*Rolls out red carpet* I’m so excited to introduce you to the lovely Melissa Kelly-Hill.
She’s proof that we can all find our own cake identity, create cakes that bring us joy AND become sought after in the cake industry, without compromising our cake style.
Who’s Melissa? She’s the amazing talent and owner behind Twelve Five Cakery, located in Hattiesburg MS, USA.
She truly embodies the term ‘cake designer’ with her whimsical – and awesomely eclectic – out-of-the-box cake designs.
In this interview, Melissa gives us some incredible insight into her creative process, plus dives in deep about her cake journey (and that’s just the icing on the cake!).
Melissa advised that I could trim her interview ‘as needed’, but you know what? I just couldn’t.
I think everything she wrote is so important to her story and FULL of great insights that I KNOW you’ll all benefit from.
So what are you waiting for? Dive on in and enjoy the read.
Give us a brief insight into your cake journey. How did this all start for you?
My background is 13 years of retail management. I used to think about having my own business when I was in my late teens. When my husband and I were dating we used to talk of owning a flower shop. As my retail career just kind of fizzled out, and I knew that I would not be moving up in the last company I worked, I decided I need to start making a change to work for myself.
I was a very driven manager and pushed my team very hard, so to keep up morale, I made extra treats during special occasions. When I began running the company’s logistics team, my team would have to put up with my intensity at 4am everyday, so, again, to boost morale and show my appreciation, I used to bake birthday cakes for my team members.
In fact, one time, I created an entire unbirthday party in our break room. I made close to 50 6″ single layer buttercream cakes, all iced in colorful Italian Meringue buttercream. The break room had fun table cloths and shakers with sprinkles, piping bags with extra frosting, plus 2 custom white chocolate lollipop sticks with their name and birth date. It was pretty ridiculous to see all these grown ups decorate their little birthday cakes.
The more cakes I made and treats I brought, the more my coworkers started to order from me. Since I knew I wanted to work for myself, and my retail career was at a standstill, and I seemed to be pretty good at baking and decorating, I decided to try my hand at baking as a career move.
By chance I met a local bakery owner at a small cake competition. Through that contact, I was able to get a job with her bakery. That’s the first real move I made.
I figured it would be best to work in the business to see if that’s really what I wanted. I knew I didn’t want to just jump right into opening a cake shop.
For about a year I worked both my retail job and my bakery job, many, many, MANY weeks, I worked full time hours at both jobs. I did eventually reduce my hours in retail, move to more of a management position in the bakery, and I eventually quit the retail to work at the bakery full time.
There were a few times that I considered just staying with that bakery, instead of being my own boss. But ultimately I needed room to be myself, do things my own way and create a world of my own.
After three years of working at that mom & pop style bakery I broke away to work for myself. And that lead to very, VERY trying times at home.
I didn’t know what the heck I was doing, where to go, or how to really even start running a business. There was a lot of soul searching, some full out panic attacks, and a realization of what was most important in my life.
After 2.5 years working from home, I got a little push from the local health authorities. Because I had my business on facebook, I was in violation of the local cottage laws and I was issued a Cease and Desist letter…and that’s how I knew it was time to get a studio.
Thankfully I was pushed into making a decision to move forward with becoming legal OR stop altogether and “get a real job”. My home business was shut down Feb 8, 2017 and my little studio opened Sept 9, 2017.
How would you describe your cake style? And how long was it until you actually felt like you found your cake identity? I imagine it involved alot of self exploration and experimentation.
I have no idea how to describe my cake style…Weird? Eclectic? Whimsical? Magical. Yep – magical.
I’m not sure I’ve found my cake identity. Perhaps it is ever changing.
At the mom & pop bakery I learned to work with American buttercream, and it is so versatile that it has become my medium of choice. I used to love paper dolls & pop up books when I was very young, so I gravitate toward a flat, 2D style of art.
I love mixing both flat, 2D illustrations with 3D buttercream elements. I think once I got the guts to open my studio and put myself out there, I decided that I’m not doing all this work and taking all these financial risks to make things that don’t bring me joy.
It doesn’t bring me joy to copy cake designs or work in styles that are pretty mainstream. I want to create something unique and thoughtful, something that transports you just for an instant to a different place and time.
I want my clients to get something uniquely Twelve Five Cakery, something memorable. Once I opened the studio, I felt empowered to turn down clients that wanted something more mainstream. I desperately want my clients to be happy, and I have no problem turning down an order and directing them to another baker that is a better fit for the design.
Your work is so beautifully hand crafted and you can really see how much thought goes into developing and creating each piece. The detail in each cake is incredible! What’s your usual process for designing and creating your cakes? Do your clients tend to give you a lot of design freedom?
That is very kind. My clients do allow freedom. I do my best work for them when they can just let me create.
I like to ask about the event colors, style of the event, invitation, etc. Most children’s parties, I tend to design from the invitation. Most moms that contact me coordinate their party decor from the invite, so it makes sense for me to use the invitation to inspire the cake design. But sometimes that isn’t the case at all.
I really just try to read between the lines of an email or pickup on the client’s personality on the phone. You can tell when you speak to people, if they are more reserved or fun & funky. I consider all of those details when I pitch a design to the client.
Usually when a potential client contacts me for availability and pricing, I come back with a design idea with the quote. That gives them the opportunity to say no to the price and the design.
Of course they can’t see what’s in my head, so there’s a good deal of trust they have to have in me.
Where do you turn to for inspiration? I know I personally seek inspiration or ideas from other industries, like jewellery or polymer clay sculptures.
I love instagram. I follow several illustrators, jewelry artists, painters, clay sculptors. I just love unique textures and pairing interesting color schemes.
I do follow some cake people, but I go through cycles of deleting all cake people, especially when I find they are encroaching on my creative ideas.
Do you have any advice for people who want to stand out from the cake crowd and find their own unique cake style?
Play with different mediums. Try everything. You’ll know when something gives you joy.
Look for inspiration outside of the cake world if you want to stand out in the cake community. There really are no rules. No matter what style you create, if you do it with passion you will eventually attract your people.
Someone out there wants what’s in your head, you just don’t know it yet.