Cakes Made With Pride
Tom Rosa | Cake and Art
Kneaded: L.A. Bread Stories celebrates Los Angeles’ history, heritage, and communities through the lens of bread.
Tom Rosa, owner of Cake and Art in West Hollywood, shares memories of the rush for cupcakes the day gay marriage was legalized in California and of the hundreds of cakes baked for same-sex “commitment ceremonies” decades before. Tom believes a delicious, beautiful cake should be available to anyone who wants it, regardless of your budget, celebrity status, politics, or whom you love.
There aren’t that many objects in a person's life that are consistent, but a birthday cake is one of them. Cakes are memories.
HOW DID CAKE AND ART GET STARTED IN L.A.?
Cake and Art opened in 1976 and was started by Glenn von Kickle–who I met through a mutual friend. I was a writer, and when I met Glenn, I told him, "Oh my god, you're a fascinating person. You're interesting!" He wanted me to put a book together about Cake and Art, so I learned a lot about him [and how the business started], eventually becoming his business partner, and now I am the owner.
Glenn had street smarts, never had an art lesson in his life, and was so multi-talented. He and his partner had a bakery in San Diego but didn’t want to do anything traditional, so he started making custom cakes. Several friends kept saying he should come to L.A. because nobody here was doing what he did with cakes. He was 45 years old and openly gay, so when he started looking for a place in LA, his priorities were to find somewhere he could live comfortably and with an audience that would appreciate what he did.
West Hollywood, at the time, was beginning to turn from its Jewish roots into its gay roots, and he found this spot in West Hollywood in the middle of what is called “Boystown.” Back then, the shop's front room had classical music, beautiful artwork on the wall, and beautiful mockups of cake sculptures done on wax paneling– everyone thought it was just an art gallery. He had both worlds in one space, so that is where the name came from– Cake and Art, the land of the literal!
Glenn had a bold personality–he would often call people out, and I told him he needed a buffer between the guests and himself; he replied, “Well, let’s see if you can do any better.” I knew the language and the people, so I offered to try running the art studio. Eventually, he said, “You run the business, and I’ll run the cakes.” I didn’t know how long I would be here, but we worked so well as a tandem team. I was at the forefront of many a phone call to intervene in an argument between Glenn and a customer, but I began to appreciate that personality in this town. He was opinionated, but he knew what he was doing. He worked well with teaching artists how to work. Glenn passed in 2001, but his legacy of selling art through cake continues.
People from all over the world ask me, "How do you start a cake business?" I always say, “You've got to love your customers and don't think you're better than them." I can say this because I'm not a cake artist– I make cakes, but I am the least talented of all my employees. Artists aren’t always “people” people, but I came into this business to work with people.
WHAT MEMORIES ARISE FOR YOU WHEN MAKING CAKES?
There aren’t that many objects in a person's life that are consistent, but a birthday cake is one of them. When my mother passed, I was sent a stack of black and white photos–they were of me with my birthday cake, every year, from age one through seventeen. Cakes are memories. The cakes people order [from us] will become a memory for the event, be it a birthday, an anniversary, graduation, or a wedding.
Cake and Art prides itself in making cakes to celebrate all happy moments for their customers. Pictured here is cake artist Space Kunes adding intricate details to this graduation cake.
Pictured here is cake artist, Rebecca Glatt, expertly designing a truck themed birthday cake.
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We also joke that we are like bartenders for our customers when ordering. People don’t know what to order, so we have to extract–what are their hobbies, what do they like? So we start learning and make something meaningful. [We have been around for so long], that for some, that learning has spanned generations–we made their kid’s cake, then that person had a kid whose cake we made, and now we're making their kid’s kid’s cake. That kind of emotional connection through generations is amazing.
WHAT COMMUNITIES DO YOU SERVE?
When Cake and Art began, cake shows and social media didn’t exist, so introducing yourself to your community was different. In the first week of opening, Candice Bergen and Carrie Fisher were customers, so Hollywood became a part of who we served. Word spread quickly about our custom cakes, and people came in and said, “I want to have something that nobody else has ever done”–and we could do that for them.
I keep up a wall of celebrity photos because people love that they’re getting their cake from the same place as Betty White or Miley Cyrus. The City of Los Angeles asked what we could do for the city’s 200th birthday, and we made a beautiful angel hovering over the city. When the Olympics came, we did a fully sculpted Carl Lewis. When Princess Di and Prince Charles came to visit, the embassy called to say they wanted a portrait cake of the pair. When the producers of the Naked Gun movies wanted a cake that looked like Queen Elizabeth for a comedic scene, it showed we could do it all: we can make cakes for the royals, but we can also make fun of the royals.
We’ve also made cakes for every sitting president since Carter. People ask us if we get upset making cakes for conservative politicians, and I tell them, no, I won’t be upset. Nancy Reagan wanted a replica of her wedding cake for Ronald. She was getting a cake for a man I knew had a very different philosophy from mine. But he’s a human being, and this will make him happy–and it did! If food can unite people, then use it! We're giving joy to people with a cake. When you've been through something like the AIDS crisis, an event that changed the face of West Hollywood, it changes people’s attitudes to make them stronger–it can make them welcoming. Having welcoming arms is the way to make yourself feel good.
Cake and Art
When the Star Wars movie hit its one year release anniversary, Cake and Art was commissioned to design this special cake to celebrate.
Cake and Art
Cake and Art’s whimsical cakes have been featured on the cover of Life Magazine, pictured here is Paul Reuben as Pee-Wee Herman’s holding a birthday cake designed at Cake and Art.
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TELL US ABOUT BAKING CAKES FOR LGBTQ+ COUPLES BEFORE AND AFTER SAME-SEX MARRIAGE WAS LEGALIZED.
In the 50s, 60s, and 70s, there was a quiet underground gay movement in Hollywood, and everybody went to Palm Springs to hold commitment ceremonies. These ceremonies were kept quiet from the world, and we could only say that this cake was for “this family.” Glenn felt stifled by that; he always said, “this is so ridiculous.” He always encouraged people to celebrate that a gay couple had been together for ten years, for thirty years. He would say, “The world outside may not know this about you, but we know. Your friends know.”
When they first legalized gay marriages in California, no one knew how long it would last. A satellite marriage license office in West Hollywood Park was set up about three blocks away, and it seemed like the whole city lined up for weddings. We had couples running in, grabbing cupcakes for their wedding. It became a three-ring circus because nobody knew how long same-sex marriages would stay legal.
I got a call from NBC News in New York; Brian Williams wanted to interview us live, so they brought the film crew into the bakery. I'm listening to the producer talking in New York, and then all of a sudden, on national news, they say, "And now we go to the gay bakery in West Hollywood." I thought, in all of the years that we've been here, I've never been considered "the gay bakery"; it felt like we were outed. I had to stifle a laugh while being interviewed because I was sitting there thinking, what does that mean? What are the parameters of a gay bakery? Is it creative? Is it sensational? Is it fabulous? Do we all dress in rainbow?
Every other phone call was from media outlets. We became the center of that craziness because nobody wanted to make a wedding cake for same-sex marriages, even in Southern California, which shocked me. Couples called me from San Bernardino, Yucaipa, saying they couldn't get a wedding cake. I was shocked that bakeries had turned them down.
I recall a lesbian couple from San Bernardino said, "We have gone to this bakery for a dozen years. They know us well. And when we went into asking them to make our gay wedding cake, they said no, and they pointed to a cross above the counter." They would sell that couple everything else in their bakery, but they wouldn't sell them a wedding cake. When that Colorado bakery refused to make a gay wedding cake and went to the Supreme Court, we were flooded with inquiries about it again. I said bakeries are insane to turn down a new market. If you look at it from the financial side, you’re losing business.
HOW DO YOU HOLD SPACE FOR THE LGBTQ+ COMMUNITY WITHIN YOUR STAFF?
When people apply for the job, I’m very forthright in letting them know we’re in the middle of a gay community. Many of my top cake designers are straight women whose quality of work got them in the door, but we also have people who start crying and thanking us because they’ve been looking for a place they feel comfortable working.
Here we see a Cake and Art staff member creating the intricate and detailed work that goes into each cake.
Geode cakes are a popular request from the Cake and Art team.
From only a few hours in the Cake and Art kitchen, you can easily see the staff support each other's success and growth.
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I had one very talented woman apply, but I got this feeling during the interview [that something was off]. At the end of the interview, she asked, “Queer?” And when I confirmed, she indicated she was not going to take the job. I was happy to give her recommendations for other bakeries where she could apply. A year later, she came back in and asked if I could talk to her grandson [who was queer]. I realized I was the only gay person she knew. It was about helping her get over that apprehension.
HOW DO YOUR CAKES BRING THE COMMUNITY TOGETHER?
Years ago, Glenn was quoted in an article saying, “I want to be able to make cake for the very wealthy and a housewife from West Covina,”-- and we still stand by that philosophy. The one thing about Glenn that I want to emphasize is that he came from nothing. Even though he worked with the world's most famous, most wealthy people, he always made sure he offered cakes that came in under $25 that anybody in Southern California could come in to buy. People will come in and ask what the cheapest cake I can do for them is. I’ll tell them, “$35, but we can still do something really special for you,”, which always shocks them. His mentality was that everybody who walks in the door should be able to get something, and I continue that tradition.
About five years ago, I got a call from a grandma, saying I usually make my granddaughter’s birthday cake, but I found out about you, and I want to get something really special. She described what she wanted and apprehensively asked how much it would cost. When I told her it would be about $50, there was a long pause on her end. She replied, “$50? That can't be right. You make cakes for all these celebrities!” After I assured her it would be $50, I’ll never forget her next question–“Do you deliver to West Covina?” I remembered Glenn’s quote, smiled, and said, “Yes, we deliver to West Covina”–--this is what it's all about. We can make this grandmother in West Covina happy and that to me, is the emotional ride.
EXPLORE MORE FROM CAKE AND ART
To see what’s baking at Cake and Art, go to cakeandart.com or visit them at 8709 Santa Monica Blvd, West Hollywood, CA 90069.
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