An Evening with Buddy Valastro, the Real-Life Willy Wonka

him turn boxed cake mix into a dessert that looks like it belongs on the cover of Martha Stewart Living, his answer doesn't surprise me.

"I want to show people how behind the product I am. People think that if you're gonna have a brand, you just get a product, stamp your name on it, and sayonara. But look at this stuff. Every single cake batter mix has a pudding pouch inside it. So if we open this guy up here," he says, tearing into a package of baking mix, "this little custard pouch was part of the formulation. Other cake mix doesn't come with that," he says.

Then he gets to the heart of the brand. "All this stuff is especially designed because of things that we love and things that we hate and things that we wish were different. This brand was my opportunity to get things exactly the way I want, and that's very rare. I want fans to know how behind it I am and how much a part of this I am. The truth of the matter is, I want to see people making these at home and putting them on Facebook and tweeting me. When it's live, you're right there with them, showing them how things work and why they work, and you're giving them a chance to buy it in that moment and bring it into their own homes. It's like they're right here because I am just who I am. I'm the same guy off camera."

And it's true, he really is.

He's standing in a crowd of PR folks and his production crew when he suddenly turns and asks, "Hey, want a tour?" Of course I do, and we're off. A strict sign on the door says no one without a hair net is allowed, but we march through anyway, Buddy greeting bakers on the floor by name and me running to keep up. There's the batter dispensing machine, the ovens, the biscotti maker, the jugs of custard. "Take a cupcake," he says as he pulls a tray of warm treats from a stack. "We're a from-scratch bakery. That hasn't changed. You can taste the custard, right?" he asks. You can, and it suddenly makes me regret ever waiting in line at Georgetown Bakery, Magnolia, or Crumbs.

Throughout the factory, there are family photos everywhere: in an office right in the center of the oven room, in the classrooms that Carlo's uses for cooking classes, in the meeting rooms, and everywhere in between. The business is much bigger than it was when he started out, but sua famiglia—his family—is still what drives him every day, he says.

And that's why the interactive video platform is perfect for small businesses.

"Live interactive video enables brands and personalities to really tell a story," BrandLive's Cox explains. "In this day and age, it's hard for businesses to differentiate themselves, but in terms of creating a unique consumer experience, it's all about the story behind the brand. In Buddy's case, his family is the story. So here, we get to see him with his daughter, watch him do his thing, and talk to fans in real time. It becomes less about just selling a product, and more about what it can do and the lifestyle around it," he adds.

Even as small businesses become not quite so small anymore, they can't afford to lose the customer bonds that brought them to their success. For Buddy, shooting an episode of Cake Boss for millions of viewers or putting his line of cookware up for sale at Kohl's or Amazon is one thing, but streaming a holiday special for devoted fans and Facebook followers that are happy to tune in at 8:00 p.m. on a Wednesday is another. "We're giving them a discount if they buy the product while they're tuned in because we're grateful, and because I really do want them to see how useful these tools are," he says.

As the night wraps up and I get ready to leave, I know I've got one more question to ask him: I'm curious to know if he has any advice for other small businesses that want to experiment with new digital channels like interactive video or social media, but am reluctant. I wondered whether he still considers his cake empire a "small business," but had to ask anyway.

"I love social media," he responds. "I mean it's people who love and adore what you do, and you can engage them and show them different things. I posted a picture last night of a cake that I loved, and it was seen by over 5 million people. How else can you say whatever you want to say to 5 million people other than social media? The more you embrace it, the better. But you have to be real about it. I was just walking by and thinking, 'Oh I love this cake,' and people like that. The same goes for live [interactive] video. You have to be real about what you're doing. Always."

Associate Editor Maria Minsker can be reached at mminsker@infotoday.com.

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