It's not about the recipes, or vanilla spongecake versus chocolate, or square layers versus round. For Elysia Root, cake is the medium to create memories and happiness. The satisfaction of being a cake designer is hearing love stories, making kids smile and contributing to people's happiness.
Elysia Jiang Root left the insurance industry in 2011 to pursue her passion, baking. She enrolled in Chicago's French Pastry School to earn a certificate and credentials in baking and cake decorating. Root's goal was to raise her hobby to a professional level, then open a specialty cake business. Leaving the corporate world, where she was a strategy consultant for three Chicago-based international companies, was a leap of faith.
The native of Southfield, Mich., was raised in Wheaton, the eldest of three daughters. Her parents, from Taiwan, raised their children in a bilingual household (English and Mandarin).
"I've always loved to do crafts, such as knitting and crochet, and bake," says Root, 38. "Cakes are fun. You see it, you eat it. Cakes make people happy."
She married Nate Root, 45, also an executive in the insurance industry, in 2005. The couple lives in the Logan Square/West Bucktown neighborhood with their two wheaten terriers. She owns Elysia Root Cakes (elysiarootcakes.com), a 2,000-square-foot kitchen in the West Loop, and has two full-time employees. Following is an edited transcript.
Q: Why did you leave a successful career in insurance?
A: I got bored. The job felt routine. In one position, I had to travel up to seven months a year. I wanted to work for myself. People advised me against it. My mom was worried if I could afford it. But I had to do it.
Q. Any advice for someone considering leaving a stable career to open a new door?
A: Really do some self-reflection, and answer the following questions: Know why you are making the change — is this something you really want to do? (Are you) really willing to start over from the bottom and work your way back up? Can you make the financial sacrifice to make the change? Will you regret it if you don't make the change?
If the answers are "yes" to all of the questions after you've given it some serious thought, then I would say you are mentally ready to make that change.
Q: Is there a book that inspired you?
A: "The Pumpkin Plan: A Simple Strategy to Grow a Remarkable Business in Any Field" by Mike Michalowicz really helped me learn to not be all things to all people, find my niche in custom wedding and special occasion cakes, and be OK with not pursuing every opportunity that came my way once I understood what I wanted my business focus to be.
Q: What one skill is necessary to start a business?
A: Definitely being able to multitask, as you wear so many hats as a small-business owner, and the ability to listen, learn and take constructive feedback. Perseverance as a personality trait helps as well — you'll definitely hear more "no" than "yes" as you are starting out.
Q: How do customers find you?
A: My clients come by customer referral. I have a presence in social media, network among professionals and hotels around Chicago.
Q: What credentials helped you transition to your specialty cake business?
A: I have a business background. I got my Bachelor of Science degree in business administration from the University of Illinois (at Urbana-Champaign) in 1998, and an MBA from University of Chicago in 2005. My career in insurance included management positions in Chicago with CNA Insurance, IBM and Accenture.
Q: What skills from your business background apply to your pastry business?
A: I'm analytical. I like numbers. Baking requires an understanding of chemistry, of weights and measures, of ratios. Designing a cake is like being an architect. That precision appeals to me. In my business career I solved problems for clients. ... Now, I work with people who want cakes. I listen to their stories, their ideas. Then I strategize, based on interviews. I sketch ideas on how to make their ideas work through baking, design and cake decorating.
Q: Do couples desiring wedding cakes know what they want?
A: Some do. I learn a lot from personal interviews. I ask lots of questions. They tell me their love story, about their lifestyle, wedding plans. Is it formal, fun, traditional, modern (and I ask about their) flowers, their dress and attire, the fabrics, favorite music, the menu, what the venue is like. After the interview, we do the tasting. That's a fun part. We try different cake flavors and fillings. Then, I start sketching. Men are more interested in what the cake will taste like; women are more concerned in how it looks.
Q: Any trends in wedding cakes?
A: Smaller cakes. Instead of a single, plated piece of cake, couples like to display the whole cake as part of a dessert buffet with other pastries and sweets. (Root's cakes are custom orders; they start at $6 per slice with a $300 minimum order.)
Q: What are some crazy cakes you've designed?
A: A groom's cake in the shape of Fenway Park in Boston. He was a baseball nut. I've done a cake in the shape of a University of Michigan football helmet. Specific body parts. Torsos. Heads. Cars.
Q: What are trade-offs in switching careers?
A: Since pastry school I've gained 15 pounds, which I can't get rid of. But I make myself go to the gym three times a week at 6 a.m. I can't resist desserts. This job is tough, physically. I am on my feet 12 to 14 hours a day.
Then, I take all responsibilities of an entrepreneur: marketing, business plan, negotiate leases, do payroll, writing an employee handbook, human resources, sales, marketing and social media. I don't have much downtime.
Q: What makes your job worthwhile?
A: Positive feedback and appreciation. Being a part of someone's happiness. Getting thank-you notes and photos. I recently joined Icing Smiles (icingsmiles.org), a national, not-for-profit group of professional bakers who donate decorated cakes to families of sick children. It's gratifying. Cakes make people smile.
Q: What was your wedding cake like?
A: Nate and I married in August, 2005. The reception for 160 people was at a Chicago hotel. I ordered my cake from a local bake shop. It was a four-tier, vanilla cake with buttercream icing topped with a double happiness symbol (a symbol of traditional Chinese weddings). I wasn't that happy with the cake, but at that time, I didn't have a clue what I wanted.
Q: What was your biggest surprise after you opened your business?
A: How hard it was physically to work in the kitchen. … About a year into it, I hurt my shoulder and had to do physical therapy for six months, which made me realize that I had to really focus on taking care of myself in order to keep working.
Q: What's your weakness?
A: Sweets. I especially love the turtle ice cream sundae at Margie's Candies in Bucktown. I rarely bake at home, but recently, I made Nate his favorite cake: chocolate with salted caramel.
Q: What baking/cookbook can you recommend to home bakers?
A: I would say that Rose Levy Beranbaum's "The Cake Bible" is essential for anyone wanting to develop their own cake recipes or play with existing recipes. For beginning cake decorating, I love Elisa Strauss' (of Confetti Cakes) books for their approachability. Sugar flower work — any of Nicholas Lodge's many books are a constant source of inspiration and guidance. I'm also looking forward to having some time in the off-season to work my way through the recipes in Jacquy Pfeiffer's "The Art of French Pastry" book.
Q: What do you do to relax?
A: Take the dogs for a walk. Read beach romance novels, anything to shut my brain off. We love to ski. I just learned snowboarding in Colorado. I also enjoy scuba diving, travel, knitting, photography.
Q: How do you keep up with professional education?
A: I take classes in cake design and techniques. I did a seminar with Amy Beck Cakes (Cake Design) in Chicago. I attended classes in Toronto at Flour Confections with artist-owner Lisa Bugeja. I also studied with Nicholas Lodge, who taught at French Pastry School in Chicago. He has schools in Norcross, Ga. and Tokyo, Japan.
Q: What skill has made you successful in both careers?
A: Listening carefully to people, understanding their needs, then translating those into a solution.
What inspires Elysia Root? "Everything," she says. "Design is everywhere. Children's art. Colors and patterns in fabrics, art, flowers. Architecture. Fashion."