Wow, talking to Sydney-based cake-maker extraordinaire Nikki Lee of Unbirthday you can’t help but be drawn in to her passion, drive and enthusiasm for baking and cake decorating. For Nikki has turned the humble cake into a work of art, bursting with colour and fun. Her creations are vibrant centrepieces that scream admire me, share me, eat me. A self-professed big kid at heart who’s been to Disneyland six times, Nikki believes cakes are what draw people together and that you should always celebrate your birthday.
Yet she wasn’t always a baker.
For nine years Nikki ran her own graphic design business (having dropped out of university at age 19 in order to start it) and then for four years, had a corporate career. But cakes were always her love. In her early thirties she decided ‘to throw caution to the wind’ and start something new again.
For many switching from the corporate world to baking cakes might seem a radical if not foolishly whimsical career move but for Nikki it made perfect sense and it’s proving to be even more successful than she could ever have imagined.
Come and meet Nikki and salivate over her beautiful, happy cake creations …
What is it about cakes and cake decorating that you love so much?
My earliest memory is watching a video tape of myself with my mum making a cake from the Women’s Weekly cookbook in the 80s. It was so lovely and nostalgic seeing mum in the kitchen making her first child a birthday cake. She had very little experience in baking but was able to make a beautiful Koala cake. I loved watching re-runs of that.
Then when I was around eight or nine my sister and I would borrow videos from the local library on cake decorating. I loved watching UK-based Elaine McGregor who did fondant work and old-school wedding cakes and we’d watch them on re-run all the time. I’d always be the one to put my hand up to make cakes for peoples’ birthdays and would talk about cakes a lot. Eventually my sister said, ‘if you only you stopped talking about it’!
What challenges did you face in taking the leap and setting up your new business?
After working in corporate for four years – which was a great job – I wanted to start something new again as a wiser, older person. As I’d had my own business before as a graphic designer I was very familiar with what it took to start something and so felt prepared with the experience of having run a business before. I gave myself a year without any expectations and decided to throw caution to the wind. I had some savings and I also teach singing on the side. I thought if I made no cakes and no money at least I know I can go back to corporate. The worst thing is to have something in your heart, not try it and then regretting it.
How has the business grown since you started? What advice would you give others wanting to do the same?
My first order [for one wedding cake] was in December 2013, about 18 months ago. Then I started doing 10 – 12 orders a week and the orders increased exponentially. It all happened organically and authentically. I wasn’t trying to contrive how the business should be. I was responding to what customers wanted. That’s something I’ve learned being older: you can have a big, big picture but the reality of what you do day-to-day often calls for things you can’t see in that big picture. You’ve got to do the small stuff to make the bigger picture happen. Respond to what is in front of you today even if it’s really small because that will make a difference to tomorrow.
We still do it all from my home kitchen but now I have two girls to help, Wednesday to Saturday. I get the girls to keep a cake diary – to write down what they did during the day, what they felt about it and also to point out to me if we need more spatulas or a new stool.
When girls come up to me and say they really want to make and decorate cakes and what should they do? I just say, make cakes. Focus on the work – how often are you baking, are you recording it, taking a photo of it, sharing it with people? Because that’s how Unbirthday started. There was no shop front. It was just me baking cakes.
The Hybrid Cake: vanilla butter cake with sweet butter cream, dark chocolate glaze drip, styled with a chocolate crown piece, fresh, organic edible flower blooms and gold-dusted cherries and strawberries.
How has social media been instrumental in your success?
I was on Facebook for a little bit but found Instagram suited because my work is so visual. I took one photo at a time and gave a few cakes away to people I followed on Instagram who were in alignment with what I was doing. That was how it started. If I didn’t have Instragram Unbirthday wouldn’t be where it is, that’s for sure. Now, with Instagram, I feel I have a lot of responsibility to make sure I make a great product!
How do you juggle the creative, experimental side of cake making and decorating with fulfilling a customer’s request?
That’s a very good question. I find there’s very little time for experimenting but when something does happen it’s more of an adaption. The Hybrid cake, for example, is a hybrid of Cake Island and the Flourish cake. It wasn’t one massive experiment just a natural evolution of what I was already doing. The Hero Cake was, once again, an evolution of the Hybrid Cake. There are a lot of guys who don’t want flowers so I used chocolate bars and candy and it seemed to hit home as everyone has their favourite chocolate bar. This is also an example of how growth can happen as a result of something you’ve just done. Piping also came about when one day we didn’t have enough flowers for a cake so we experimented with that.
Flowers are your signature decorating feature. Will they always have a starring role?
I think so. There’s something about flowers that just works on a cake. When we tell people they’re edible, they freak out and love it. It’s a learning curve for the customer too and a talking point for their party. I had thought maybe we should move away from flowers but people love them so I’ll keep using them until they want something different.
Your flowers are all pesticide-free and come from farms around New South Wales and South Australia. What are the varieties of flowers you use?
We use rose petals, snap dragons, nasturtiams, marigolds, some violas, carnation petals, and elderflower when it’s in season. And then there’ll be certain other varieties that might only be available for a couple of months.
What is a dream cake-making project or have you already done it?
I think I’ve done it and I do it every time for a customer because I don’t think anyone is any more special or important than anyone else. Every birthday is a milestone and I’m always respectful of what a cake means to someone. Being able to do what I want to do creatively is my dream. I’m working the dream.
Who or what inspires you?
Walt Disney is my hero. I’ve loved Disneyland ever since I was a kid and have been to Disneyland six times, to Anaheim and the one in Paris. From a brand point of view, it’s amazing how one man’s legacy and vision manages to survive decades after he’s gone. When you go to a theme park you become a kid again – it’s fun and pure. There are some beautiful elegant cakes around and then there’s ones that look as if they’ve had some explosion of colour coming out of them. We always try and go for the latter; nothing too serious. A cake should not be intimidating, it’s made to be eaten.
Why the name ‘Unbirthday’?
It’s a reference to Disney’s Alice in Wonderland where Alice meets the March Hare and the Mad Hatter and they sing ‘A very merry unbirthday’ which is a little crazy as 365 days of the year it is someone’s birthday! Originally I decided I’d love to make cakes everyday but no one buys cakes everyday,y only on their birthdays or special occasions so the name is kind of ironic.
A lot of people don’t like to celebrate their birthday but it’s so nice to be acknowledged. It’s the only day of the year where you can be completely selfish. When it’s your birthday you should pay attention to what’s happened that year and pay attention to what you want to happen in the next year. It’s an important ritual.
It’s not very cool but I really like … being in my track pants after a day in the kitchen and crashing on the couch. It’s my way of relaxing.
Have you ever had a ‘who’d have thought’ moment?
When I look back to when I started I definitely didn’t think I’d have girls working with me or having 35-odd orders a week or that people would drive up to an hour for one of my cakes. I thought I’d be making three or four cakes a week by myself. People come from so many different backgrounds, cultures, places … There’s something universal about cake.
What does the future hold for ‘Unbirthday’?
I want to move into a commercial kitchen so I can detach it away from home and once again I think there will be a natural time – maybe at the end of the year. I’d also like the business to be able to run without me. It’s like being a parent, where you nurture it, let it find its own feet and instill the values to do it right. Then maybe in two years’ time I’d like to take it to Melbourne. Once I’ve got the systems right I can duplicate it there but I want to keep it small and humble and not franchise out. I don’t need a retail space especially with Instagram because you can see it all there. I’d rather people came on a little journey to find us.
And what a journey it is! Surely if you didn’t like cake before, you must do now.
Note: top image features Nikki on her wedding day touching up her own wedding cake. Photo by Luke Going Photography @lukegoingweddings.