Prince Philip would probably be horrified, but Kate and William should take note. The old-fashioned British fruit cake has had its day when it comes to wedding celebrations, usurped by that all-conquering US import the cupcake.
That’s the experience of Angie Townsend, owner of The Tiny Cake Company in North Yorkshire, who has been in business three years and has rarely had to reach for the dried fruit. "Nobody wants fruit cake for weddings any more, unless it’s using an old family recipe that has been passed down the generations. Generally, young brides want a small 4-6in cake topper on the top tier, with lots of cupcakes that are bespoke to their requirements in terms of colour and decoration," she says. "We also have a lot of success with giant cupcakes. They’re something that are ’big’ in the US. We developed one called the Princess for a little girl’s birthday party and it looks so grand that we’re thinking of marketing it as a cake for Kate and Will’s wedding."
The cupcake role
The dominance of cupcakes is backed up by Mike Wescomb, sales and marketing director at baking case supplier Chevler. "When it comes to the celebration cake market, cupcakes are increasingly playing a vital role. They are now used to help celebrate all sorts of special occasions, including weddings, christenings, birthdays, anniversaries and even important corporate events. For bakers to break into this market, which is currently dominated by small artisan and specialist producers, they should concentrate on the theme and decoration and then provide ’wow’ with a hidden extra. For example, adding fruit coulis to the centre of the cake."
Cupcakes are not the only small treats muscling into the wedding cake market. Towers of cake pops, macarons, whoopie pies and cake balls are also increasingly popular. The Tiny Cake Company recently created a tower of 200 sparkly cake pops for an exclusive Mayfair party during London Fashion Week. "There has been a huge shift to people wanting something small," says Townsend. "Customers tend to have a budget and don’t want lots of wastage. Cake pops are great for putting into goody bags and they have an excellent shelf-life because they are coated in chocolate."
She adds: "Something else for the future are dessert tables. These are popular in Canada and the US where they decorate a table with a garden theme or all in pink with lots of little cakes. You see tiny cupcakes, cake pops and cheesecakes, so guests can have two or three rather than one big piece. Again, it’s about getting away from the single big cake."
The ’small is beautiful’ trend is also driving birthday cake sales at Great Yarmouth-based company Cupcakes To Your Door. "Customers are becoming increasingly aware of waste and cost, so our Cupcake Cake a six-inch cake surrounded by eight cupcakes is becoming the most favoured option," says owner Gill Keeble. "This cake forms an impressive display and many customers have said it makes children’s parties much less messy, as each child can have their own individual cake. Party bags have become a very competitive area but my customers are cutting costs by putting the cupcakes into the party bags for the children to take home."
She adds the designs of homeware retailer Cath Kidston, such as polka dots, roses and clean, rich pastel colours, are becoming more popular in terms of decoration a style that has been picked up on by Chevler, which plans to launch a polka dot cupcake case range in early May.
At icing and ingredients supplier Renshaw, Nicola Hemming, business development and technical sales manager, says jewels, feathers and deep colours are still big trends. "Cupcake towers for key celebrations are now a well established trend, not only do they help with portion control but they can also be easily personalised. In the US, there’s a similar trend for crispy cakes, made with chocolate or caramel blended with Rice Crispies to create stacked tiers of "crispie" mountains. It may take off in the UK."
The new ideas of small celebration cake companies, such as Cupcakes to your Door and the Tiny Cake Co, are also starting to influence the kind of products seen on supermarket shelves, according to Hemming. "There has been a huge number of home-based cupcake and celebration cake companies setting up in recent years making quite elaborate celebration cakes, while people are baking more at home and becoming more ambitious thanks to TV programmes like the Great British Bake-off and Baking Made Easy. This is having an effect on the kinds of cakes you see in the supermarkets so there are more modelled figures being used to decorate stacked two-tier cake designs. You are even seeing companies such as Little Venice Cake Company launching more complex designs into the key retailers."
Angie Townsend says she is not worried by competition from the supermarkets. At Finsbury Foods, commercial development director Karen Smith says there has been an important shift towards more interesting cake shapes in the past year in an effort to add value to the category. Round cakes with printed sugar plaques of characters, such as Winnie the Pooh and Peppa Pig, have been redeveloped, so that the cakes are actually in the shape of the character.
"Celebration value sales have suffered in the past couple of years [for several reasons].The average retail price has dropped, due to competitive price matching between the retailers. Value return on sales has declined on average by £2 over the last 18 months. There has also been an increase in promotional activity on own-label party lines and traybakes," says Smith. "However, this decline is now slowing as more higher-value shaped cakes are entering the market. This will progress into the year ahead."
Value urgently needs to be added back to the category because cake makers are facing an almost ’perfect storm’ of rising sugar, flour and butter prices.
"Continued high input costs for cake are still very real and dramatic," says Smith. "To date we have managed input cost inflation by re-development of recipes, packaging and operating costs. We will continue to do everything sensible to manage this inflation but if we are not able to we will have to pass these costs on to the customer and therefore the consumer."
At ingredients company Puratos, marketing director Rupert Taylor says raw material prices are reaching such highs that larger manufacturers are starting to consider alternatives.
"The big driver in the past year is people coming to us to see what we can do to help in terms of ingredients costs. For example, our Puraslim fat alternative has a better nutritional profile and makes a better standard of product. If you’re paying £1 a litre for oil, it will also bring down your raw material costs. A year ago that wouldn’t have been the case," he says.
Beyond costs, Taylor highlights clean label, reduced salt and single-origin chocolate as key trends in celebration cakes. "Many of the overall trends for the cake sector, such as making products with fewer ingredients or with sustainability in mind are also having an impact on the celebration cake market. Reduced salt is a common request, which is harder than you might think, because cakes require baking powder. Our Satin cake range has been redesigned to meet the FSA’s 2010 salt targets for example. I’m sure Fairtrade will also come in to celebration cakes soon."
A reduced-salt, Fairtrade wedding cake? Prince Philip would probably have something to say about that too.
The Royal wedding is just under two months away so interest in the cake is hotting up.
The Times has launched a Royal Bake-off, encouraging readers to send in photos and recipes for a wedding cake "fit for a prince", while the Wessex Salon Culinaire at the Hotel and Catering Show next month is hosting a competition for professionals to create a wedding cake suitable for the big day.
Steve Howard, master confectioner at London’s largest independent cake-maker The Cake Store, has beaten them to it with a wedding cake ’suggestion’ on display in his shop window in Sydenham. Made up of five tiers, the cake has fine sugar piping and pure white sugar flowers. The couples’ initials are inscribed on sugar plaques. The Cake Store, has supplied the Queen’s garden parties and other Royal events with confectionery for 25 years.
It’s a good job that smaller cake-makers are coming up with new ideas, because the celebration cake market is in need of inspiration, judging by the latest Kantar Worldpanel figures. Value sales of birthday cakes in the 52 weeks ending 24 January were down by 4.6% in the packaged cake aisle. Large licensed cakes fared even worse with sales down nearly 11%. This poor performance was offset slightly by an uplift in sales in the in-store bakery where value sales of whole cakes increased by 42%.
The two largest players Greencore and Finsbury have reported a bounce-back in sales in recent months however. Greencore saw sales of ambient celebration cakes increase by 11.9% in 2010, while Finsbury said its cake division returned to growth last year following a decline in 2009, with growth of 2.5% year on year.