Portrait: Katie Rose Photo; Cakes: photos courtesy charm city cakes
How does a college student land a job with a très-cool cake-design business that's destined for TV stardom? For starters, it helps to offer to work for free. Second, you must be a serious lover of fun. That's what got Anna Ellison, a former Midlothian resident and James River High School grad, her start at Baltimore's Charm City Cakes, made famous by the Food Network reality show Ace of Cakes . In 2003, she was a junior studying graphic design at the Maryland Institute College of Art when she landed an unpaid internship at Charm City by convincing executive chef Duff Goldman of her fun-loving-but-driven work ethic. Today, Ellison is the company's artistic director and often helps craft $1,000-plus sugary-sweet works of art under the scrutiny of a camera crew.
Learn more about Anna, the bakery and the show in the book Ace of Cakes: Inside the World of Charm City Cakes by Duff Goldman and Willie Goldman, published in October.
Q: Did you have any part in designing the Ace of Cakes book, since you have a degree in graphic design?
A: A little bit. I offered to help when I first heard they were doing it, but they had their own team come in. They would send us design layouts and pictures, and we would give them feedback about what was working and what wasn't. Then I ended up sending them a color scheme, which they actually used, so that was pretty cool.
Q: You started working at Charm City Cakes before it became the focus of a TV show, Ace of Cakes. How have things have changed since then?
A: Well, it's changed a lot, from the physical space we were working in, to the types of cakes we were working on, to the size of the staff — everything! When I started working there, it was out of Duff's living room in his house. Then we got caught by the health board. [ Laughs .] So we moved the company into a basement. It was this horrible, windowless, tiny space — we refer to it as "the dungeon" — and that's actually where the pilot [for the show] was filmed. After that, we moved into the space we are in now — the old church that used to be an art gallery. Also, before the show started, we used to do 20 to 30 cakes a week, which is kind of crazy, but they were all really simple, easy cakes. It was a lot more of people picking cakes off the Web site and us doing the same four or five cakes over and over again. So it was a little more routine. Now we do an average of 10 to 15 cakes per week, but they're more focused and unique — and challenging. We definitely do a lot fewer traditional tiered wedding cakes than we did before. A lot of the projects we get are just so big, and we're oftentimes like, "How in the world are we going to do this?" [ Laughs .] We've also expanded staff-wise, but most of the people who are working there started before the show. We're all kind of changing at the same time. We're all getting better at what we do, and we've all found our own niche. Our roles are a little bit more defined and more specific. But, I mean, it still feels pretty much the same.
Q: So what's your niche?
A: I do a lot of design consultations with clients, and I help decorators if they need advice. I do a lot of cakes that are more creative — [that involve] coming up with color schemes and designs. I'm also pretty good at replicating things, whether it's a house or a truck, or whatever needs to be done.
Q: What kinds of cakes are your favorites to work on?
A: I really love when the clients give us a general idea of what they want, but they leave it open to interpretation or creative direction. I think those cakes are great — I love picking out colors and putting things together and designing.
Q: And your least favorites?
A: We get a lot of people trying to tell their life story, or where they've been, or all the different things they've done — all in one cake. Like, "I went to China, and I really love racquetball, and I …" I don't know. [ Laughs .] There are just all these random things together, and there's just not a great way to visually represent all of them and make it look good. We do our best to steer [clients] in the right direction, but in the end, some people are very set on their idea, and we just have to do [what they want].
Q: Have you had any really difficult clients?
A: We've gotten to the point where clients just trust us to make the right decision and let us do our thing. We've definitely had difficult clients, though. We'll put a red flag on the contract, and if things get really out of hand, all we have to do is get Duff to call them on the phone. He gets really angry and worked up. He doesn't like it when people are rude to Mary Alice [the office manager] or act condescending or ask for too much. He'll get really protective and will yell and be like, "Do you want a cake or not?" Then, usually, the clients are as sweet as pie, and they apologize.
Q: Which cake that you've worked on are you most proud of?
A: The cake that my coworker Ben and I made when we competed on Food Network Challenge. We spent a lot of time planning and practicing for it. The cake was for the movie Ice Age 3. We actually lost, but we still stand by that cake and think it was great.
Q: On a side note, is Kerry Vincent [the judge on Food Network Challenge ] really as mean as she looks?
A: Yeah, it was really bad. I think she has a problem with Duff and our TV show, and she kind of let her prejudice and bias show through. She was really rude to us and had some not-nice things to say about our company. It was really unfortunate, and we probably won't compete again.
Q: What's the biggest cake disaster you've ever had?
A: We once made this huge Irish castle for a client, and we had a decorator go out and deliver it to the house. When he got there, [he realized that] the base for the cake was about 2 inches wider than the doorframe. So he went to tilt the cake ever so slightly to fit it through the doorway, and the whole cake completely fell off the base and landed on their living-room floor. He just walked out the door and called us, and we all dropped what we were doing and had to put a new one together. The party was over, but we did it.
Q: Are there ever days when you just don't feel like having a camera crew follow you around at your job?
A: [ Laughs ] Yeah, definitely. But it's actually a pretty good system — when they're filming, they come in at the beginning of the week and pick three cakes that they want to follow. So luckily, if they're not following one of the projects I'm working on, I have a pretty good chance of not being on camera or involving myself in what they're doing. But if they are following me, sometimes I just have to kind of suck it up or tune my bad day out and get [my work] done.
Q: Do you ever make cakes at home, or would you rather "leave work at work"?
A: I never make cakes at home. I like to cook and bake pies and cookies and that kind of thing, though. If I do bake a cake, and [my coworkers and I] often do for friends, we usually just bake it at work or add it to the list for the baker. He's really generous to do that for us.
Q: Is it tough trying to stay fit while working at a bakery? Do you ever get sick of the cake?
A: Yeah, it's really hard to stay away from the cake. I never get sick of it — it's just so good. Actually, I used to come in and eat it for breakfast in the morning and eat it all day long, but then a few of the decorators and I started this competition where we would see who could go the longest without cake. That was two years ago, and we're all still in it except for one person — but we definitely have made exceptions.
Q:Do you have any favorite cake places in Richmond?
A: My mom makes a really great homemade pound cake with fresh-picked strawberries and whipped cream, so that definitely has to be my favorite.