Columbus, Ohio USA
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Bakery delivers dreamy, delectable homemade treats
by Karen Edwards
© Photos by Darren Carlson
On Valentine’s Day, Brian Hotopp will lay out his usual supply of dark chocolate truffles, sugar cookies etched with icing that whisper terms of endearments and sensuous out-of-season strawberries draped in chocolate – just as he has for the last nine years.
As the owner of Piece of Cake, the bakery and lunch spot at 722 N. High St. (look for the tiny parking lot off High. The bakery is slivered in next to the French restaurant, L’Antibes), Hotopp helps scores of lovers express their undying affection each Valentine’s Day with pastry, cakes and sweets.
As for Hotopp, himself, his own love affair began the moment he arrived in the Short North. Call it love at first sight.
“I was raised in Dayton and lived in and out of Columbus for a few years, but I finally moved here from the Akron/ Cleveland area in 1997,” he says. “I’ve just always liked the Short North.”
It would be another year before Hotopp would open his bakery here, but in order to get to that grand opening, there is a story to tell.
After graduating from high school, Hotopp worked on and off in retail – once stepping into a position as “meat-cutter’s assistant” – but as he neared the age of 30, he became restless with that kind of work and decided it was time to pursue an interest that had been his since childhood.
“Both of my parents worked, so when it came time to fix something to eat, we were on our own,” says Hotopp. Hotopp and his two older sisters would make their own dinners and “whatever else we wanted to eat,” but it was Hotopp who ended up with more kitchen time. “My sisters are good cooks, “ he says – and even now they come to the Piece of Cake to help him out with big projects – but neither felt inclined to follow the same professional path as their brother.
Brian Hotopp, owner of Short North Piece of Cake
Hotopp, on the other hand, wanted to formalize what had been, in essence, an on-the-job training experience, so he registered at the Zona Spray School (now called Western Reserve Cooking School), a private cooking school located in Hudson, Ohio.
There, Hotopp learned the ins and outs of French cooking and baking techniques as they applied to everything from appetizers to desserts. Upon graduating from Zona Spray, Hotopp moved to Columbus and took a job with the specialty retail store Seasonal Concepts while working part time for a friend who had opened his own bakery.
After a year at the bakery, Hotopp was convinced he was ready to open his own place. He acquired a business partner, Randy Klinger, a friend he had once worked for, and began to look for a location to open shop.
“I live in German Village, but I knew I wanted to locate my bakery in the Short North,” he says. “I like the mix of businesses there and its location and, at that time, there were no other bakeries in the Short North.”
One short year after arriving in town, Hotopp was in business. He opened the doors to Piece of Cake in 1998, and this June he will observe the bakery’s 10th anniversary, although he says there won’t be any special celebration.
It’s changed, of course. Sure, the bakery still fills its glass case with muffins, cakes and cookies, and the lunch counter still serves the freshest tuna fish and chicken salad sandwiches in town. But today, the bakery is larger.
“Two years ago, my business partner and I decided it was time for a change,” says Hotopp. Each decided to go separate ways, so Hotopp bought out his partner’s share of the business and expanded his space, doubling the bakery’s size by moving into the space next door, left vacant by Village Floral.
“It gave us more room everywhere,” says Hotopp. Another table could be added for the lunch crowd, more display cases went in and the production kitchen expanded. In the meantime, competition began to enter the picture. Suddenly, more eating establishments began to locate in the now trendy Short North.
“When Pistachio first opened, I was a little concerned until I saw that they were offering an entirely different product.”
Pistachio (now Pistacia Vera in German Village) offered more upscale, gourmet treats. “I’ve never tried to be gourmet about what I offer,” says Hotopp. His appeal, he says, is in the honest, good, fresh fare he serves up daily.
“I do a third of my business in lunches, a third in specialty bakery goods and a third in cakes,” he says.
It has been a winning combination for him, and he doubts that is likely to change much in the future. After all, in his line of work, it can be tricky enough just staying abreast of the trends in cakes.
“The cake business has changed dramatically over the last four years,” says Hotopp. He credits the Food Network for showing food lovers a host of new and ever-grander possibilities in cake decorating.
“I’ve noticed that brides are asking for more difficult cakes, and they are very specific on what they want,” says Hotopp.
One need only visit his Web site, www.shortnorthpieceofcake.com to see the extent to which Hotopp will go to please brides (and other cake-buying customers.) There are tiers of square cakes and round cakes bedecked with fresh flowers or cascading icing roses. There are chocolate-iced cakes decorated with charming white daisies, layers shaped like blue boxes topped with demure, dotted-swiss lids, and cakes that are covered with pattern, some delicate, others with swirls or wild pop-art circles. Specialty cakes are even more inventive – shaped like poker chips, Stetson hats, wrapped gifts and a bottle of Asti Spumante.
It can take Hotopp and his staff eight hours just to decorate the cakes – and sometimes during months like June when weddings come in multiples, it can take all day just to deliver and set them up. Hotopp currently employs four people – eight during the busy seasons like Christmas and months when weddings are popular. “Half of my employees are bakers, the other half are cake-decorators,” he says.
Much of his wedding cake business comes in through the Internet now, although word of mouth can be just as strong. It’s not just brides making referrals, though. “I work with the same caterers and florists and we often recommend each other,” Hotopp says.
Wedding cakes aren’t the only aspect of his business that has changed, however. So has Piece of Cake’s lunchtime fare.
Sandwiches and soups
“When we opened, we only had a small lunch menu. There were four sandwiches,” says Hotopp. Now, there is more variety with 12 different sandwich offerings as well as several different kinds of soup. Box lunches are available as well – for office workers and others who can’t make it out to the Short North bakery.
“Of course all of our soups and sandwich fillings are homemade fresh that day, and we make all of the breads and croissants we use in our sandwiches,” says Hotopp.
Some of the sandwich ideas, like the cakes, cookies, pies and desserts, are suggested by customers.
“One customer came into the bakery and said he had been served a piece of cake in Cincinnati and wanted us to replicate it,” says Hotopp. The customer described it and Hotopp made it. It turned out to be such a success with the customer – and other customers – that Hotopp called it his “Cake of the Month.”
Since then, Hotopp’s Web site always touts a “Cake of the Month.” This month, for example, the “cake of the month” is an Opera Cream Torte. In January, Hotopp also offered a traditional King’s Cake for those who can’t imagine celebrating Mardi Gras without the gaudy green-purple-and-gold decorated ring cake. And yes, the King’s Cake comes complete with beads and a plastic baby baked inside. The baby is said to represent the infant Jesus, but if you find the plastic charm in your slice of cake, you’re king – or queen – for the day.
“I’d say 75% of my business is composed of regulars, people who live or work in the neighborhood or downtown,” he says. There is no one Piece of Cake prototype customer. “We get them from all ages, all economic levels and from all areas of town,” says Hotopp. One Circleville resident, for example, buys all of his birthday cakes from the Short North bakery.
Savory breakfasts may be next on Piece of Cakes menu, says Hotopp – another customer suggestion.
“We are currently testing an egg strudel and ham and cheese scones,” he says.
And now that the election campaign is off and running, you can start looking for those donkey and elephant cut-out cookies that have proven to be so popular in previous election cycles.
“They’re big sellers,” Hotopp says. “We’ll definitely be doing those again.” Think of it as one more way to support your party.
While Hotopp dreads the paperwork that comes with running a business like Piece of Cake, he says he’d love to serve another decade as the Short North baker.
“Sure, there is more competition in the area than before, but competition isn’t a bad thing,” says Hotopp. “It makes you work harder and become more creative.”
And there is nothing Hotopp likes better than creating something from an abstract thought, an idea, a solitary word.
“I love being able to elaborate on ideas, to take the thought, whatever it is, and run with it. It’s the best part of my job,” he says, “I like to make people happy.”
Piece of Cake is located at the corner of High and Warren at 772 N. High St. Hours are Monday through Saturday, 8 a.m to 5 p.m.
Call 614-421-0399 or visit www.shortnorthpieceofcake.com
Return to Homepage www.shortnorth.com
© 2008 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.