By Nona Tepper
Mama Kat's Sweets is coming up on its first year anniversary, with owner Katherine Andersen Rialmo starting to unofficially bake cakes for friends and acquaintances after two particularly memorable birthday parties last summer. By August, she received an order that she credits as the official start to her business. Now more than 500 people like the Mama Kat's Sweets page on Facebook — her main way of taking orders — and she routinely has to turn away business.
"My thought process was, 'I'm working but how can I make more money without sacrificing time with my kids and how can I do something that I like and I'm good at?'" Andersen Rialmo said. "It was kind of just an experiment at first; I really did not expect it to blow up."
Originally from Georgia, Andersen Rialmo said she grew up in a Southern family where food equated to love. When her family moved to Madison, Wisconsin, Andersen Rialmo also worked as a cake decorator at Dairy Queen, decorating ice cream cakes part-time until she turned 17. She said she enjoyed the work, excelled at practice, but let her skills fall to the wayside in her early 20s.
During that time, she worked 90 hours a week as a nanny — caring mostly for "special needs children, children on the spectrum" — and bartending at night. She eventually enrolled in nursing school. From that point on, all her time was devoted to sleep and studying.
"I moved around a lot in my early to mid-20s, trying to, I guess, find myself and find my passion," she said.
A surprise pregnancy stalled her studies. She committed herself to motherhood full-time, having another baby and nannying part-time. After her daughter's birthday party last June, and her son's birthday last July, she said three friends approached her with large projects.
"It just kind of sparked from there," she said.
Andersen Rialmo has since made cookie placards for a friend's Thanksgiving table, a custom Rubik's cube cake for a birthday party, lemon macarons for spring and more. She said she is most proud of her sugar cookies, since she has spent hours perfecting the recipe and "making sure it wasn't this stale, hard, gross sugar cookie that you're used to."
Her most ambitious project yet was also her first failure. A friend commissioned a cake for an office party that was supposed to reflect characters from The Office TV show. It was Andersen Rialmo's first professional foray into cake sculpting.
"It had the Dundie Award and he kind of looked like a deranged Ernie," she said. "It helped me grow and realize where my limits are and I have to learn how to say no to people."
She now requires a two-week lead time for orders. When commissioning a piece, Andersen Rialmo said she starts by asking clients for pictures of products they like, although she could never be accused of copying an order. After agreeing upon a design, She then brainstorms flavors.
"In the cake world, they're called 'copy cakes.' I try to not steal anybody's work, so if someone sends me a photo from Pinterest or the internet, I try to put my own little spin on it and make it personalized for the client," she said. "Not everything works out, sometimes you see success and sometimes you don't."