail Watson?
A – I interned for Ron for 2 months full-time. It was when I was attending the French Culinary Institute I went there and took the night program, specifically because I knew I wanted to intern with someone like him (Ron Ben Israel). And they all work during the day. Cake decorators pretty much have the best hours of anyone in the food business. So, I was gonna do whatever it took. He actually demanded 3 months full-time and after 2 months I was pretty much so broke that I had to get some type of part-time job and so I ended my internship a month early. Three months full-time is pretty much typical internship commitment for one of the top cake decorators.
Q – And so, you set off on your own and launched The Cake Atelier in 2005.
A – The first of two businesses. I’m actually in my second one. The first one was 2005 and that was with an old partner and she and I split up I’d say about 3 years ago.
Q – So then you put together Ruth Drennan Cakes. What can you do now that you couldn’t do before? Did your partner hold you back?
A – Partnerships are very tricky sometimes. I wouldn’t say that my partner held me back in any way. I think for awhile she and I had the same vision for our business and then at some point because you’ve so used to being the boss when you have someone who’s an equal, especially when you do the same thing, you come into conflict with one another. I think she and I had just started to go in separate directions. And then we just felt that that was the best move for both of us, to go our separate ways.
Q – You almost have to be in a big city to do what you do, do you not?
A – I almost feel like I could be a cake decorator anywhere and do well however, to get to the level that I’m currently at and that I’m trying to get even more famous…..that’ll be awhile I think. You have to be in a big city. Honestly, most of them are here in New York City. I feel that once you establish yourself in the big city you can go anywhere, because there are several famous cake decorators that are living in what seem to be strange, remote places, and it’s because they’ve already established their clientele and reputation and they can just go on.
Q – Now see, I’ve only heard of Top Cake Decorators living in New York and Los Angeles.
A – I would say that people would want this anywhere, but, they can’t pay the price, the prices that I charge or the people at another level charge and would be outrageous in say somewhere in the middle of the country. When an average price for a wedding cake is $1.50 a serving or $3.00 a serving and here it could average $10.00 or $15.00 a serving, that’s not reasonable to most people. (Laughs).
Q – You’re strictly a made-to-order wedding cake or special event cake aren’t you?
A – I only do custom wedding cakes or special occasion cakes. I don’t have a bakery. I don’t want to work baker’s hours and doing that sort of thing is entirely different. Every customer who comes to me gets either a cake that is designed specifically for them or they’ll pick something out of my book that I’ve done for somebody else.
Q – How do you get the word out that you’re available to make these cakes?
A – The best way I have found for this market, to reach clients, has been getting my co. listed in the New York Weddings Magazine. I’m not sure how it works in other cities but, here in New York City, in this area, the higher end brides who can afford a cake like mine, they use that magazine. It comes out twice a year. They use it like a Bible. They get their vendors from there. They get ideas. So, for the past few years I’ve had pictures of my cakes in there, but, also there’s a listing of vendors in the back. Ever since I’ve been in there, most of my clients actually find me in that magazine.
Q – I forgot to ask, since you don’t have your own bakery, where are you baking and making your cakes? Are you renting a commercial kitchen?
A – When I first started out, what I would do is rent kitchen space on an as needed basis. So, there are several caterers around that do this. Also, a lot of bakeries, because bakeries are always struggling in some ways, there often open to allowing someone who’s skilled, someone who has a real business to come in and use their kitchen for a specific period of time, usually it was at night. However, now, I used to work for Gail Watson. Now, I actually have a business arrangement with her for something else, but, she allows me to use her kitchen space. So, for me that’s an arrangement we have. And, that works very well for me.
Q – Do you have celebrity clients?
A – I’ve had a few minor celebrities. However, what I typically have are wealthier clients. The few celebrities I’ve had and I’m not really comfortable saying who they are. I don’t know if they would want that. They’re not huge stars, but, I know who they are. Especially at this level, some people come to you because they just want to be treated like a normal person and so I actually treat all my clients the same whether they’re famous or not famous, whether they’re wealthy or not. I try to treat everyone with the same level of professionalism and courtesy. So, part of that is not bragging about who I’m doing cakes for.
Q – You do have a lot of competition don’t you?
A – I do have a lot of competition in my field. However, I really do feel like there is enough room for everybody. Everyone is not meant to be your client. So, when I meet with a client I have to try my best to land them as my client. However, they’re going to try cakes with 3 or 4, possibly more bakers. You never know why someone chooses you, or doesn’t choose you. You can’t take it personally.
Q – Do you ever ask?
A – I don’t often ask why they didn’t choose me, because I don’t want to put anyone on the spot. And sometimes, people don’t know why. Sometimes they just have a better feeling from somebody better. They just connect with somebody better. I mean, I know my cake is really good. That I do know. That doesn’t always win you people. It doesn’t always win you clients. Sometimes it has to do with a connection they feel with somebody else.
Q – I’ve been talking with people who feel more attention has been paid to how the cake looks as opposed to how it tastes.
A – I think that it’s always been the case that people seem to care more about the way a wedding cake looks rather that they way it tastes, because most wedding cakes taste pretty bad. People continue to buy wedding cakes. As someone who’s a trained pastry chef, who considers herself a ‘foodie’, I find that horrifying. So, for me it’s so important that the cake tastes good. But, what gets people in the door is the pictures of your cakes. They cant’ taste your cake from a picture. So, you have to grab them with your cake designs and I strive to do beautiful work just like all of us do, but, for me it’s very important that the cake taste good. I’m horrified that most wedding cakes taste bad.
Q – I do believe that you can get a sample of the cake before you order it can’t you?
A – Oh, yeah. Everyone gets a sample. Everyone who goes to a wedding cake baker should be able to try their cake, however, the biggest problem with wedding cakes and the way they taste is, when you have a sample, its fresh cake. However, if you’re going to someone who has a huge business and they do a lot of cakes every weekend they might have made your cake 3, 4, or 5 months before that. And so, when you go to a wedding and you have a cake that’s really dry or really flavourless that’s the reason. It’s because it was frozen, thawed and just iced for that wedding.
Q – I’ve never heard that before.
A – For the cos. That have a ton of clients, you can’t possibly bake them all in time for every weekend. I don’t agree with that, but, I’m also a very small baker so if a wedding for me is on Saturday, I’m baking on Thursday which is pretty much as close as you can do. So, I put a lot of pressure on myself because I feel like the cake flavour, freshness and moistness is so important. Not every baker agrees with that. Certain things when you freeze them there’s really very little degradation over 2, 3, 4 months, but with a wedding cake or my cake like that the moisture is leached out of it over time. So, being on the freezer for a night or a week is not a big deal, but, after a couple of months you know there’s not a lot of moisture left in it. That’s one of the reasons I’m horrified by the tradition of saving the top of the cake for your first anniversary. I would never eat something that had been in my freezer for a year. (Laughs). But, this is a tradition.
Q – Are people told the cake will be frozen 2, 3, 4 months before their wedding?
A – Oh, no. They’re never told that. No one would ever say that. That’s the reality of it. When brides get married, and they buy all the bridal magazines there’s always advice in every one of them about what to ask different vendors. One of them is to ask when they bake their cake. So, someone who bakes their cake a couple months before isn’t going to be honest about that. They will just say whatever they think they need to say. Clients might not know that 2 days ahead is very good. I’ve often been asked why don’t you do it the day before or the day of. And, it’s a logical thing. It takes a certain amount of time. It’s really just a matter of education the clients, because they don’t know. And, why would they?
Q – You’re saying this is done by big bakeries?
A – Well, I can’t tell you specifically which ones do it. I just know if someone has 10 wedding cakes on a weekend, I don’t care how big your staff is, you can’t bake 10 cakes. It’s very, very unusual that you would be doing that. So, it’s widely practiced in this industry unfortunately.
Q – What is your vision for Ruth Drennan Cakes in the near future?
A – The vision for Ruth Drennan Cakes is I think somewhat grand. I used to think that I wanted to be able to make wedding cakes for people more like me. They like and appreciate food. They might be working their way up in their career; however they’re not there yet. I’ve found my business is not earning enough money from targeting those people so I’m working myself to death. I’m not bringing in the income I should. My goal is actually to sell fewer cakes but charge a lot more money. To earn a better living by just doing cakes. That’s my goal in the near future.
Official website: http://ruthdrennancakes.com
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