Juanita Koo, grand prize winner of Torontoist’s Birthday Cupcake Bake-Off, almost didn’t enter the contest. “I saw it mentioned on Twitter after the deadline was extended,” she said while sipping her green tea. “I started planning and sketching at noon, worked until about 1 a.m., went to sleep, made a last-minute change in the morning, and then took the pictures and sent them in at about 10. I think the cut-off was at noon.” The result was twelve amazing multi-coloured cupcakes—depicting everything from Pearson Airport to the Beaches volleyball courts in tiny sugarpaste decorations—that won the votes of Torontoist’s staff.
We met the queen of cake last week and discovered that she’s not your typical baker.
Juanita only started baking relatively recently. Until this past November, she was slogging through sixty-hour work weeks as a director at a software company as well as racing competitively in triathlons, completing her first Ironman (yes, that’s the one with the full marathon at the end) last year. Two and a half years ago, she grabbed the final spot in Cake Decorating 1 at George Brown College and, after only a few classes, knew it was for her. “Something just clicked. One day I started doing weird cakes…shaped like a Chinese takeout box…or a couch. I kept practicing and practicing. I took pictures and posted them on Facebook. Then people just started asking me to make stuff for them. I kind of evolved from there.”
Juanita insists she wasn’t artistic as a kid, but she loves baking and decorating cakes. “I’ll wake up at 3 in the morning and think ‘I should make a cake like that.’ I’ve never felt that way about any job.”
In November 2008, after getting the notice that she’d been laid off, she wondered if she could make this baking business happen. She decided to go full tilt and now, it’s happening. Just through word of mouth, Twitter, and a beautiful blog named after her company, Sweet Things, she is currently filling up to three custom cake orders per week, in addition to supplying the Beaches Bake Shop with a newly designed batch of cupcakes every Thursday.
Just this past January, she also (somewhat ironically) began working as a part-time personal trainer at GoodLife Fitness. While these two occupations might seem incongruous, she says both are extremely rewarding. “My life has completely changed. I love my jobs. With training, I get to watch lives change. Then I go home and make special occasion cakes for people. I feel like I’ve won a lot of contests.”
After the Torontoist bake-off, hits to her blog tripled and orders are now coming in even from across the border (and she’s since been featured by the Canadian Press). A couple of weeks ago, a woman pleaded with her to make a baby shower cake and deliver it to Yonkers, New York. Juanita currently only works locally, but maybe someday those New Yorkers will be as lucky as us.
All photos courtesy of Juanita Koo.