The cake is an integral part of any wedding, but not everybody knows exactly what goes into getting that perfect piece of edible art to the reception hall. Here in the Chippewa Valley, there are more than a few options to get the job done.
Jess and Duane Pocernich have a good understanding though. As the owner/operators of Dessert First Bakery in Eau Claire, a good 50 to 60 percent of their business results from a happy couple tying the knot. From early May through October, the duo provides cakes — or some other from of desert — for two or three weddings a weekend. From multi-tiered cakes to tables spread with cupcakes, Dessert First strives to provide that perfect ending to the couple’s first married meal.
Jess Pocernich got her start in baking about 12 years ago when she moved to the area and started her own business decorating cakes called Frosting Fantasies. Dessert First was already a business in Eau Claire specializing in cupcakes, but neither Jess nor Duane Pocernich were involved in it at that time. A few years later, Jess met Duane, and shortly after that the owners of Desert First pitched the sale of their business to Jess Pocernich.
That was about seven years ago when the couple purchased the business. Since then, Dessert First has undergone a few changes.
Dessert First isn’t a conventional bakery. It’s products are offered at various retail locations but they don’t actually have a storefront. The business did have a storefront in downtown Eau Claire when the Pocernichs purchased the business, but it wasn’t connected to the actual kitchen. And since both Jess and Duane had part-time jobs, maintaining that storefront just wasn’t going to work. So they converted the business to a wholesale model.
Dessert First’s products can be found at Awards and More on Seymour Road and Avalon Floral on Water Street both in Eau Claire as well as Rump’s Butcher Shop on Lynn Avenue in Altoona.
But since wedding cakes are special order affairs, Dessert First can still make them for delivery or pick-up on weekends. And nowadays the wedding season spans from the middle of March through the end of October.
Moreover, The Chippewa Valley is a growing destination for couples in nearby larger cities looking for a venue.
“They don’t live here, but they are coming here to get married,” Jess Pocernich said of a decent portion of their customer base.
Duane Pocernich said that the rise of wineries and other business that offer rustic barns and other scenic locations as venues is drawing people to the area for weddings. “That’s a big draw; we deliver to a lot of those,” he said.
Still other people who might live nearby but are getting married elsewhere will order their cake with Desert First and then take it with them.
Beyond the purely business trends, people’s taste in the desserts themselves have changed over time. From naked cakes — cakes without much, or any, frosting on their sides — to the gluten-free trend, the baking duo has seen quite a bit.
Fortunately, not all the trends last. The Pocernich’s suggested that request for gluten-free cakes is in decline, and that’s good news for their business.
Most people probably don’t have a very good idea of everything that providing a gluten-free dessert entails. According to Jess and Duane Pocernich, such an undertaking would require a full day of cleaning their kitchen. “There’s flour in the air,” Jess Pocernich said. “That’s the nature of a bakery.” But that stray flour could land gluten in an otherwise gluten-free dish. All that down time for just a single order isn’t very economical. It’s for that reason that Dessert First generally doesn’t make gluten-free deserts.
But otherwise the bakers haven’t received too many requests they couldn’t meet, though some weddings can be more of a challenge than others. Usually the issues boil down to communication. “There’s a slight education process that goes on, Duane Pocernich said. “People don’t realize that our time is something they have to pay for. They want all this special stuff, but they want to pay grocery store prices.”
Jess Pocernich said these issues don’t pop up too often. “It’s only been two or three times when I’ve thought: This isn’t going to end well,” she said.
Even so, the bakery business in the Chippewa Valley is fragile. Duane Pocernich can think of several custom bakeries that have gone out of business since they’ve operated Dessert First. In fact, right now their biggest competition comes from grocery stores. Duane Pocernich suggested that, while he can’t speak for other markets, part of the difficulty here in the Chippewa Valley could be due to the local culture.
“We live in an area of the country where people still bake and cook,” he said. “There’s only so much people in Eau Claire will pay for a cupcake.”
As a result while the cost of baking supplies has continued to rise, Dessert First prices have only increased slightly. “It’s been like a nickel,” Jess Pocernich explained. But that’s only for cakes. Their cupcake prices have stayed the same. And they’ve actually lowered their prices for weddings.
Their strategy for overcoming the tough market is simple: do more business.
Naturally, that’s easier said than done. The business doesn’t really have an advertising budget and since they don’t have a physical location for people to walk into getting the word out can be a challenge. But it’s the 21st century, and the Pocernichs’ business model has found ways around this.
“Social media has been huge,” Duane Pocernich said. “Facebook is essentially an advertisement every time you make a post. You can’t beat it for free.”
And Dessert First is pretty easy to find on the internet in general. “We get a lot of business from Google.” Jess Pocernich said. “We’re one of the first businesses to come up in a search (for bakeries).”
And then there is good old-fashioned word of mouth.
Many customers are family and friends of other customers they’ve had. Still more are repeats. “It starts with a wedding and then we’ll get a gender reveal and the baby shower,” Duane Pocernich said.
Of course, customer service helps, too. Dessert First offers a free cake on the couple’s one-year anniversary. Traditionally newly married couples save the top tier or small piece of their wedding cake and freeze it to be eaten on their one-year anniversary.
“No matter how you package that there is no way it could taste good,” Jess Pocernich said. So why not offer a fresh cake.
Of course the cake options don’t end in Eau Caire. Another 20 miles up Highway 53, Chrissy Meisner operates Bloomer Bakery right on Main Street.
For Meisner, baking wasn’t a life-long passion or anything. Her journey began when her son was born and she wanted to be able to decorate a birthday cake for him. Meisner realized she didn’t know where to begin so she set about to learn. A class at the Michael’s craft store in Eau Claire and a little bit of self study and her soon-to-be profession was born. Before too long Meisner was actually teaching the classes at Michaels.
But then her family moved to the Twin Cities, and she landed a job as a cake decorator at a grocery store.
“I didn’t have much experience, but I was the only one who applied,” she said.
While Meisner wasn’t born with a spatula in her hands, she certainly has a knack for cakes. Recently she’s taken several awards at baking competions in various cities. This past March, Meisner won a gold medal at the Upper Midwest Bakery Association Convention in St. Cloud, Minn.
In any case, she had enough experience and demonstrated enough skill that the former owners of Bloomer Bakery, which has been a fixture in Bloomer for about 40 years, contacted her to see if she was interested in buying the business. So her family moved back to her hometown, and the rest is history.
Since taking over the bakery, Meisner has seen the wedding aspect of her business grow.
“It’s a lot more than it used to be,” she said. “They used to do just one wedding cake a weekend, and now I usually do three.”
Meisner attributes part of that growth to several wedding venue start-ups in the area. A number of businesses have opened up offering wedding locations in rustic barns, a popular trend right now. So even though many of Meisner’s customers aren’t from the area, they get married here.
And then there is social media and the internet. Once the happy couple finds there venue, Bloomer Bakery is only a Google search away.
“We’ve received most of our business from online recommendations,” Meisner said. “We have some very dedicated customers.”
And the tastes of brides and grooms have changed, too. Customers don’t always come looking for the traditional white wedding cakes anymore. Meisner has prepared everything from brownies to doughnuts for weddings.
“There’s no standard anymore. It doesn’t have to be that traditional look anymore. It can be fun,” Meisner said.
Of course cakes are still popular, too.
“That’s my niche. I have a baker, but I consider myself a cake decorator,” Meisner explained.