In baking, it’s all about the numbers.
Sharon and Dallas Graham’s business endeavors can be summed up as: 38 years, 5,000 wedding cakes and one secret recipe. But digging beneath the layers (of cake), it’s a little more complicated than that.
For years the couple worked together to foster a successful catering and cake business from 1974 to 2012. Their specialty was a white chocolate frosting 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 share the recipe with no one. She wouldn’t give into friends or family’s requests either. Not even her husband knew how to whip up a batch of the special frosting.
Today, seven years after retiring from the business, the secret is finally out.
The first cake
As a young mother of four, Sharon began taking classes on cake decorating so she could embellish cakes for special celebrations. She combined what she learned on the basics of cake decorating with what she already knew about achieving a moist cake.
Then she thought maybe she could harness her baking to generate some extra income by selling wedding cakes. Encouragement came from her instructor, who assured her that a wedding cake is just many cakes put together.
“It was very fulfilling when you get everything done and put together and it turned out right, but also very stressful,” Sharon said.
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 swags and frosting roses — a wedding cake trend at the time. And Sharon used a buttercream frosting recipe she picked up from her mother.
The business grew slowly at first, Sharon said. Cake orders came in here and there for birthdays and anniversary celebrations. But word began to spread and more orders came in for wedding cakes.
Eventually the business grew so large the couple needed more kitchen space and proper licensing. Living in unincorporated King County at the time meant cottage industries — businesses carried out in one’s home — were legal.
So, they remodeled a portion of their downstairs in 1985 and created an area for a bakery. Sharon purchased her commercial equipment at a discounted rate from a man who had given up on his own baking endeavours. Sharon also added catering services to the mix.
Then client after client rolled in, and the business began bringing in just as much — if not more — income than Dallas’ job with Sherwin Willams did.
“It got to the point where I was earning as much as he was,” Sharon said. “So we were really nervous. When do we cut the string?”
Dallas finally “cut the string” and quit his job. He began helping out with the cake business full time. They had a substantial income that remained pretty steady, they said, and although customers aren’t always guaranteed and repeat clients uncommon in the wedding cake business, the baseline was there.
A secret frosting
When Dallas and Sharon’s oldest son David got married in 1988, it was Sharon who made the cake. She used a recipe for a torted cake with a white chocolate frosting, instead of the buttercream frosting she had typically used. And not surprising to Sharon, wedding attendees had a positive response.
Sharon agreed, but thought she could improve the frosting by altering the 1 to 1 ratio of butter to white chocolate. She began to experiment, and by the time she was done she had created her own recipe. It was a frosting that became a signature of her cakes.
Eventually the couple stopped offering the buttercream option. Brides overwhelmingly favored the white chocolate variety.
“It’s not the kind where you just slap some powdered sugar in a bowl and whip it up,” Sharon said. “It’s a little more involved, but it’s very good tasting.”
Dallas noticed frosting left behind on plates at weddings featuring cakes not made by Sharon. But when it was Sharon who baked the cake, there’d be no sign of frosting anywhere.
“Wedding guests would often be scrapping their forks on the plates,” he said.
During their busiest weekends, 10 sometimes even 12 wedding cakes were made from scratch. On top of this, they’d usually cater two or three parties for groups of 150 people or more. About 90 pounds of frosting was required each week.
They did have help from their daughter, part-time employees and a staff of 17 that were called on to be servers and dishwashers.
It was a lot of food, they said. And the couple was working seven days a week, 12 hours a day or more. On the weekends they’d put in 18-hour shifts. Then there was the added stress of needing to have the food and cakes where they needed to be, when they needed to be there, they said. They didn’t stay local either. Cakes were delivered as far north as Canada.
“We never quit,” Sharon said.
Consequently, in 2012, Sharon got sick. She developed high anxiety levels that would send her blood pressure soaring. Her body ached. She had nausea and depression.
“All of a sudden my world crashed and I wasn’t functional for basically seven years,” Sharon said.
She attributes the health issues to the physical and emotional exhaustion that came from her business. And just like that, the 38 years of cake creation and 20 years of catering were over.
Throughout her path to recovery, Sharon felt compelled to finally share the details behind their successful business in a cookbook, “A Collection of Recipes From Sharon’s Catering and Cakes.” The secret frosting recipe is included.
“I don’t want it to disappear when I die,” Sharon said, on her reason for releasing the recipe now. “I want people to still have it if they want to make it. And our family … we won’t be around for when our great-grandchildren get married, for heaven’s sake. But they deserve to have a really good cake with yummy frosting on it too.”
Sharon decided she’d like to get the recipe in the hands of all the brides she created wedding cakes for. They live all over the region on the Eastside, Seattle, Everett and Tacoma.
Looking back on their business together, Sharon and Dallas reminisced over the many stories they collected. There was the “Godzilla bride” who had 12 pages of itinerary and a stopwatch with her at the altar. Everything was planned out to the minute, including the length of her wedding kiss. It was slated for two minutes.
“If they kissed for more than two minutes the reception was going to be over,” Dallas laughed. “We joked, ‘I wonder if she has a script like that for her honeymoon.’”
There was also the woman who came back for a wedding cake for her second wedding, but asked that the Graham’s not share that detail with her groom.
“I had everything right the first time except the guy,” Sharon recalled the bride saying.
During one catering event, the couple worked on the day of their 25th wedding anniversary. The DJ played 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, in life there are some things that can’t be measured.