In pastry making, it’s all about numbers.
Sharon and Dallas Graham’s business efforts can be summed up as 38 years, 5,000 wedding cakes, and a secret recipe. But digging under the (cake) layers is a bit more complicated than that.
For years, the couple worked together to foster success catering and pastry from 1974 to 2012. Their specialty was white chocolate icing that covered their cakes. It was Sharon’s own concoction and so tasty, the couple said, that people would offer payment in exchange for the recipe.
Sharon, however, would not share the recipe with anyone. She would also not give in to requests from friends or family. Even her husband didn’t know how to make a batch of special icing.
Now, seven years after retiring from the company, the secret is finally out.
The first cake
As a young mother of four, Sharon began taking cake decorating classes so that she could embellish cakes for special celebrations. She combined what she learned about the basics of cake decorating with what she already knew about making a soft cake.
Then she thought that maybe she could exploit her bakery to generate additional income by selling wedding cakes. Encouragement came from his instructor, who assured him that a wedding cake is just several cakes put together.
“It was very rewarding to do everything and put everything together and it went well, but also very stressful,” said Sharon.
With $ 1,000, Sharon bought cake pans, parchment paper and other supplies. In August 1974 in Bellevue, Sharon created her first wedding cake. The dessert was covered in tinsel and roses in icing – a trend for wedding cakes at the time. And Sharon used a buttercream frosting recipe that she got from her mom.
The business grew slowly at first, Sharon said. Cake orders were coming in here and there for birthdays and anniversaries. But word started to spread and new orders arrived for wedding cakes.
Eventually, the business grew so big that the couple needed more kitchen space and a proper license. Living in unincorporated King County at the time meant cottage industries – home-based businesses – were legal.
Thus, they redeveloped part of their ground floor in 1985 and created a space for a bakery. Sharon bought his business equipment at a reduced price from a man who had given up his own bakery business. Sharon also added catering services to the mix.
Then, client after client, the business began to make as much, if not more, than Dallas’ work with Sherwin Willams.
“It got to the point where I was earning as much as him,” said Sharon. “So we were really nervous. When do we cut the string? ”
Dallas eventually “cut the string” and quit her job. He began to help out full time in the cake business. They said they have a substantial income which has remained fairly stable, and while customers are not always guaranteed and loyal customers are scarce in the wedding cake business, the baseline was there.
A secret icing
When Dallas and Sharon’s eldest son David got married in 1988, Sharon made the cake. She used a recipe for a tortured cake with white chocolate frosting, instead of the buttercream frosting she typically used. And not surprisingly to Sharon, the wedding attendees had a positive response.
Sharon agreed, but figured she could improve the frosting by changing the ratio of butter to white chocolate from 1 to 1. She started experimenting and by the time she was done she created her own recipe. It was a frosting that became a signature of his cakes.
Eventually, the couple stopped offering the buttercream option. Brides overwhelmingly favored the white chocolate variety.
“It’s not the kind where you just put powdered sugar in a bowl and whisk it,” Sharon said. “It’s a little more complicated, but it tastes very good.”
Dallas noticed icing left on plates at weddings with cakes not made by Sharon. But when it was Sharon who baked the cake, there was no sign of frosting anywhere.
“Wedding guests would often put their forks on the plates,” he said.
The business boom
During their busiest weekends, 10 sometimes even 12 wedding cakes were made from scratch. On top of that, they usually organize two or three parties for groups of 150 people or more. About 90 pounds of frosting were needed each week.
They had the help of their daughter, part-time employees, and a staff of 17 who were called in to serve as waiters and dishwashers.
It was a lot of food, they said. And the couple worked seven days a week, 12 hours a day or more. On weekends, they worked six-hour shifts. Then there was the added stress of having the food and cakes where they needed to be, when they needed to be there, they said. They didn’t stay local either. The cakes were delivered as far north as Canada.
“We never give up,” said Sharon.
Therefore, in 2012, Sharon fell ill. She developed high levels of anxiety which reportedly raised her blood pressure. His body ached. She had nausea and depression.
“All of a sudden my world fell apart and I was out of function for about seven years,” Sharon said.
She attributes the health problems to the physical and emotional exhaustion caused by her business. And just like that, 38 years of cake making and 20 years of restoration was over.
Throughout her recovery journey, Sharon felt compelled to finally share the details of their successful business in a cookbook, “A collection of food and cake recipes from Sharon.” The secret icing recipe is included.
“I don’t want it to go away when I die,” Sharon said, on why she’s released the recipe now. “I want people to always have it if they want to do it. And our family… we won’t be here when our great-grandchildren get married, for heaven’s sake. But they also deserve to have a really good cake with delicious frosting on it.
Sharon has decided that she would like to put the recipe in the hands of all the brides she has created wedding cakes for. They live throughout the region in the Eastside, Seattle, Everett and Tacoma.
Thinking about their affairs together, Sharon and Dallas recalled the many stories they had collected. There was the “Godzilla Bride” who had 12 route pages and a stopwatch with her at the altar. Everything was planned down to the minute, including the length of her wedding kiss. It was scheduled for two minutes.
“If they kissed for more than two minutes, the reception would be over,” Dallas said with a laugh. “We joked, ‘I wonder if she has a script like that for her honeymoon.'”
There was also the woman who returned for a wedding cake for her second wedding, but requested that the Grahams not share this detail with her husband.
“I had everything fine the first time except the guy,” Sharon recalled, telling the bride.
At a catering event, the couple worked out on their 25th wedding anniversary. The DJ performed a special song for Sharon and Dallas who have now been married for 55 years, have four children, 20 grandchildren and 14 great grandchildren.
Unlike baking, there are some things in life that cannot be measured.