MAKing It: Building a small Alaska business, one cake at a time

SPONSORED: Whether shipping a four-tiered wedding cake to rural Alaska on a cargo flight or making special orders for service members who are far from home, Alaska cAKe Studio knows how to adapt to the state’s unique needs.

Presented by First National Bank Alaska

Getting a four-tiered wedding cake to rural Alaska is no easy feat. Take it from the experts at Alaska cAKe Studio, the Anchorage-based bakery with regular customers in Bethel, Dillingham and Utqiagvik, the northernmost city in the U.S.

“A big wedding cake typically has to have its own seat on a flight,” said Bill Waltz, co-owner of cAKe Studio.

Booked on passenger flights or sent as air cargo shipments, the cakes are frozen, packaged, and dropped off with the given airline. Then there’s just one thing left to do:

“Pray ... it gets there in one piece,” Waltz said.

For cAKe Studio co-owners Waltz and Will McDonald, whether shipping a wedding cake on a cargo flight or making special orders for service members who are far from home, adapting to the state’s unique needs is a big part of their small business.

But running a small business in Alaska -- especially during a pandemic -- comes with a unique set of challenges and lessons learned along the way.

‘We get to be part of their lives’

cAKe Studio was established in 2008 and has had a steady stream of regulars ever since. The bakery plays a small but important role in its customers’ lives as they celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, weddings and retirements through the years.

“Any time you have a life event, you celebrate,” said McDonald. “And what do you celebrate with? Usually a cake.”

“It’s a privilege that we have,” McDonald said. “It’s been kind of crazy that way, we get to be part of their lives.”

McDonald grew up in Homer, where he worked at a restaurant and quickly gravitated towards baking. He moved to Charleston, South Carolina, where he received an associate degree in Baking and Pastry Arts from Johnson and Wales University before returning to Alaska.

After a few different jobs in the food industry, McDonald landed a top manager position at Alaska Wild Berry Products.

“It gave me a really good backing,” McDonald said of his time managing the multimillion-dollar candy company. While at Alaska Wild Berry Products, McDonald met Kirsten Roseberry, who has become a lifelong friend and collaborator.

Roseberry is a pastry chef with a degree in Culinary Arts from the National Center for Hospitality Studies at Sullivan University in Louisville, Kentucky. Her experience includes high-volume environments, like banquets for 5,000 people.

“Coming from a different side of food service and combining our talent fuels our symbiotic creativity,” Roseberry said. “It lends to a very organic work environment.”

When McDonald opened cAKe Studio’s downtown storefront in Feb. 2010, he brought Roseberry along. The bakery has been a steady success ever since.

‘I knew I was in trouble’

A few years later, Bill Waltz flew to Anchorage to meet McDonald. Waltz and McDonald had met on an online dating site a couple of years prior, and Waltz finally agreed to fly up from Indiana, although he was convinced that he would never move to Alaska.

“I knew probably about 30 minutes before landing that I was in trouble,” Waltz said of the flight to Anchorage over the Chugach Mountains. “I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had seen in a long time.”

Waltz moved to Anchorage a few months later, bringing just two suitcases along. He started working at cAKe Studio and “quickly learned there’s a difference between making cookies with grandma and making 1,000 cookies for an order,” he chuckled.

Waltz soon transitioned to a business manager role, with McDonald and Roseberry running the kitchen.

“That’s what makes us a great team,” Waltz said. “And that’s what makes Alaska cAKe Studio a great business. We have different interests and passions that marry well together.”

The bakery serves a population as diverse as Alaska itself. The largest wedding cake they have ever made was five tiers and meant to serve up to 400 people, Waltz said. And they have orders from all over the country for service members stationed at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson -- surprise treats from far-away loved ones.

“We love that part. We love to provide that to our service members,” said Waltz, a veteran himself.

Roseberry’s favorite order so far was for the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra. They created a cake shaped like a baby grand piano in celebration of Chopin’s birthday. The cake sat on top of an 8-foot table and as concertgoers walked by, they commented on the “mini grand piano,” Roseberry said.

“At intermission people were shocked we were cutting into the mini grand piano, which was a cake,” Roseberry said. “Those kinds of moments are priceless.”

‘One of the best decisions that we have ever made’

Today, cAKe Studio can be found on the first floor of the 5th Avenue Mall in downtown Anchorage, where customers can pick up custom cake orders, or treats like strawberry champagne cupcakes and gluten-free carrot cake.

Since Waltz came onboard, he has developed new strategies that have expanded the business and pushed the boundaries of what McDonald thought was possible.

One of the best investments they have made was in building out a robust website, said McDonald, who wasn’t initially convinced it was the right move.

“I have to say, I was very apprehensive,” McDonald said. “And it has been one of the best decisions that we have ever made.”

Customers can use the website to build a custom order, which is then ready within 48 hours. Waltz has researched other bakeries across the U.S. and beyond and has yet to find one that offers a similar online ordering function, he said. While other small businesses scrambled to get online when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, cAKe Studio already had a strong, user-friendly digital storefront comfortably in place.

As cAKe Studio has grown and changed, First National Bank Alaska has helped the bakery navigate its small business needs.

“My favorite thing about the bank is that they’re local,” McDonald said. “That’s always been important to me.”

First National has helped the bakery streamline its processes and secure its accounts. And when cAKe Studio needed a new point-of-sale system -- crucial to tracking business -- bank staff helped recommend and implement a new system.

“They really did give us some different directions and choices,” McDonald said. “That was really beneficial, because I didn’t know anything about it.”

As cAKe Studio grew, so did its commitment to Alaska. The bakery now routinely donates cakes to several organizations, including Passage House, under the umbrella of Covenant House Alaska. At Passage House, pregnant teenagers in need of housing and support are provided a safe environment for themselves and their child.

“It’s the small things, when you’re homeless or you’re displaced, that mean the most,” Waltz said. “Everybody needs a birthday cake.”

‘You can’t let fear hold you hostage’

In March 2020, the pandemic forced cAKe Studio to shift gears in an instant. They scaled back production and made the difficult decision to cut staff as they struggled with loss of revenue and surging costs. At one point, a bag of flour more than tripled in price due to high demand, McDonald said.

Despite the challenges, the bakery has adapted and kept its doors open. They shifted to curbside pickups and deliveries and poured resources into their website.

“You have to be able to roll with the punches and roll with the changes,” Waltz said. “You just can’t let fear hold you hostage.”

One silver lining in the pandemic is the community support that has flowed back to cAKe Studio from organizations the bakery has supported in the past.

“When the community turned back around, especially these nonprofit organizations, and said, ‘we value you, let us support you,’ that meant the world to us,” Waltz said.

“You can’t beat that,” Waltz said. “You can’t put a value on that.”

First National Bank Alaska has been Alaska’s community bank since 1922. We’re proud to support Alaskans by investing in your success as you take the leaps of faith, large and small, that enrich communities across the state.

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This article was produced by the sponsored content department of Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with First National Bank Alaska. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.