For bakers, Instagram success is more than just icing on the cake

For bakers, Instagram success is more than just icing on the cake
Chelsey White, a self-taught baker who launched chelsweets while maintaining a full time career in finance at LOREAL, stands for a portrait at her apartment in Manhattan, New York. (Caitlin Ochs/Bloomberg)

In a cramped Manhattan apartment kitchen, Chelsey White painstakingly bakes, assembles, frosts and decorates an elaborate mermaid-themed cake. The entire four-hour process is videotaped, then edited down to a few brisk minutes and shared on social media. Its purpose served, the three-tiered, picture-perfect cake is chopped up and jammed into a Tupperware container. White brings all her leftovers to the office. She hates wasting cake.

With over a quarter-million followers and videos that regularly generate hundreds of thousands of views, White is an Instagram celebrity. She used to sell cakes to her fans, but now she makes money selling the concept of cake, in conjunction with such partners as the Food Network and AwesomenessTV.

“I’m getting way more money from content creation than I was from cakes,” said the 26-year-old. She declined to get into the details of her contracts, but said she now earns more than she did when she was accepting eight cake orders a week, at about $100 each.

In

Chelsey White, a self-taught baker who launched chelsweets while maintaining a full time career in finance at LOREAL, adds a layer of pink buttercream frosting to a cake at her apartment in Manhattan, New York. (Caitlin Ochs/Bloomberg)

stagram’s baking community is as well-liked as cake itself. The baking channel in the app’s Explore section is among the most popular, based on time spent perusing it. The hashtag “cake” has generated over 45 million posts, and “cakestagram” has toted up 1.8 million.

It’s a big business opportunity for these bakers. While professional pastry chefs use Instagram to advertise their brick-and-mortar businesses, Cakestagram is driven by self-taught patissiers who work out of their homes and have no interest in opening up bakeries. Instead, they focus on online ordering, video content partnerships and social media-personality-driven workshops.

There’s no tutorial on how to be cake-famous. Instagrammers often fall into business and sponsorship deals when companies reach out to them. Andrea Walters, a Wichita, Kansas, homemaker who runs a custom cookie company, was approached by the Roundup Cookie Retreat to teach two baking workshops, at which attendees pay $250 for weekend-long tutorials. Another popular baker, Ksenia Penkina, makes her classes available online for about $150 a video.

Christina, of Christina’s Cupcakes, who declined for privacy reasons to have her last name published, has 181,000 followers but doesn’t work with any content companies or even sell her wares. She began a mutually beneficial relationship with Satin Ice fondant and Fancy Sprinkles after they reached out to her and offered free product in exchange for posts featuring their products.

“I’ve been approached to do content creation, but I don’t have a business plan,” she said. “I don’t know much about it.”

Chelsey White, a self-taught baker who launched chelsweets while maintaining a full time career in finance at LOREAL, adds a layer of pink buttercream frosting to a cake at her apartment in Manhattan, New York. (Caitlin Ochs/Bloomberg)

Despite their popularity, many bakers such as Christina choose not to pursue full-time careers based on their digital cake fame.

Ashley Shotwell, whose colorful cakes for Hella Vegan have found popularity among the e-vegan community, is still figuring out how to translate her 30,000 followers into a business beyond selling cakes. White insists on keeping her day job in finance, despite the money coming in from cake videos. Walters, who has over 17,000 followers, took years to go from selling cookies to teaching classes. “You get to a point where you’re finally confident in who you are as a baker, and you’re willing to take that next step,” she said.

Insta-bakers are sensitive to changes made by the app. White, for instance, finds that Instagram favors videos. For Walters, it took a considerable amount of time to determine which hashtags helped drive sales, rather than just likes on her page.

For each cake she bakes, White usually makes four short Instagram videos, a minute-long Facebook video, and a longer, more involved YouTube video. The editing process takes hours. “Cake decorating on social platforms has drastically evolved,” White said. “To truly excel on different platforms, you have to make different kinds of content.”

A cake made by Chelsey White, a self-taught baker who launched chelsweets while maintaining a full time career in finance at LOREAL, is seen at her apartment in Manhattan, New York. (Caitlin Ochs/Bloomberg)

Because of the complexity and time involved in selling content and classes, some Instagrammers prefer taking baked good orders, though it’s generally less profitable. Bakers usually recover the costs of ingredients but fail to properly charge for their labor. “The hardest part is undervaluing your time,” White said.

Some Instagram bakers find the transition from local pastry whiz to social media star difficult. The social media platform has 700 million users, and popular bakers can quickly find themselves overwhelmed with orders from new customers.

As a result, many Insta-bakers limit the amount of orders they take, creating lengthy waitlists in the process. Walters caps herself at 20-dozen cookie orders a week, and Penkina creates such limited edition items as chocolate eggs. Some bakers set expectations right in their profiles: “Booked til September,” Karlee’s Kupcakes tells her quarter-million followers.

Deliberate or not, scarcity drives demand. One commenter replied to Karlee’s packed schedule with a sobbing emoji.

No matter how they choose to make money, these Insta-bakers all share a love of baked goods, though they can get a little sick of the sugar rush they profit from. Many choose not to eat their desserts. Others don’t make real baked goods at all; they just decorate styrofoam cake forms to save money and time.

Asked how much cake she eats, White laughed. “I have a love-hate relationship with my cakes.”

(Contact the author at [email protected].)

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