Is there really that much difference between building a house and building a cake?
One has floors, the other has layers. One has bricks and mortar, the other has rolled fondant and buttercream icing. But both require a vision and a plan for how it will all fit together without falling down.
At least, thats how its worked for Don Smith. Smith, 57, is a custom-home builder who owns Embassy Homes.
When home sales fell off the map 3 1/2 years ago, he found a new way to put his skills to work: Making custom cakes, from grooms cakes to wedding cakes.
Really, it came from my building skills, he says. I knew where my supports should be.
Today, his business, The Charlotte Cake Man, has taken over the downstairs of his house in a wooded development in Weddington.
What used to be a parlor is now a decorating studio. The dining room is dominated by cake displays and a wooden box for air-brushed icing. In the state-inspected kitchen, there are three stand mixers, three ovens and cake pans covering the island and breakfast table.
Unusual path to baking
Smith followed an unusual path to baking. He started as a firefighter in Pembroke Pines, Fla., not far from Miami. In firefighting, he did every job, the whole gamut, from fire inspector to educator.
One of his favorite roles: Firehouse cook. He loved cooking and baking for the crew.
By the mid-1990s, he had qualified for early retirement, so he and his wife, Linda, moved to Charlotte to go into home building. Smith likes new construction, where you have a lot of control.
That was my canvas, he says. Im a perfectionist. I looked at each (home) like my wife and I would have to live in it.
Everything was fine until 2008, when the building business dried up. He waited six months to see if it would come back.
When it didnt, he still needed work. So he used the medical training from his firefighting days to get a job at Presbyterian Hospital, doing EKGs on the graveyard shift, from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.
He had left cooking and baking behind when he left the firehouse. But having time during the day to watch Emeril Lagasse on TV started to reawaken his interest. Then he found another reason to make cakes: His co-workers.
People who work all night get a little cranky around midnight. So Smith started taking in cakes for treats. Nothing fancy, just for fun.
Then he heard about Nurse Appreciation Week, and he decided to make it really special: He made Presbyterian Hospital. In cake.
It took 86 layers, but he still has a picture of it in his dining room. Want to know what it looks like? Go stand in front of the hospital on Hawthorne Lane. It looks just like it.
It was so perfect, the hospital administrators wouldnt let the nurses cut it. They put it on display.
Construction at the core
People at the hospital started ordering cakes. A fishing boat for a doctor. (No comment.) A muddy truck jumping a creek. A bright-eyed dog so real, you want to scratch it behind the ears.
Its the construction of the cakes that he loves. Making it look like the truck is jumping without having the supports show, or working out how to make a globe cake that actually turns.
The cake business hasnt saved the Smith family overnight. Professional cake equipment is expensive, so they still plow the profits back into the business. Don Smith didnt quit working at Presbyterian until last December.
But its taking off, with more orders than he can fill. He travels all over the state to assemble big wedding cakes on site. He estimates that hes working 80 hours a week to keep up.
Unlike housing, theres not a whole lot of money in the cake business, he admits. He still finds it a little embarrassing to ask $250 or up for a cake. He and Linda both came from poor families, he says.
A cake to us was made at home. If you got a store-bought cake for $16, that was a big deal.
But he invests a lot of ingredients and time in his cakes.
Everything is hand-punched and (hand)-colored and hand-painted. Its all the time. Its hours.
Linda Smith was reluctant to get involved at first she still takes care of the paperwork for Embassy Homes, and she cares for both her parents, who have Alzheimers, and their autistic nephew Joey, 31, who lives with them.
But she finally gave in and has taught herself the decorating arts. Now she and a friend, artist Charlotte Simpson-Baucom, do the custom work after Don bakes the cakes and covers them with fondant or icing.
Smith loves building cakes so much that he admits he kind of hopes the building business doesnt come back.
Its almost like getting paid to do a hobby. Thinking, thinking, thinking about opening a bakery. But thats a big step.