An Evening with Buddy Valastro, the Real-Life Willy Wonka
From the outside, the enormous building at 629 Grove Street in Jersey City could be any old warehouse. Surrounded by loading docks and with few windows, it barely stands out among its industrial neighbors. Yet when you walk through its doors and the sweet smell of baking cakes fills you up until you can almost taste the buttercream frosting, you suddenly realize exactly where you are.
Carlo's Bakery at Lackawanna isn't just an ordinary factory—it's Willy Wonka's Factory, except the man behind it all isn't a cartoonish, wacky genius. Instead, he's Buddy Valastro, a fourth-generation baker and small business owner who earned his stripes working alongside his father, Buddy Sr., in Carlo's Bakery in Hoboken, NJ. Now a nationally recognized celebrity chef thanks to the popularity of his TLC show Cake Boss, Buddy isn't wacky or cartoonish like Wonka. But with seven Carlo's Bakery locations between New Jersey and New York, a 55,000-square-foot factory, and a line of cookware at such major retailers as Kohl's, he is indeed a small business genius.
As I walked down the hall of the Lackawanna factory, I wasn't sure what to expect. That night, Buddy was recording a holiday baking how-to video that would be streamed live on his company Web site and Facebook, and demonstrating some of the products in his cookware collection. (A photo slide show from the event and more can be found at the end of the article.) The cakelette pans, frosting bags, and other tools he would be using would be made available for purchase right within the video through a click-to-buy link, and customers would be treated to a 30 percent discount for tuning in. The entire production was an experiment in live social selling, and I prepared myself for an hour-long infomercial with a neat social media tie-in. What followed, however, was anything but.
On set, Buddy is comfortable. He jokes around with the production crew before filming starts, and looks over the prepped ingredients on his cooking counter. The apricot jam is too thick, he decides, and walks over to a nearby sink to dilute it a little. A quick mix with his brush, and it's good.
When the broadcast starts rolling, he's a little stiff, but a few seconds in, he starts explaining why he decided to do a live show, and just like that, he's completely on. "I want people at home to have the tools, the ingredients, and the know-how to bake. I've been doing this since I was fifteen years old, and I know that when you put your heart into your cake and you step back and look at it, you get a feeling of self-worth. I want to share that with you," he says.
First up are the ghost cakelettes, small ghost-shaped cakes baked in a pan sold exclusively at Kohl's. As Buddy decorates the cakes and fusses with frosting alongside daughter Sofia, 11, the moment of truth arrives. "If you click on the product tab below, you can buy this item right now from Kohl's," he says. Everyone in the room turns their heads to the live feed. Sure enough, up pops a click-to-buy link, and Buddy gets a big thumbs-up from Josh Cox, director of marketing at BrandLive, the live-selling platform that's supporting the broadcast.
The two-tier cakelettes are next, perfect for "blowing your guests away" when they come over for Thanksgiving or Christmas. "They're gonna die when they see this," Buddy jokes as he rolls out white fondant with a plastic rolling pin from his line and covers a chocolate cake with it in one quick motion. "You might be wondering why I use plastic. Well, if you use metal, I think it'll get too cold and might dry out the fondant. You can use wood, but over time, it'll probably get little dings on it and might mess up the fondant," he explains. The rolling pin was not one of the featured products that night, but he wanted his fans to know why he's behind every product he sells, he told me later.
One by one, the desserts are made, and the links for the night's five featured products pop up throughout the broadcast without a hitch. At the end, it's time for questions from the viewers. At first, Buddy reads a few questions off a teleprompter—they were submitted before the show and chosen by Buddy's team. "Why does my pumpkin pie always separate from the crust?" one viewer asks. Buddy pauses, thinking. "You might be baking it too long," he says. "Try lowering the temperature to keep it from drying out, and take it out a little sooner to keep it from separating," he recommends.
A few presubmitted questions later, Buddy picks up an iPad for some live questions. "I'm intrigued by the way Buddy holds the frosting bag. I thought you had to push it all the way down to the..." he reads, and stops. He can't scroll down to see the rest of the question, or maybe it just got cut off in the post. He fumbles with the iPad and jokes, "I'm trying, but it's live!" He hasn't seen these questions in advance, but is ready on the spot. "It's about grabbing what you can hold," he starts explaining, and breezes through the rest of the live questions. It's real, relatable, and the fans eat it up, so to speak.
After the broadcast, he looks relieved. "What made you want to do a live-selling event like this?" I ask him, and after an hour of watching