Opelika mother turns baking hobby into serious business

Opelika mother turns baking hobby into serious business
Mandi Buckalew's studio, Cakeapotamus, is a place where challenges are accepted and unusual things are created. And it smells good, too. (Brittany Faush / Alabama NewsCenter)

A cake-decorating hobby gone awry.

Mandi Buckalew said that’s how her studio, Cakeapotamus LLC, got its start. She creates custom cakes for weddings, birthday parties and corporate and community events, specializing in odd, unusual and often geeky designs.

Buckalew, who was a certified special-education teacher at a middle school in those days, said baking started as an outlet for her.

“I would come home and bake at night to relieve stress,” Buckalew recalls. “Then, I began baking for other people, and it just exploded.”

Buckalew began dreaming of opening a bakery after retirement. When she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer several years ago, she thought, “Why wait?”

After beating cancer, Buckalew opened her brick-and-mortar bakery in Opelika in 2013, whimsically calling it Cakeapotamus as a nod to her first career as an animal behaviorist. Because her custom-designed cakes have become so popular, she closed her store earlier this year and now focuses solely on special orders. Buckalew bakes cakes and decorates them in her fully equipped private studio.

At Cakeapotamus, the cakes are as fun and memorable as the name from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Buckalew will take on almost any challenge. She said her favorite cake was one she designed for a groom who wanted it to look exactly like his old lucky Auburn hat.

“I was so proud of that cake,” said Buckalew, who used the actual hat as her guide. “It had the scuffs in the right places, and the tears in the right places.”

Another of Buckalew’s favorites was the first cake she designed for Icing Smiles, a nonprofit organization that provides birthday cakes for critically ill children and their siblings. The organization planned to surprise a little boy who was a huge fan of “Star Wars” and Legos.

With that in mind, Buckalew sculpted a Lego Millennium Falcon cake with working lights. She brought Darth Vader and a Storm Trooper to the bakery to present the cake to the boy to make his “big day” even more special.

Since then, volunteering her talents to help bring happiness to kids has become a passion for Buckalew. In addition to providing cakes for Icing Smiles, her creations have helped make dreams come true for children through Make a Wish Alabama.

“Having my own business allows me time to do these volunteer things,” said Buckalew. “I appreciate how lucky I am that I have the opportunity to set up a wish reveal, or take birthday cake to children.”

Buckalew has been a “serious” baker for eight years. When she was in the second grade, she made a Coca-Cola cake for a Girl Scouts competition and then didn’t bake again until her daughter’s first birthday.

Not long afterward, Buckalew became interested in the art of cake decorating, with the idea of creating “cool” birthday cakes for her children (now ages 9 and 11).

Since then, Buckalew has attended classes led by experts from around the world and has traveled as far as New Mexico for training. She often visits cake shows to promote her business, teach cake decorating classes and learn the latest tips and tricks of the trade. She is helping plan the Ultimate Sugar Show, the Southeast’s largest cake and sugar art show, next fall.

“In the (19)70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, there was only the Wilton Cake Decorating classes,” Buckalew said. “But since the Food Network and The Learning Channel started airing cake shows, the industry has evolved. People have become more educated and are asking for more fun things they can do with their cakes.”

Although Buckalew has created some intricately designed cakes since opening her business, that’s not the hardest part of the job. The biggest challenge, she said, is delivering wedding cakes.

“It’s terrifying,” said Buckalew. “It can be very stressful because a couple only gets one wedding cake. It’s not like a birthday cake in that if something goes wrong, you will get another one next year. The wedding cake is the one sweet bite with which everyone at the wedding toasts the new couple.”

Buckalew said the types of requests she receives vary, but her most popular cakes are those centered on movies and college football.

“My favorite thing is when I get a really strange or weird request that has never been done before, and I figure out how to do it so it’s food-safe and edible,” said Buckalew. She has spent up to 30 hours perfecting detailed decorations on a cake.

Buckalew said the best part of owning a home business is that it allows her to spend more time with her son and daughter.

“I opened my home business because it was getting too big, and I was starting to miss important events,” said Buckalew. “I still miss having a storefront and plan to re-open the shop when the kids are older. Meanwhile, I work with several businesses, so my products are still available to the public at places around town.”

For more information or to place a request, visit https://cakeapotamus.wordpress.com/.

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