Nancy Zhou is the founder of Silver Whisk Bake Shop, named Best of Boston® 2020 – Best Cakes by Boston Magazine. Nancy believes that every day should be a special occasion and that having something delicious is the way to do just that. We couldn’t agree more. We talked to her about starting a bake shop, how she develops new flavors and styles, and what goes into baking full time.
Start by telling us what Silver Whisk is and what what you’re all about.
Silver Whisk Bake Shop is an online-based cake and confection boutique based in the Boston area specializing in timelessly elegant designs with a modern twist. We ship confections nationwide (lower 48 states) and cakes are available for pickup and delivery in the Boston area and beyond. Weddings, corporate gifting, events, special occasions… you name it, we love to be a part of the party! We’re proud to provide our customers an elevated cake and confection experience where our confections are almost too pretty to eat (almost!). We don’t want your desserts to just look pretty, we want them to taste amazing too.
They definitely are so beautiful! How did you get started in baking, and did you always know that you wanted to start a bakery?
I never intended to be a baker. I love food and always wanted to go to culinary school to become a chef. After getting my Accounting degree and doing all the things I felt like I was supposed to do, I felt I “earned” the right to enroll in the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts Certificate Program to learn more about food! I gave it my all. I was working during the day, attending culinary school at night, worked at a restaurant, and volunteered for different cooking gigs. Even after giving it 200%, it turns out I’m not much of a chef but my baking wasn’t too shabby! One day, one of my friends was getting married and he asked me to make his wedding cake. How hard could it be? I agreed and made his wedding cake.
I remember how awful the whole process was… I was even crying at some point and I can still feel the anxiety of transporting the wedding cake to the venue, ugh. Somehow, by the grace of the Cake Gods, I pulled it off and I actually made his wedding cake! I posted a photo of his wedding cake online. Friends noticed and started to ask me to make their cakes. The more I made, the better I got. I was starting to get orders more frequently and decided it was finally time to make it into a formal business!
What’s your favorite part about baking and running Silver Whisk?
There are a lot, but my favorite thing is how Silver Whisk Bake Shop has humbled me. I didn’t fully understand the hard work behind what actually goes into running a business. I knew it would be difficult, but actually going through the challenges is a different story. By going through these obstacles, I have never felt closer to the people I love, happier to give, and more appreciative when receiving. Silver Whisk Bake Shop has made me confront my biggest fears and taught me that I can make it to the other side alright. I can do it! Without Silver Whisk, I would’ve never been able to meet other incredible entrepreneurs and discover this whole world of running a business. For that, I’m very grateful. This was the missing part of me I’ve been looking for for a long time.
We have to ask: how do you get such a smooth finish on a cake? And how do you figure out how to make new designs?
With a good bench scraper and a whole lot of practice! Design inspiration comes from so many different things. The last inspiration came from some gorgeous floor tiles I saw in a bakery! “THAT would make an amazing design on a cake!” The one before that came from a gown I saw on Instagram. The way it flowed… oh my word. It was captivating. Paintings, buildings, flowers, materials, patterns, fashion… anything beautiful is what I want to translate on a cake.
How do you develop cakes/components that use flavors you don’t personally like? Is there anything you wont use in a cake because you don’t like it?
I love it all! I’m always open to suggestions and know that everyone has their personal preference for flavor and style. The only time I won’t put something in a cake is because I firmly believe that it will not meet your expectations of what you believe it will be.
You obviously see a lot of fancy cakes- what would/will your dream wedding cake be like?
Understated elegance, romantic, with a modern twist… an all-white cake delicately adorned with handmade, paper-thin, almost translucent white flowers. Le sigh…
Often the hardest part is finding enough people to buy your product. How have you managed to build up clientele and make it a viable business and actually grow?
I was building Silver Whisk Bake Shop alongside my full-time job for years, so I could afford to pursue opportunities that didn’t provide any financial return at that time. I volunteered to make cakes for wedding photoshoots, I reached out to wedding industry vendors I admired, sent cake samples to them, I went to a ton of networking events and volunteered to be a sponsor with my desserts whenever I could, I took all types of orders and rarely said no. It was an all-out hustle during the first few years. AKA, I put in a lot of work with not a whole lot of dollars in return. That paid off big time and ultimately built the foundation of my supportive and loyal customers and a network of businesses I trust and have a blast working with.
One thing I wish I knew sooner about making a viable business and building revenue faster is scalability. I used to only make custom cakes, but now offer a set cake menu and confections as well. If I didn’t have a full time job at that time, I would’ve probably focused on scalability much earlier.
Know your numbers, and if you don’t, that’s okay. Work backwards. How much do you want to make a year? How much do you need to make a year? How many products can/do you want to make a week? Can you actually make all of that? How much does that cost in materials and labor? What’s your breakeven amount you need to make? The numbers will show you what’s possible, what’s not, and how things can look different with some changes. Figure out what your happy balance is.
Can we talk about all that networking a bit more for a second? You build a lot of partnerships and collaborations- how did you really get started with that and do you have any tips for building a business through these tactics?
Before you reach out to someone, think about what you actually want out of this partnership. Is it increased sales? Is it exposure? Engagement in Instagram? The experience of working with them? Then think about what’s in it for them. How can they benefit from a partnership with you? It needs to work for both parties. How can you help each other grow? After you’ve thought about that, reach out to them whichever way you’re most comfortable with. Don’t be the person that messages someone for just pure gain. That’s annoying. Yes, it will help you, but what’s in it for them too?
Businesses encounter so many sales-y people or people who want to leverage what they have for their personal gain (hello, LinkedIn messages!). Be interested in working together and building a genuine connection of wanting to help each other out. Be mindful of who they are- big corporation? Be concise and respectful of their time. Small business? Get to know them, what their name is, where are they from, etc. You’ll get the hang of how to talk to different types of people the more you practice. If they’re not into collaborating with you, that’s okay! Nothing was lost, right? You tried and that’s the best thing you could’ve done for yourself. Go you!
That makes so much sense and is a really smart way to go about it. With less weddings and big events last year, did you shift the business at all?
I took the focus off of custom cakes to build a menu of designer cakes customers can choose and added confections that could be shipped nationwide. I love custom work, but because events were much smaller, I had to make up the loss with a large amount of smaller cakes for the smaller events that were happening. One large wedding cake might be equivalent to four smaller cakes. Because I’m a one-woman show, there was no possible way to provide the same level of service and time with each customer for a small cake as I’d be able to for a larger custom cake, so I streamlined the process. Customers can now order their cakes directly online and choose their designs, flavor, size, and pickup/delivery times. My new website was a total game changer! It made the ordering process so much easier for my customers and saved me a lot of time with administrative work.
The second shift I made was offering confections that can be shipped nationwide. This provided a second stream of revenue and a way for me to offer my products to a larger audience beyond the New England area. It’s been an eye-opening experience and I’ve been having so much fun creating gourmet chocolates and The Petite Four for my customers!
Ooh tell us about these new products that can be shipped right to us!
The Petite Four is my baby. These little beauties are my pride and joy. They’re pre-assorted flavors of bite-size morsels of scratch-made cakes paired with Swiss meringue buttercream encased in a thin, rich coat of couverture chocolate. They are decorated by hand one by one. They’re truly a labor of love. People have sent these as client gifts, gifts to colleagues, treats for friends and families, and treats for themselves. I can’t wait to see where they will be a year from now!
I’ve since added gourmet chocolate bars to the menu too. They’re so pretty and delicious! One of the bars is called Lux White Chocolate which is made of creamy, smooth Belgian chocolate, studded roasted pistachios with sea salt, crushed rose petals, strawberries, and adorned with edible 24k gold leaf. I am falling in love with chocolate! Don’t be surprised if you see some more chocolates added to the menu!
Those sound amazing. A lot of work, but amazing. Through it all, how do you stay motivated? Inspired?
I surround myself around people who I want to be like and whose qualities I admire. They are truly inspiring and learning more about them and learning from them keeps me motivated and inspired. Another big thing is collaborations. Working with other businesses with different ideas and perspectives is eye-opening. One idea I never thought of leads to another which leads to another. Then the excitement kicks in and I’m pumped to get started!
What is one thing you wish someone told you when you started the business?
Someone did tell me this, but just later in my business: Don’t worry about the mechanics of how it’s going to get done, just get it done. Worry about the mechanics later.
Who knew a trip to my chiropractor would be so enlightening! He’s awesome.
Love it! What would you say has been the most challenging part of it all?
The weight of knowing every success and mistake is on me. I don’t know everything and sometimes I find it difficult to know where to start when I encounter a problem I need to solve. I figure it out eventually, but it’s a wild ride in between. Having a business makes your strengths, weaknesses, and insecurities rise to the surface so you can’t hide from them and that is definitely the most challenging part of running a business. That’s why I left my stable, comfortable job. I just needed to grow into the person I knew I wanted to become, and owning a business would make me get there faster.
Yes, the roller coaster of entrepreneurship for sure. Speaking of that, what does your personal support system look like?
I LOVE my support system! They are my world. My support system is made up of so many different people: my boyfriend, friends, family, customers (I have the BEST customers), colleagues, business groups I’m a part of. I feed off their positive vibes and honest feedback!
How do you stay organized with it all?
Good question. Got any tips for me? Haha! It’s an ongoing struggle!
Nope, but glad to see we’re all in the same boat! What do you like to do outside of work?
I love driving around in new neighborhoods, park, and walk around anywhere that seems interesting. I love streets with a bunch of mom and pop shops I can walk into and look around. My favorite thing is grocery shopping though 😀 I love food! Better yet, bring me to a gourmet specialty store and my happiness is set for the week!
Any morning routine/thing you like to always do to start the day on a good note?
I have a gratitude journal. I write one thing I’m grateful for and then I write one thing I’m grateful for in the future (as if it already happened). This is not my idea, this is an idea I heard from a Clubhouse chat. For example, I’m grateful for Alessandra Pollina who is one of the kindest, giving, and most down-to-earth gals I know. I’m grateful for my home in Brookline with a backyard that looks like a scene out of The Secret Garden. Just for the record, I DON’T have a home in Brookline but that’s my future scenario I’m grateful for 😉
Favorite guilty pleasure?
Good sushi and/or Thai takeout in bed and watching something really good on TV. No one else can be in the room. Also, I love going to Bazaar in Allston and getting Russian food and then also eating it in bed 😀 Rye bread and mushroom pâté all day! Don’t judge me!
Any plans for the future that you can/want to share?
Yes! I’m working hard on growing a strong collection of gourmet confections in addition to the chocolate bars and The Petite Four that’s offered now.