Local baker finds recipe for success
Twenty years ago, Tanya Laiter arrived in the United States from her native Russia with just $500 in her pocket. She’d earned a master’s of fine arts degree in her homeland and worked there as a teacher, but in the U.S., with no command of the English language, she was forced to support herself in other ways. She won her green card through the United States Diversity Lottery, which she calls a one in a million chance, and immediately sought a job “where I could use my art degree and at the same time learn to speak.” She also took English classes, fully determined to make the best of the opportunity she was given.
“Everyone wants to live in America. You know that, right? Even if they hate the politics, they all want to live here. It’s a country of opportunities.You guys are spoiled,” she says, smiling.
In North Carolina, where she later became a U.S. citizen, Laiter spent five years working for a pastry chef from New York who taught her the art of creating delectable treats. Then one day, when her second husband, a scientist, announced he’d found a job in Madison, they packed up the family and headed west.
Once here, Laiter researched the local bakery scene. She’d always wanted to run her own business, and to her surprise, there wasn’t much competition in the market. Soon after, she signed a lease and opened a small bakery just steps from her current location.
“Our first day was Dec. 2,” Laiter recalls. “I remember sitting and waiting for customers, but nobody was coming in.” By the next day, word had gotten out, and the Rolling Pin Bake Shop was swamped. “They bought us out of everything!” she said. “We were empty, and so excited. We baked nonstop for two years until we outgrew the space,” which precipitated the shop’s move to its current location in the same building.
On any given day, Laiter says, the shop sells 75% of its sweet treats, breads, and cakes by closing time. But on this day, the Friday of Labor Day weekend, she and her staff are also preparing to fill about 30 cake orders, including a handful of wedding cakes.
“We only make wedding cakes on Fridays and Saturdays,” Laiter explains. “We only have fresh cakes; we do not freeze them.” In fact, the shop only allows up to five wedding cake orders per weekend, and those usually book up early in the year. Wedding cakes account for about 30% of the shop’s business, she explains, followed closely by all-occasion cakes.
The largest wedding cake Laiter has created had six tiers, each about 4 to 5 inches tall. She works with Mary Jo Hitz, an employee and cake artist, and the most expensive cake they’ve made took three days to create and sold for between $2,000 and $3,000. That’s a bargain, she notes, compared to larger cities like New York, where custom cakes can run well over $10,000. Cakes from Carlo’s Bakery in Hoboken, N.J., made famous by the television show Cake Boss, might command well over that.
“He’s talented and he knows how to market, and he has a lot of people working on humongous cakes,” Laiter says of Cake Boss’ Bartolo “Buddy” Valastro Jr., “but he doesn’t disclose his prices on the show.” She wishes he would. People often request designs they saw on TV, or even Pinterest. “We can make anything, but what is their budget?” she asks, adding that custom work is expensive.
“We suggest more simplified cakes that allow us an opportunity to be creative,” she said. The average cost of a wedding cake serving about 78 people is $350.
One stylish wedding cake on order for later in the month will resemble a ruffled dress and will be made with pliable fondant (smooth sheets of icing that can be cut and molded into art). Cost? About $1,000.
Let them make cake
Behind the bakery and small restaurant at Rolling Pin Bake Shop, Laiter whips up buttercream frosting mixed with raspberry and spreads it between vanilla cake layers. “Our buttercream is made with real butter,” she says. The shop’s whipped cream and cream cheese frostings also include ingredients from local vendors.
She sets the smaller cake on top of a larger one and connects them with plastic dowels inserted into the cake’s center. The heavier the cake, the more dowels are required for stability.
Decorating is Laiter’s favorite part. “[The cake is] like a white canvas,” she says. “You use your palette of colors and ideas and you just splash it all over your canvas. After that, you get a masterpiece sometimes, or you get disappointed and start over.”
Quickly and expertly, she smooths buttercream frosting over the two-layered cake, then adds a filigree design and other detail by hand. Spinning ribbons of buttercream into tiny roses, she carefully places each onto the cake, creating a lovely, edible bouquet. Finally, she adds green-leaf frosting for effect. Decorating lasts about an hour.
Laiter says her least favorite part of the business is dealing with government fees, unemployment insurance, and workers’ comp. “They’re killing little businesses because it’s so expensive and very unaffordable. You cannot negotiate with those people, there’s just no way out. Even if you don’t have the money, you have to come up with the money to pay.
“How many cookies can you sell to pay those fees?” she questions. “Since we make everything by hand … we use a rolling pin, no machines. Our cookies cost $2.50 each because we roll, dip, and decorate them by hand. It’s a hard business.”
Their hard work is paying off. “I’m not making millions and millions, but we pay our bills, pay our salaries, and can afford to pay our vendors and government fees.
“It’s very tough to make enormous amounts of money in this business. We do it because we love it.”
Laiter, 44, has eight employees, including right-hand man John David, 29, whom she’s known for 11 years. “He came to me years ago with his mom because he needed an internship. He’s become a member of our family,” she says, and it’s clear she trusts his ability to run every aspect of the business when she’s out of town.
New York state of mind
Lately, she’s been out of town fairly regularly. Last year, her husband accepted a job in New York, and again the family followed. Since then, she’s been commuting back and forth, staying a month or so at a time before returning to rear their two daughters, ages 14 and 9. (A third daughter, age 24, lives in Boston.) “They like New York,” she says of her youngest kids, “but don’t like when I come back to Madison. I’m the main chef and the maid. Before I leave each time, I have to pack my fridge and freezer with what I’ve made for them.” She’s not complaining.
Except for missing the family, Laiter enjoys returning to Madison. “I get a break,” she says. “This is like my vacation. Sometimes I work 14 to 16 hours in a day, but I love what I do.
“It makes me happy that I can provide something delicious and beautiful to the customer. I love people, and I want to do something nice. I wish I was a millionaire. I would donate a lot. I do a lot of donating anyway. Even just a little bit helps and still comes from your heart. It’s important to be kind.”
On a recent trip back to New York, she was volunteering at a school fundraiser when she met a woman named Kristina who, coincidentally enough, ran a cheesecake business out of her home. The two hit it off and decided to become partners. Last week, Kristina visited Madison to experience firsthand the commercial bake shop’s operation. “She was baking, making soups and cupcakes, and working the register,” Laiter said. “She got three days of training and loved it!” The two entrepreneurs now have a Realtor searching for the perfect bake shop location near Clifton Park, just north of Albany, N.Y.
“We want to go big,” Laiter said of their plans, but she isn’t about to give up her Madison store just yet. “I will be keeping tabs on both places until I can find the perfect person to take over.” A succession plan is in the works.
After arriving in the United States with very little, Laiter says she now has “a good lifestyle, a car, everything I need.
“With hard work here in America, you can get anything you want. People just have to stop being lazy.”
Rolling Pin Bake Shop
2935 S. Fish Hatchery Road
Fitchburg, WI 53711
608.270.9611 | rollingpinbakeshop.com