When Justin Ellen received a ‘random’ direct message asked on Instagram if he was part of a Netflix show called ‘Is It Cake?’ – he found it “very sketchy”.
Only when they said there was an interview did he realize: “Okay, it’s real,” said the youngest candidate of the popular baking show.
After a Zoom interview and a month of waiting, Ellen – who was 18 at the time – was selected to take part.
It was very overwhelming, he admitted.
“Because I was super young … and I realized I had to fly and stay in a hotel by myself. Filming lasted a whole month. I’ve never been away from my family for so long,” he told CNBC Make It.
Ellen even had to skip his high school graduation to tape the show.
“Is it cake?” is a baking competition in which cake artists create edible replicas of everyday objects like sneakers and handbags.
At first glance, the 19-year-old didn’t seem to have as much experience as the other candidates. The young baker only started creating hyper-realistic cakes two years ago. One of his opponents started baking before Ellen was born.
But before he appeared on Netflix, he already ran his own successful cake business, Everything Just Baked.
“Last year we made $100,000 in sales,” said Ellen, who is from New Jersey.
“With [the] Netflix [show] Coming out, I’ve gotten a lot more requests… my calendar is flooded. I’m super grateful for that.”
Hard work and failure
Ellen learned to bake from his mother and grandmother when he was just 7 years old. They used to bake together on holidays like Thanksgiving.
From bread to cake to biscuits, they baked everything — but oddly, “never cake.”
But he quickly outgrew the wizard and by the time he was 14 he went down the bunny of cake tutorial videos on YouTube and was inspired to start his own creations.
“I was just watching videos of other people doing it, YouTube is a great thing. You just have to really practice and take the time to learn,” he told CNBC Make It.
“I’ve failed many times… I think it’s such a simple cake and then it all goes wrong.”
But Ellen was undeterred. It was in high school when he first got into baking — which was “definitely hard” because he didn’t have a lot of free time. He remembers entering a baking competition and coming to school at 5 a.m. to practice.
“I’ve been super busy. [But] If you’re really determined, you’ll find the time,” Ellen said.
know your worth
The biggest challenge Ellen faced as a young entrepreneur was knowing his worth – he priced his cakes as if he were shopping with his own wallet.
“Back then I didn’t realize how valuable my art is. I asked my mother and my mother is just like me, she is cheap. Like, ‘I’m not going to get a $100 cake.’ But today people pay for it easily.”
When he started, he sold a six-inch cake for $60, but now it’s “easily $150 for the same size.”
As of January this year, he began earning up to $12,000 a month after running his business full-time.
“I realized that people buy designer wallets for thousands of dollars. You need to make your customers understand the value of your brand and what you offer them because the cake tastes great and [I] Use quality ingredients.”
Even though the prices of his cakes have more than doubled over the years, that hasn’t stopped him from building a “very profitable business.”
“Art is super valuable and people will pay for it. Honestly, my price goes up a little every day… depending on my mood,” he said.
And when a customer asks why their cake costs so much? “I’ll just be honest and say that I’m making progress in my skills every day, so the price has to go up. You are paying for someone’s expertise… it took me 5 years to learn how to do this.”
no stop now
Dreaming big has certainly paid off for Ellen. What he imagined came true – he now sells baking mixes and baking tools online. Occasionally he stops Courses also for prospective bakers.
Ellen added that he takes about 6 orders a week and that it’s “bigger orders now.” On a typical day, he would get up at 8am and single-handedly process his orders in his home kitchen.
“Honestly, most of my clients don’t go for hyper-realistic cakes, they’re more like wedding cakes.”
His parents are now “firmly convinced” that he made the right decision in becoming a baker – in fact, Ellen, who started out as a kitchen hand, is now the boss.
“My mother works for me now,” he said cheerfully. “She helps me a lot with the backend stuff…like deliveries.”
Even if he is amazed at what he has already achieved at the age of only 19, the young entrepreneur is not done dreaming.
“I’m constantly thinking about my business and new ways to improve it. I want to have an appointment-based studio… but my ultimate goal is to be like Wilton, the cake decorating company.”
headquartered in Illinois, Wilton produces a wide range of bakeware, decorations, baking tools and ingredients that bakers love.
“My goal is to be just like that… [Everything Just Baked] is minority owned, black owned and I think we need representation because there are pretty much no major minority brands in the baking community.