Most stories about professional bakers begin at childhood with a flour-covered tot standing at a mixing bowl. This is not the story of Lily Fischer and Nima Etemadi of Cake Life Bake Shop, which opened last fall in Fishtown, selling cakes and pastries. It also has a coffee bar.
Their story was made for TV. They're college friends from Sarah Lawrence outside of New York City – Fischer hailing from the city's Chestnut Hill section, Etemadi from Vancouver, British Columbia. Fischer, now 35, went on to become a preschool teacher at the Friends Center in Center City. Etemadi, 36, worked in publishing.
Lily Fischer: One day, a friend and I made decorative cupcakes for one of the staff. They looked like sunflowers. The parents were like, "Who made these?" One of the moms asked me to make Pokemon cupcakes for her kid's birthday. All of a sudden, it was play by day, bake by night. It really felt like I had two jobs. I was living in South Philly and had a tiny kitchen. My boyfriend at the time, who's now my husband … I took over his kitchen. I remember being like "Don't put anything in the freezer. All my butter is in there."
I loved doing it because it was creative and fun and made people happy. I had been looking at graduate school programs for early childhood education. But I really liked baking and my entrepreneurial spirit. I thought: "Hmm, you know what's cheaper and easier to get into? Culinary school." So I thought, "Hey, why don't I try a baking and pastry program?" The Art Institute had one.
While I was there, I had the [worst] website. I was slinging cupcakes. I got a call from [the Food Network show] Cupcake Wars. They said they had seen my website and they asked me to audition. They said, "We don't care about your cupcakes. We want to see personality." I was like, "I got personality!"
I missed all of my final exams to fly out to L.A. to do the show, and I won. With the prize money, I was able to invest in a commercial kitchen in the Globe Dye Works building. Then Cupcake Wars asked me to come back to do a champion episode. My friend who had done it the first time — she didn't want to do it. I was wondering, "Who can do this show with me?" I thought, "Nima!"
Nima Etemadi: I grew up in a Persian household and community, and I was very interested in cooking from an early age, partially because of growing up Persian and being amongst Canadians and seeing this other food that I didn't have access to. We always ate Persian food at home, so I was fascinated by what I call "white people food." It was this very exotic thing. I would bring home recipes from school for, say, chocolate chip cookies.
Eventually, I graduated from high school kind of early and ended up enrolling in culinary school when I was 17. I worked at a few restaurants. I catered illegally out of my house. I decided I didn't want to be a line cook for the rest of my life. Maybe I should consider going to school. That led me to Sarah Lawrence and then to Lily, in turn.
Lily Fischer: Nima was living in New York City. He also had quit his job and went to pastry school [at French Culinary Institute]. I convinced him to come to L.A. to do the show with me. Literally our third time ever baking together was on TV. We got second place.
Nima Etemadi: That led us down a path of thinking, "If we're doing the same thing at the same time, we should at least think about joining forces." We started this period of me spending the week in Philly, working on the business with Lily, and just spending the weekends at home. Eventually, we formed a partnership and I moved here.
What's your biggest challenge as a business?
Nima Etemadi: I think the speed at which we expanded. The opening of the shop was a challenge, at least at first, to keep up with. We went from having [a staff of four], including us, to — I think, now, 22. That also brings a certain level of fulfillment in itself, too. There's something really nice about having a team that's functioning well together as they're supporting each other.
You do a lot of work to support the LGBTQA community, including your hiring.
Nima Etemadi: I'm transgender. It's been a very personal connection for both of us really. Lily has known me for the whole time through my first identifying as trans, as well as different stages of that transition. Sarah Lawrence is also very LGBTQ-plus friendly school. We've had a lot of friends on all parts of that spectrum. It's just been very important to us to carry that openness into creating a workplace.
How has the reception from the neighborhood been?
Lily Fischer: I think it's been pretty great. If your product is delicious, people will shop. Not everything here is super high-end. Certainly we make wedding cakes that can be $2,000, but there is something for everyone. People like that we're the owners. We both live in the neighborhood. We're here all the time.
Nima Etemadi: We've certainly been very open about being a trans/woman-owned business. We are liberal in our politics and we haven't hidden that. I know we have a lot of customers that don't share those political beliefs. Everyone's been very respectful.
Lily Fischer: We feel very embraced. I was really proud of Nima when he wanted to be so open about being trans. I think that even in the LGBTQ-plus community, trans kids are so marginalized. I think it's starting to change. It's great that kids can read about Nima and be like "Hey!"