Working “Eight Days a Week” at A to Z Cakes
A to Z Cakes is an inspiring entrepreneurial tale based right here in Quechee. Abbi and Dan Courtemanche have built a successful cake making company out of what Abbi describes as a “happy accident.” Not quite ten years ago, Abbi and Dan were planning their wedding. For reasons most of us could not fathom, Abbi decided that she could make their wedding cake despite having never attempted such a fete before. The cake was such a success that wedding guests asked for the name of the baker. Abbi was shortly hired to make what would be the second of many cakes to come.
Abbi and Dan both grew up in Hartland. Abbi went to school in Quechee and then in New York briefly to focus on her dance studies. Abbi came back home to graduate from Hartford High where she met Dan. He is now an accountant in Hanover, but he “moonlights as a baker” for Abbi. The first few years, they baked the cakes at home in Hartland. Six years ago the couple bought a house in Quechee and refurbished the garage into a commercial kitchen. Along with being a home-based business, Abbi insists the whole endeavor wouldn’t be possible without her and Dan’s extended families. Both families come together to help with anything from transportation to babysitting, even learning to make sugar flowers when needed. An extreme example of such support includes Dan successfully lifting an 80-lb cake and sprinting it across a lawn as storm clouds ominously approached the wedding scene.
Self-taught in the art of cake making
Abbi’s education has a core of art and dance, and she still teaches dance part-time as a kind of reprieve from cake making. Abbi has never had any formal training in baking, let alone sculpting with fondant, or reinforcing eight-tier cakes with inner hardware. When you look at pictures of Abbi’s cakes, it’s difficult to believe that she is self-taught, but she promises it’s true, saying it has taken copious amounts of creativity, perfectionism, and optimism to lead the way. The cakes speak for themselves, with each being completely customized and unique; the average cake takes 15-25 hours, but the larger, more intricate cakes can take up to a month to finish.
Growing their business through “word of mouth”
In the beginning, Abbi and Dan didn’t even know what a popular wedding destination Vermont and the Upper River Valley had become. For the past nine years, the home-based business has continued to grow organically with 75 percent of the A to Z Cakes business being weddings. “It’s particularly fun when we get to make a wedding cake and then the couple returns for a baby shower or anniversary cake,” she says. A company website (atozcakes.com) is kept up-to-date with pictures of new creations and customer reviews, but this is the extent of their advertising. Abbi and Dan have focused on local business relationships instead. The Quechee Club and The Quechee Inn at Marshland Farm both refer potential customers to their business. It’s a community-based business in a sense, as these local business relationships have fostered the “word of mouth” tradition that has driven the company’s growth.
The A to Z Cake story has many elements of the best things of the Upper Valley and Vermont culture including independent hard work, supportive families, and a supportive business environment to help foster the endeavor. The story even starts with a bit of a fairytale touch: a bride decides to make her own cake. While looking at the beauty and construction of their cakes, I ask Abbi if any customer request has caused her to be disheartened or worried about her ability to pull it off (I even tell her it can stay off the record). She doesn’t hesitate to say that the unexpected challenges are what keep her motivated to learn and accomplish each customer request. “It really is a labor of love,” she laughs with all seriousness. The family now includes a daughter, just about to start kindergarten, prompting Abbi to say that there are no changes in their business plans in the near future with regards to slowing down or speeding up. For now, Abbi and Dan will be keeping steady with their very busy craft of making a “work-life balance” that includes working eight days a week.