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March 12, 2008 > Cool jobs in the Tri-City area: Two cake bakers in Newark

Cool jobs in the Tri-City area: Two cake bakers in Newark

By Anne Chan, MS, MFT

I had my first taste of a rat cake a couple of weeks ago. Yes, that is not a typo. I actually ate a rat cake.

Wait - before you get grossed out and put the paper down - be assured this isn't a disgusting reality-show tale.

This is actually a wholesome and inspiring story of two sisters who made a radical career change and are now cake bakers specializing in wedding and custom cakes.

Caroline Kawazoe and Jennifer Bermillo practically grew up in their mother's Newark bakeshop. They loved helping in the family business, but swore they wouldn't own their own bakeshop. Both decided to climb the corporate ladder instead.

Armed with business degrees from Cal State University East Bay, both had bright futures in banking. However, there was a missing ingredient in their work lives. As Caroline put it, "I just hated it, having to wake up in the morning to go to the bank, and dealing with the pressure."

The opportunity for revamping their careers came when they had children. Both wanted the flexibility of owning their own business so they could stay involved in their kids' lives.

At first, Caroline was against the idea of opening a bakeshop, not wanting to follow in her mother's footsteps. However, neither sister could escape the fact that cake-making was in their blood and their passion. "No matter how much we try to deny it, we are just like our mom," laughed the sisters.

They made the tough decision to switch careers and open a cake-making business. At the beginning, they made cakes for friends and family but then quickly outgrew their home kitchen. Seeing the need for a commercial space, they opened their bakeshop, Minia's Bake Shop, named in honor of their mother.

Their mother's touch is an integral part of the business, from her secret cake recipe to the way the store is set up. Everything is done to mom's exacting standards. Caroline noted that her mom even wanted her to crack the eggs the "right" way.

The sisters emphasized that family support, especially the financial support of their husbands, was critical in getting the business established. Both underlined the importance of careful planning in the creation of their business: "You can't just say I love baking, I want to open a bakeshop. You have to make sure you have the resources you need, the support you need. Planning is important."

Surprisingly, getting a culinary degree or going to formal pastry school wasn't part of their planning process. Caroline and Jennifer learned the art of baking and decorating cakes through hands-on learning at their mother's bakeshop. They have expanded on her knowledge, delighting customers with custom birthday and wedding cakes. They can turn almost any idea into cake reality, as evidenced by their novelty cakes like sushi cupcakes, a giant cupcake, and a "hip-hop" cake featuring a turntable against the skyline of San Francisco.

One of the joys of their job is the closeness they feel with their customers. Their business is not just business for them - Caroline and Jennifer said they feel like a part of their customers' families when they create cakes to celebrate important milestones. Through their cake creations, they have followed the life- journeys of their customers, starting with weddings, followed by the births of their children, baptism ceremonies, and birthdays. Caroline and Jennifer are now baking cakes to celebrate the second generation and their special occasions.

Caroline's own journey to love started appropriately with a Minia's cake - her mom baked the first birthday cake for a little boy who grew up and became Caroline's husband.

Caroline and Jennifer used the words "cool," "passion," and "love" often when talking about their business. Clearly, their bakeshop is a labor of love for them. At the same time, both are matter-of-fact about the effort involved in running their bakeshop.

"I don't think people realize how much work we do. I think they think we just sit here and don't do anything during the week. They don't realize that me and my sister do all the work. There's a lot more going on to it. It's not just about baking cakes," said Caroline.

"I think people don't realize we have to do everything - answer the phones, take orders, make the cakes, decorate, deliver, clean-up, wash dishes," added Jennifer.

Physical labor is an inevitable part of the hard work involved in their business. Both said they get a lot of exercise in the bakeshop - lifting heavy bags of flour, mixing cakes, walking, and standing. They reckon they walk a whole mile just moving back and forth in the kitchen each day. Caroline flexed the muscles in the arm she uses for mixing, calling it her "moneymaker arm."

One considerable downside of their business is working on weekends, since most weddings take place on Saturdays and Sundays. The sisters miss out on a lot of get-togethers during the weekend. In fact, they can't remember the last weekend they had off. When they are able to make it to family functions, their makeup often includes a light dusting of flour and icing in their hair.

Another downside is the need to plan their vacations way in advance. The sisters cannot spontaneously go to the mall or hang out with friends - holidays have to be planned well ahead of time. The two sisters have even joked about "scheduling" Caroline's next pregnancy so that she doesn't give birth during the busy wedding season.

One inescapable feature of their business is the number of hours devoted to it. Both put in extremely long hours during the summers - the peak season for weddings. They may work from 8 a.m. - 10 p.m. or even later to get the cakes done. There are days when they sleep for just a couple of hours to keep up with the demand.

Although owning one's business can be tough at times, both are grateful they can do what they love, make a business out of their passion, and take care of the kids. For them, a huge perk of the business is flexibility - they can take care of their kids when they need to. It is important to both that they maintain a sense of family in their lives. Owning their own shop allows them to do just that. "It has to work with what I'm doing with my family. In essence, that's the reason why I opened this business," said Jennifer.

Sometimes their families gather together at the shop for dinner - both Jennifer and Caroline see this as a big plus in keeping their families together. Family togetherness was the reason they chose to situate their business in Newark where both two women were born and raised. Jennifer notes that their extended family is also all in Newark making it easy for their entire family to be together.

Their kids enjoy congregating at the bakeshop. Caroline and Jennifer believe that their kids have learned the value of hard work from watching them run the shop. "When my three-year-old sees a spill, she will get out a broom. I don't have to tell her. Or she likes to help me put out the cupcake holders. She loves to help out," said Caroline.

Family and sisterly love form the heart of their business relationship. They report working well together as sisters and business partners. "She's my boss, I'm her boss. We have really good communication - she can tell me when I'm in the wrong and vice versa and we don't take things personally. We want the best for the other person," said Caroline of her sister.

In addition to keeping their families together, the bakeshop also brings them joy by allowing them to be creative. "I'm able to get my creative side going. Cake is a kind of art form," noted Caroline. Having the bakeshop enables the sisters to enjoy their passion making works of art that are both beautiful and edible. And fun, like the rat cake I ordered.

Back to the rat cake I told you about. I ordered it from Minia's to celebrate the Year of the Rat for the Lunar New Year. It was an astounding creation - a cake topped with an edible rodent made of frosting. Okay, it wasn't really made of real rats. But everyone declared it was the best rat cake they had ever eaten.

For more on Minia's bakeshop, check out their website at http://www.miniasbakeshop.com/ or call (510)791-8343. The bakeshop is located at 5445 Central Ave, Suites 1 & 2, Newark, CA and is open Wednesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. - 6 p.m. and Sunday from 10 a.m. - 2 p.m.

Anne Chan is a career counselor and licensed psychotherapist in Union City. She specializes in helping people find maximum satisfaction in their careers and relationships. She can be reached at achan@midlabs.com or (510) 744-1781. If you or someone you know has a cool, unique, and interesting job in Hayward, Milpitas or the Tri-City area, please contact her.

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