As well as creating some of the most incredible cakes and sugar sculptures the world has ever seen, being the genius behind a ridiculous number of incredible displays and exhibits at cake shows across the globe AND running her own very successful online school of sugar art, Avalon Yarnes is quite simply a delight to know.
As featured way back in Something Sweet: Issue 1 earlier this year, she also recently launched The Cake and Cookie Planner – the essential tool to help sugar artists of all kinds pull themselves up out of chaos and give them the tools to help organise their business and creative lives!
After chatting to Avalon briefly earlier this month, I realised that it had been an absolute AGE since we had had a proper catch up and so I decided that this needed to be rectified immediately. And you’ll be pleased to know that I brought you guys along for the ride… 😉
Avalon my dear, how are you?
Hey Rob! I’m doing quite well. I’m just sitting on my flight to SoFlo right now, gearing up for a very welcome weekend of cake madness.
First, let me wish you the hugest of congratulations on the success of Avalon Cakes School of Sugar Art. How did you originally devise the idea for your sugar school and what was the journey like, bringing it to life?
Thank you, Rob! What a great question! I’d been working in the bakery industry for 15 years at the time and had been working with custom cakes for about ten.
At the beginning of my custom cake journey (after being inspired by the fabulous Food Network Challenge), I had worked in a cake studio under someone else, which allowed me to really hone in on my skills, explore and troubleshoot. I left the studio I was working for and went on to pursue my own dreams in cake, even though I didn’t really know what direction I wanted to go.
Avalon Cakes (before it was the school) became my side gig “cake studio”. While I was doing cakes on the side, I had a full-time job as a bakery buyer for a separate company that I worked at for about 50 hours a week. Avalon Cakes was side gig that I absolutely loved, and, let’s be honest, was where my heart was at.
Like a lot of cakers, I really loved the art of creating crazy cakes – although quite frankly, I could do without the clients and the baking part! 😉 I just wanted to push cake and sugar work to the limits and experiment and explore techniques to my heart’s desire. I wanted to be part of the movement of making cake the next ‘fine art’ medium.
Anywho, the idea of going full-time with Avalon Cakes (the cake studio) didn’t feel sustainable at the time. My boyfriend, Zach, and I weren’t in a position to take such a huge financial risk, so I started to dive into the cake community online, where I found so much joy in helping other cakers troubleshoot their cake dilemmas and discovered that I LOVED TEACHING.
And I particularly loved teaching with the approach that I would have found super valuable when I first started. Now, Zach (the boyfriend) had lots of experience in filming, so he and I started toying with the idea of filming some online tutorials. And although he had the tools and I had lots of ideas that I wanted to share, we didn’t really come into it with a strategy or anything in the beginning. However, we put our first tutorial out there to the public on my Facebook business page (which I had been working on growing for some time) and the response surpassed our expectations. We were filled with inspiration after that, so we did another and another.
We were starting to build something – a new path for my company… heck, it was really a new business altogether. I had always seen membership models as something that just made sense for both myself and my consumer however, it wasn’t until we were forced into a corner that the idea was pushed into a plan.
I got demoted from my bakery buyer position. They knew (and if I’m honest, I knew) that my heart wasn’t in it – I snuck a fair amount of Facebook time in during work hours – naughty, I know. But as a result, I was demoted and found myself at a crossroads: go back to working in a bakery or make the leap and take on Avalon Cakes – the new Avalon Cakes – full-time. That night, we made a decision: it was time to go all in on the idea we had been stewing on for months. It was time to start an online school!
Were there any hiccups along the way?
Oh boy, were there hiccups! I had decided to go at it alone – I’m a bit of a DIYer – and I like to figure things out and do them by myself.
I don’t necessarily consider myself a control freak, but when it comes to my vision, I just find it easier to do it myself. I decided to wear all the hats, building the website in an eight-month labour of love and figuring out all of the marketing and branding, etc.
With all that DIYing, tons of problems came up that delayed the progress and it was a TON of work. In fact, it continues to be – and always will be – a ton of work. But, at the time, it was extremely stressful as we lived in a very small cabin in the middle of nowhere and were both home all day working on making this thing come to life.
It challenged our relationship, our patience and we were running out of money to live, so, let’s just say ‘launch day’ was bit of a nail-biter.
But you made it in the end and the school continues to grow from strength to strength. Now, why should people sign up for your School of Sugar Art? Who would it suit?
I’d like to think we have a little something for everyone, so it’s hard to just say, “If you’re a beginner, then this is for you.” I try to teach in a fashion where, hopefully, anyone can learn and everyone can gain something.
We particularly pride ourselves on our video style because we spend a lot of time editing our videos so that students have a balance in their experience. We try to ensure that we explain in sufficient detail the ‘whys’, so that we aren’t just regurgitating steps at you. I’m using cocoa butter to paint this and these are all of the reasons why…
We’re not fast-forwarding through everything, but, at the same time, we’re also not forcing you to sit through 8 hours of footage while we make a cake.
If you like innovation, in-depth explanations and practical approaches to cake art, then we’re your cup of tea!
I’ve got to say though, our little community is wonderful too – especially if you find it hard to find a place to be heard in the cake community.
And the tutorials are not the only thing the site has to offer – I also love all the little tools we have on the site, like the cake calculators. We’ve got a lot of those little things that we like to think makes us a big difference to your day-to-day caking experience.
How can I find out more?
You can head directly to our website!
Earlier this year, you also launched The Cake and Cookie Planner, which my regular readers will have seen way back in Something Sweet: Issue 1. Can you tell us a bit more about it?
Oh… The Cake and Cookie Planner has been a monster of a project, but so very rewarding.
The idea of a dedicated planner for the cake world had passed through my mind so many times. I’m a system kinda girl and I do like my lists. I honestly think it’s the only way to keep the chaos less… chaotic!
However, it had been languishing on my inexhaustible list of ideas for a while – you know, that list we all have of ‘ideas I’m going to get around to someday’.
It wasn’t until one of my members, Britney, posted, ‘Every year I dread searching for a great planner, but if anyone could create a great one, it would be you!’ This, along with a ton of supporting comments underneath lit a fire under me! There is nothing like a bit of idea-validation to give you the confidence to move forward.
Coincidentally, my very close friend, Shawna McGreevy’s husband, Thomas was starting a new company to help influencers create their products. Shawna and Thomas actually approached me around the same time, asking if I’d like to be their ‘beta’ run.
It seems the stars had aligned, my friend and we started off on an adventure together. While Thomas helped source the manufacturing of the product, I started creating the systems, graphics and much more besides.
Like most things, it was a lot more work than we had originally thought it would be – like I said, I am a DIYer at heart – so I had to have my hands on almost everything! And the Cake Sketching Templates, which were originally just an accessory within the planner, ended up growing into their own product line, after tons of customers requested them.
But anyway, back your original question… ha ha! The Cake and Cookie Planner is a fully-realised system for any sweet-makin’ creator to use, to organise their clients, their ideas and all of the daily tasks associated with making cakes! I’ve seen it used by everyone from hobby bakers all the way up to fully-fledged, store-front bakeries.
What do I need to do to get my hands on one?
They are available at my dedicated website along with our Cake Sketching Templates – which have been a big hit with cake decorators to help them sketch cakes quickly, professionally and accurately.
We do frequently sell out, but should have more in stock by the end of May 2018. The best thing to do is to get on the ‘waiting list’ to ensure you get notified when they are back in stock. You can find the sign-up for that on the website’s homepage.
I know some UK peeps have been put off from buying one by the shipping costs (they’re pretty darn heavy guys) – are there any plans to find a UK distributor in the future? Or perhaps bring them over yourself, next time you’re here?
This is why I wish that Star Trek was real and I could just ‘beam them up, Scotty’!
Yeah, international shipping has been… well, a bit of a pain. Who’d have thought that it would cost so much to ship 5lbs overseas? We’ve explored every route and haven’t found a better option for shipping than our regular post service as yet. When coupled with some country’s customs charges, it can be a pricey ordeal. And trust me, it’s just as frustrating for us because it breaks our hearts that people who want them can’t get their hands on one.
Right now, because we’ve put a lot into the quality of the item, we aren’t set up for wholesale with the full Planner just yet, but we are hoping to fix that in the future. However, we will have our Cake Sketching Templates available in select locations in the UK soon – along with Canada, Australia and more too.
Now, as you mentioned above, you’re very good friends with Shawna McGreevy and you often collaborate on projects. Is it strange that you both also run online schools that are essentially in competition with each other?
Oh, NOW the real questions come out! 😉 I like your style sir!
In all seriousness, Shawna is my homie – my lobster friend (yes, a Friend’s reference).
When we met, we just clicked and, when you are truly friends first, business will always come second. Not to mention, we just do a really good job of honestly supporting one another and respecting each other.
Like any successful friendship, we’re open with each other from the get-go about everything and we tend to do a good job of staying out of each other’s ‘lanes.’
If we feel like something we want to do might be too close to the other person’s creation or tutorial, we talk about it first. She knows my intentions are always in the right place and I know the same, so it’s kind of difficult to feel like we are in competition. And while we know that it’s not feasible for everyone to be members of both of our schools, we do have a lot of overlapping members!
So, what is next for Avalon Cakes? What are you working on at the moment?
The Cake and Cookie Planner & Templates have been such labours of love and real time-suckers, so now that they’re up and running, we’re looking forward to bringing even more love and nurturing to our membership – that’s my first love.
We do have some fun things coming up in 2019, but you know… secrets are more fun when they are kept… 😉
Ahhhhhh… come on. Can’t you even give us a hint?
What did I just say, Rob? Ok, a little hint… a tour might be in the works.
Oooooh! Exciting! So, tell us a bit more about you. Who IS Avalon Yarnes?
I’m just another woman behind her computer screen, trying to create something. I feel extremely blessed to walk the path I’m on and I am extremely grateful that I get to play with cake as art and be an entrepreneur.
If you had asked me five years ago where I’d be, or what I was going to be doing now, I would probably have said, ‘working at the bakery’ –not mine, but Tony’s (the company I was working for at the time). I literally never saw this coming, but sometimes you’re given choices and those decisions can lead to amazing things. And, as a result, YOU grow and you learn what you’re capable of.
A normal day in the life of me is kind of, well… unbalanced, if I’m honest. Self-care has been coming second these last few years, which is something I’m also trying to change this year. I am still figuring it all out! Three days with no showering is far too regular occurrence. People should realise that when they see my – or anyone else’s – photos, framing some sort of ‘beautiful life’ on social media, that it’s not always that pretty and it definitely doesn’t come easy. We’re all just figuring it out as we go.
But with all that being said, I do like long walks on beaches and blah blah blah… 😉
Where do you find your inspiration for the masterpieces that you create?
My inspiration comes from all-the-things! My Pinterest ‘pins’ and Instagram ‘favourites’ overflow with inspiration from other artists – but rarely other cake artists, actually. Primarily it’s sculptors, painters and the like. I love to bring ideas and inspirations from other ‘art worlds’ into the edible art world.
I will also tell you this: I’m ALWAYS inspired to do better than the last cake I made. I am always trying to critique myself, learn from it and grow. Looking back at my first bust and comparing it to my most recent one, you can see so many differences in approach and technique. I like to tweak and toy with different approaches and that is why it can be hard for me to answer questions from students – because I’ll usually have a different answer, depending on the particular cake or even the day of the week. However, I think they find each answer valuable, as they allow them to create their own catalogue of techniques.
Reassure us though! Do you still have the occasional cake disaster?
Oh yeah, especially with baking! I live at a really high altitude, so it can be challenging to bake a GOOD cake. I am constantly tweaking to find the right balance, although I often come up short with a big old crater in the centre.
What would you say has been the most challenging project you have taken on in your career?
I’d say my Cotton Candy life-sized showpiece for the America’s Cake Fair. It was my first time creating a life-sized person from head to toe out of sugar.
Add the trials and tribulations of travelling, particularly in a climate we weren’t used to, in Florida, and it was quite the undertaking. Luckily, I had a team of fabulous cake friends on hand, who helped me pull it all together in the end. We actually created a little (and by little, I mean huge) documentary, which you can find on the school website if anyone is interested in seeing more of the behind-the-scenes of that project.
I know this is probably a tricky question to answer, but what would you say is your favourite cake creation you have ever made?
It really is a tricky question, Rob!! Like asking a mom to pick a favourite child! It is hard, but I’d have to say Cotton Candy. I was really proud of what we accomplished.
Lady Gaga and Bill Murray are tied for a strong second though 🙂
Are there any cake projects that are currently languishing on your ‘wannado’ list that you would love to get to in 2018?
Creating busts has always been one of my favourite things (that might be obvious), however creating portrait busts of actual people is still new for me and very challenging!
I’d like to get a few more portraits under my belt this year, but you’ll have to wait and see to find out who… 🙂
And do you have any other goals for the year?
My main goal, like I mentioned, is to create more of a balance in my life. I tend to put all my focus and priority into my business. I would really like to take some of that focus and put in back into some self-care and into my most beloved relationships.
Now, I may have heard some rumours that you are planning to return to the UK, later in 2018. Can you confirm or deny these rumours?
Oh, the rumours! I probably started them… Hahaha!
Unfortunately, we are on the fence right now and, depending on how some other things pan out, we might be and we might not.
Stupid ‘other things’, always getting in the way of good cake fun!
What would you say to anyone considering getting into cake artistry?
I would say jump in and PLAY!
Start with some basic courses to get your essential techniques down and you can find a ton of information online from myself and from lots of other sources.
And once you’ve got the basics down, explore! Got an idea? Try it. Don’t hold back. Plaaay!
Also, give yourself a good amount of time to experiment with cake decorating as a hobby before you run into creating a business out of cake. Friends and family always like receiving cake!
What would be your top cake decorating tip for my readers?
Get your hands dirty. Literally and figuratively.
The only way to accomplish your goals is (as cliché as it sounds) to practice. I didn’t come out of the womb making the cakes that I do today. I have had to practice and refine my skills constantly. My first cakes are a testament to that! 😉
Thank you so much for the catch up, my friend. I do hope we’ll see you over in the UK soon…
This was super fun, Rob. Thanks for having me and keep it up!
Avalon Cakes School of Sugar Art is an online cake decorating learning platform which serves as your one-stop-shop for all your learning needs, with all the HD video tutorials you could ever need to create wonderful cakes and bakes – delivered both by Avalon along with some of the best cake artists in the business.
To find out more, visit the school’s official website and while you’re there, why not sign up to Avalon Cakes School of Sugar Art’s newsletter to receive FREE access to Avalon’s Wafer Paper Filigree Flower Tutorial.