This Thunder Bay Baker Makes Hyper-Real Cupcakes You Have to See to Believe

In our 9–5 series, we ask women at the top of their game how they made it. This week, meet cake artist Jennifer Riley, whose highly successful career is sweet proof that the path to success isn't always a straight line

Thunder Bay cake stylist Jennifer Riley on how she got started in her career

(Photo: Mike Johnston Photography; Design: Leo Tapel)

Age: 32

Education: Diploma in early childhood education from Confederation College in Thunder Bay, Ont.; certificate from Bonnie Gordon College of Confectionary Arts in Toronto

Length of time in current gig: 4 years

What made you decide to become a cake artist?

I opened my business in 2013, but getting into the cake industry happened by accident. My mom had passed away after I finished college, and her loss left me numb. I needed a fresh start so I moved to Calgary, and I worked as a nanny there for three little girls. I just loved them and the family; they were amazing. The one day, I got into a terrible accident. I was driving home from work and hit black ice and my car lost control. And I ended up getting into a head-on collision and had about three other cars hit me. I injured my knee badly, and I had to move back home to Thunder Bay. I didn’t walk for about 10 months. While I was recovering from surgeries and dealing with insurance claims, lawyers and all that jazz, I started watching Cake Boss. I knew I’d have to switch careers, because with my injury I couldn’t work anymore as an early childhood educator. And then it just clicked. I saw the show and thought, I can do that! I was always good with art—I love painting—so why not create food that looked like art?

How did you break into this field?

Once I had that realization, I tried my first cake and it was terrible! So I decided I needed to take some kind of schooling. I enrolled in the Bonnie Gordon College of Confectionary Arts in Toronto in July 2011. It was a full-time, six-week program. When I completed it, I decided to stay in Toronto and got a job in a small cake shop. And I was about two weeks in, and I was told that I was no good and that I needed to go back to school for something else. But I didn’t take no for an answer. Eventually I found a job in a bakery production site, and I worked there for a few months, but then my knee pain caught up with me. I had to reduce my hours, which again made me feel hopeless, because I finally found this passion and it was therapy for me too, and this felt like a letdown.

I ended up getting one last surgery—it was extremely intense—and during my recovery I moved back home again. I decided I wanted to start my own business, and that’s how Cake 708 was born. I found an organization called Paro Centre for Women’s Enterprise [“paro” means “I’m ready” in Latin], which specializes in helping women start their own businesses. I had a meeting with them and it turned out I was eligible for the Gateway program [a government-funded program that helps finance start-ups]. I got into it, and then it all fell into place from there.

Sounds like quite a journey. Do you remember the first cake that you sold?

It was of dog dressed in a baseball jersey! Looking back at how much I charged, it was nothing compared to what I would charge now. You definitely learn as you go. And I wanted to build my portfolio to show people what I was capable of, but I definitely under-priced myself.

Where do you do your baking?

I’m a home-based business. I’ve turned my house into a bakery with all the commercial equipment. So I live in a bakery!

Six succulent cupcakes with desert plants on top made of icing.

(Photo: Courtesy of Jennifer Riley)

Do you work with anyone else?

Nope, just me. I work 14- to 15-hour days some times. But I love it. You have to love what you do.

What does a typical workday look like for you?

I wake up and check my emails and my schedule for the day. Depending on the day and number of orders, I have different responsibilities. I’ve got to make sure I’ve got the right ingredients and then I start baking. I could really start my day at any hour!

On Facebook, a video of your succulent cupcakes has been viewed more than 5 million times! What inspired you to make these?

I actually had a client wanting a cake for her mother’s 70th birthday. She sent me pictures of succulents, because they love plants and greenery and she just put her faith in me and told me to use my creativity. And so I came up with that. I actually got them done on the first try too. This cake was done in April, so it was pretty recent.

A succulent cake with desert plants on top made of icing.

(Photo: Courtesy of Jennifer Riley)

Did you think at the time your succulent creations would become as popular as they did?

Not really! I knew succulents were in style, but I did not think that they would go viral the way they did. I feel blessed, definitely.

How many orders have your received since the video went nuts? Who’s ordering them?

Succulent cupcakes are definitely popular for birthdays and bridal showers, I have a few going out to those today. I did them for Mother’s Day also and they were a huge hit—I sold hundreds! I had a lot people messaging me from out of town to ship them, but I don’t ship right now.

What’s the basic recipe for succulent cupcakes?

The cupcake could be any flavour, but I pair it up with confetti because it’s just fun to open and see it match the colours of the succulent. So it’s a vanilla bean cake and then I add sprinkles to it and I use green, so it’s green polka dots. For the soil, I use crushed graham crackers. And then for the succulent part, I use buttercream and then I dye it the colour of the plant.

How long does it take you to create a batch?

I’m pretty fast now because of how many I’ve had to do. I sell them in sets of six, which takes me about half an hour to make.

What advice do you have for someone who wants to get into cake artistry?

I would say to definitely do your research. [You can research] what areas of your town would be best for opening a business. Have a business plan, know your competition and have your prices out and don’t be afraid to over-price a little bit. You might think it’s expensive, but know your worth. And be organized at home or your commercial area. If you’re not organized there, you’re just going to be more confused.

Because your business is your home, how do you separate your personal life and work life?

[Laughs] I’m pretty much always working. I have two fur babies who I take for walks to unwind. I like to get away with friends as well. But I love just hanging with my dogs.

What dessert do you indulge in?

I love anything with apple or strawberry. I’m a big apple pie fan, with strawberry ice cream. I love cake, but I make it so much that it’s not a really a treat for me anymore. But I love everything that I sell, don’t get me wrong.

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