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This article was taken from our February 2021 Issue Buy this issue now

A Chat With… Ron Ben-Israel

The Year 2020 was not what anyone had expected, with the COVID-19 global pandemic causing havoc on all our lives. The impact it has had on our industry has been phenomenal, with cancelled events and celebrations leading naturally to a cancellation in cake orders. In times like these, businesses and artists need to stay positive and find a way, transform and pivot. We had the honour of speaking to Ron Ben-Israel, one of the world’s most renowned cake artists, about cake life during COVID-19, the steps he took and what he did to navigate through this difficult time. We hope you feel inspired and take some learnings for this year.

Q: How did you feel initially about COVID-19 and the impact that it would have on your wedding cake business?

A: There was no time to feel much or to take stock as we were constantly bombarded by concerned celebrants and their families. Everyone was cancelling or postponing their weddings and needed both administrative and emotional support. We were in communication with venues and event planners trying to sort out the next course of action. The devastation came when we realised that NO cake orders were going to be allowed to proceed, and I finally broke down when I had to send my crew home and tell them to stay home.

Q: Were most your wedding cake orders cancelled or pushed to next year?

A: We had very few cancellations, and most our clients elected to postpone their celebrations. The rescheduled dates kept changing numerous times, from three months at first to a year or more from the original date.

Q: Before COVID-19 and lockdown, what were your plans for 2020 and beyond?

A: Most our bookings for wedding cakes take place 6-12 months in advance, with corporate orders coming in at an average of 3-4 months prior to the event. We were fully committed to a busy spring/ summer 2020 season, with fall/winter shaping up very well. We also planned to respond to the great demand for our in-house classes by increasing their frequency, and including guest teachers at our studio+bakery in New York City.

Q: What was the situation like in New York?

A: Our commercial building was actually shut down for a week pending clarity of regulations, and we fully stopped production for about three months.

Q: When did you realise that you needed to pivot and make changes?

A: I immediately started using Zoom to communicate with clients and other professionals to sort through the postponed celebrations and continue with the visual plans. I figured out how to ‘broadcast’ from home and conducted baking demonstrations for charitable organisations and virtual conferences. Pretty soon, I launched my weekly ‘CakeTalk with Ron & Friends’ on Instagram Live, inviting a weekly guest from the cake community to share their story. In early June, orders for smaller celebrations stated to come back, and our clients were requesting a variety of smaller baked goods delivered to their homes.

Q: What short term plans/changes did you and your team make?

A: Half my team moved away to stay with family or friends in more rural areas, and I could only afford to bring back the others on a part time basis. As my friend and colleague, chef Tom Smallwood, lost his job due to the pandemic, we decided to try a new venture that we could both navigate.

Q: What long term plans/changes have you and your team made?

A: We are constantly trying to expand our range of products and remain creative with packaging and new items. I would love to be able to ship our hand painted macarons, but so far, they have proved too fragile for the trip. On the other hand, adapting our signature celebration cakes to smaller forms, such as petite loaves and mini Bundt shapes, we were able to deliver the Ron Ben-Israel Cakes experience nationwide.

Q: Has there been much support for businesses in the USA?

A: We received an incredible amount of support from our existing client base and followers of our social media feeds. It has been extremely encouraging to receive orders from all over the USA!

Q: Tell us about your Treats venture

A: Creating the various options and producing the daily treats was a pure joy and a much-needed distraction from the constant challenges of our times. But the hardest challenge of them all was learning to operate an e-commerce business, which involves new software, website, additional social media outlets, accounting, and customer service. And let’s not forget the process of shipping individual packages! At the beginning, we delivered locally on our bicycles, but soon had to figure out how to expand our reach to further destinations.

Q: Tell us about Tom Smallwood

A: I met chef Tom over his years with Dominique Ansel’s Bakery and Kitchen, where he rose to the position of Sous Chef. Later on, he became the Executive Pastry Chef of Creative Edge Parties, a caterer that procures our celebration cakes. He is a graduate of the esteemed FERRANDI cooking and pastry school in Paris and possesses a unique ability for combining creative pastry skills with a healthy sense of business.

Q: What are your most popular treats?

A: There isn’t yet a single item that has surpassed the other treats. When we try to pull out a ‘limited edition’ offering, customers require it back in stock. Every single cookie or cake generates a particular following, and people have been ordering them repeatedly for themselves and as gifts.

Q: What are your future plans now? Have there been any changes you’ve made that will remain permanent, or will you go back to how your business was running before?

A: My biggest wish is to go back to ‘normal’ and be able to return to meeting clients in person and providing them with their ultimate celebration cakes. But I can’t imagine giving up on RBI Treats, and I hope that we can continue to grow with both operations.

Q: What words of advice do you have to others in the industry who are feeling lost at the moment?

A: The most important thing is to keep being active. In the first days of shutdown, I dusted off my beloved baking books and would bake variation upon variation of breads and cakes at home. My only sense of purpose was getting the perfect baked results, and communicating about them with my fellow bakers who were doing the same at their homes.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to add?

A: As hard as it is, and I don’t presume to put myself in any other human’s position, I deeply believe in action. If at all possible, don’t just sit there in desperation – find a skill to learn and improve. Practising any type of discipline, from baking to knitting to ironing(!), provides focus and a sense of achievement.

Photo credit: Andreas & Nico
Instagram @andreasandnico