You are here

Cake printing offers a tasty niche for the specialty market

Inkjet Cake Printing

Over the past few years, cake decoration has grown into a very serious art form. From wedding cakes to birthday cakes, cake artists will tell you that half of the beauty of the cake is in the taste and the other half is all about the presentation. It’s also become a fairly specialized industry with a host of dedicated products. There are specialized airbrushes and carving tools, edible ink sets and fondants, as well as digital printers that output fairly high-resolution edible images directly onto the frosting.

Decorating cakes with edible inkjet inks is not exactly a new process; it has been around for more than 15 years. More recently, however, the technology behind cake printing has been successfully adapted to home-office type printers, which has made the process more affordable for small bakeries and specialty print shops. The shrinking cost of the system gives more options for pastry makers and as well as output providers to produce more personalized designs and patterns. 

Digital technology has taken the cake decorating industry to new levels, as this colorful cake clearly shows. (Image courtesy of PhotoFrost.)

All you need is a desktop photo printer such as a Canon PIXMA, a photo scanner, and compatible cartridges filled with edible inks. Then, replace the photo paper with edible icing sheet media and you’re ready to whip up unique images for one-of-a-kind specialty cake designs.

COOL CAKES ARE IN

The cake decorating industry, especially cool custom cake decorating, has been getting a lot of attention lately thanks to the popularity of reality television shows like Ace of Cakes and Cake Boss. 

“The industry is definitely getting more exposure from shows such as Cake Boss as well as other food reality shows,” says Rick Mayer, vice president at Kopykake, a Torrance Calif, manufacturer/distributor of cake decorating supplies. “The buzz from them has helped generate a stronger demand for our products as both consumers and small businesses look for new ways to be creative. We’ve seen a big spike in our business from the coverage the category is getting on TV.”

“These programs bring the public attention to decorating advances, and they show hobbyist and enthusiasts new cake decorating methods. Generating excitement is always good for a business, on all levels,” says Lew Churnick, president and co-founder of Williston, Fla.-based PhotoFrost Decorating Systems and co-inventor of the PhotoFrost system of Edible Printing.

EARLY PIONEERS

One of the early adopters of cake printing technology was Steve Spurgeon of Boulder, Colo. Spurgeon had worked as a contract product developer for Hewlett-Packard from the mid-to-late 1990s and helped the company launch its DesignJet large-format inkjet printers. Around that same time, he began experimenting on his own with a digital printing system that would print images on cakes. 

The PhotoFrost System includes an inkjet printer, edible inks and frosting sheets.

“With the advent of digital printing, I began looking for other markets that could utilize the technology,” recalls Spurgeon, now with Art Guitar, a company specializing in custom inkjet printing onto guitars.

Spurgeon developed and patented a printing process called PhotoCake that could be used with inkjet printers in decorating cakes. 

“At the time, we printed using an Encad NovaJet printer, output to rice paper and created edible food coloring inks that could be used with the printer,” Spurgeon says. “We worked with food chemists in England and they assisted us in developing the edible food coloring that could effectively run through the inkjet’s printhead.”

As he perfected the process, he began working with a company in Anoka, Minn., called DecoPac. 

“We hooked up with DecoPac, which is the largest cake decorating company in the country. As an added bonus, they also had a Disney license and could print Disney characters,” Spurgeon says. “Just think about all the kid’s birthday cakes with Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck on them. They were the ideal company to partner with. Working together we quickly moved from rice paper to more suitable (and better tasting) edible icing substrates to print on.”

In 2000, he sold his patent to DecoPac, which still markets the printing system as PhotoCake. Customers can choose from popular licensed characters or upload their own photos, which are printed onto an edible material that can be placed on a cake. 

The money image collage on this cake was designed by scanning a money pattern from wrapping paper. The process only took about 15-20 minutes to complete, and can be done with any scannable image. (Image courtesy of PhotoFrost.)

“Today the system is used in 38,000 bakeries nationwide, including many of the big supermarket chains,” Spurgeon says. “The PhotoCake venture was probably the most enjoyable and successful project I’ve worked on. It’s amazing how far the technology has come in the past decade since I sold it.”

Today, DecoPac has developed relationships and licensing agreements that give the company the right to market cake decorating products featuring popular characters from Disney, DreamWorks, Marvel, and team logos including the NFL, MLB and NASCAR. The company’s PhotoCake IV cake decorating system includes a controller, color touch screen, scanner, printer, user guide, cake decorator’s guide, start-up supplies (free ink and media samples), point of sale materials and free PhotoCake system training.

PHOTOFROST CUTS THE CAKE

Churnick says that his company, PhotoFrost, has been integral in the creation and growth of this industry for almost 16 years. He says that even some print shops are part of their client base. “Some shops are using it as an extension to their printing business. They are already literate with graphics and that lends itself really well to using our technology.”

The latest trend in the cake decorating industry is the introduction of “scrapbooking cakes,” which employ the use of electronic die cutters. He explains that the personal cutters used in the scrapbooking industry are being brought over into the cake decorating industry working with the edible media. 

This example of what Churnick calls “scrapbooking a cake,” the latest big trend in cake decorating. (Image courtesy of PhotoFrost.)

“The decorators have discovered new ways to use these machines for a popular new look/style in wedding and birthday cake designs, bringing our PhotoFrost sheets into the mix as an important ingredient in this technique,” Churnick says. “Cutting designs or ‘edible appliqués’ has helped us develop our own ‘print-to-cut’ method of integrating our edible ink printing and etching intricate images on the cutters. It’s called Cut-N-Frost and it’s the same basic cutting terminology that is used in the sign business but with a little more artistic flair.”

CAKE PRINTING TECHNOLOGY

Churnick explains that printing with edible inks onto edible substrates and laying them onto a cake is pretty much the same process used in inkjet printing technology. 

“PhotoFrost is the only manufacturer that makes in-house both the edible inks and substrate pages,” Churnick says. “The inks are specially formulated specifically for approved compatible printer models, delivering vibrant color and high resolution photo quality images.”

Churnick points out that their frosting sheets are the special part of the process. 

“They retain their flexibility when they go through the printer to accept the image being printed on it. When it comes out of the printer, it’s then applied to the moist frosted cake,” Churnick says. “The sheet is moisture activated, and in about 15-20 minutes the image merges and becomes part of the frosting. Cake decorating by hand can take anywhere from 40 minutes to a few hours for intricate designs.

“Printing an image and then elaborating on it using our technology takes only 15-20 minutes. That’s four cakes per hour rather than one cake maybe every four hours. That’s an out the park profit ratio for any business model.” 

Churnick adds that the ballpark cost for a basic cake is between $25 and $30, and the price gets higher from there the more ornate the client wants it.”

Cake decorators are adding die-cut designs and “edible appliqués” to their craft. The effect can be quite striking. (Image courtesy of PhotoFrost.)

Churnick says that there was another process of printing directly onto iced cake with special edible inks, but it’s not really being used today. 

“This method was the original design but proved to be prohibitively costly and very limited in scope,” Churnick says. “The system and ink cartridges were both more expensive than many small businesses could bear. It’s pretty much now defunct.

“The PhotoFrost System has a nominal start-up cost and more modest supply costs, allowing a quick amortization into profitability, or keeping the price range within reach of hobbyist enthusiasts. Additionally, creative decorators have developed new techniques attesting to wide versatility of the edible media sheets,” he says.

“PhotoFrost is a manufacturer and primary supplier of both printers and supplies, and we are now adding an electronic cutter and multi-colored and flavored edible sheets to our line. The Canon and Epson inkjet printers we use are not modified. But only certain model printers in the lines are comparable with the system. We also have to use only new empty cartridges. Canon’s printers are best choice because their print heads can be removed and cleaned or replaced by the user. Other equipment needed is the PhotoFrost inks and sheets, our new Cut-N-Frost electronic cutting system and of course the decorator’s talent and imagination,” Churnick says.

KOPYKAKE MAKES IT PERSONAL

“Personalization is the key to this business,” says Kopykake’s Mayer. “Just think of all the celebrations on a yearly basis that lend itself to a photo cake. The market has great growth potential.” 

His company has been manufacturing and selling edible substrates along with the edible inks for more than 13 years.

Mayer also has seen a recent trend where more print shops and sublimation businesses are starting to offer these types of specialty printing services. 

“I would have to say that the greater potential for this market is more for B-to-C than B-to-B. For the most part, each image is a personal image, although we print a lot of logos on cakes for corporate events,” Mayer says.

He points out that whether you are a large bakery, a small retail bakery or specialty print shop; their two computerized cake decorating solutions Kwikscan and KopyJet Method will fit a budget and allow users to decorate cakes with photos and any images and text. 

“Both offer a low-cost solution for getting into this market. Currently we offer edible ink tanks for most of the Canon and Epson inkjet printers,” Mayer says. “All a business has to do is purchase an inkjet printer and purchase the edible inks and substrates from us. They can use any photo editing software or download a copy of our Desktop Decorator (for free) from our website. It’s as easy as that to get started. So if you are a baker, a graphic artist, or a print shop looking for a new niche market, you can experiment with edible inks and see where this new method of cake decoration takes you.”