The fall of 2009 was a season of highs and lows for Robin Cammarota. She was in love, engaged to be married and ready to start her very own baking business with the support of her fiancé, John Costello.
The couple brainstormed all summer for the perfect name to reflect the tasty creativity that went into her confections, which often contained flavor combinations like chocolate and avocado and ancho chili chocolate as well as fun shapes and characters like pandas, the cast of Sesame Street, and cupcakes with witch fingers coming out of the top for Halloween.
Cammarota says Costello urged her to take her baking from a hobby to a home business. By August, the pair had finally come up with a name for her burgeoning baking business, Land of Cake Believe. But just as Cammarota began to seriously market herself and her business, everything came crashing down.
A month after they decided on the name, Costello died suddenly of heart problems at the age of 25.
“It felt like my world ended,” Cammarota, 27, said of Costello’s sudden death. “After a loss like that, it’s hard to continue.” Getting back in the kitchen after Costello’s death was particularly difficult because he was such a big supporter of her dream.
But she finally did in early spring, and now her self-propelled baking business is a staple of the Throgs Neck community. She works from her home kitchen and earns profits of between $300 and $400 a month by charging $2 per cupcake and $3 to $5 per slice of cake at events. Bigger orders are billed individually.
Cammarota didn’t always take baking so seriously, but she always loved it. She grew up in Throgs Neck baking with her grandmother for every holiday. “My grandmother taught me the importance of patience when baking,” she said. “And that a birthday is not a birthday without a cake.”
When her grandmother died, Cammarota took those recipes and made them her own. They form the basis for all of her Land of Cake Believe creations, including her first foray into creative flavors: a sickeningly sweet Pez flavored cake she made while a freshman in high school at St. Catherine Academy in 1997.
“None of my friends will let me live that down,” Cammarota said. She bakes in a rose-and-skull pattern apron that mirrors her sweet yet daring flavor combinations.
When she got back in the kitchen after Costello’s death, Cammarota came up with her most innovative confections; peanut butter, Dr. Pepper, Killian’s Irish Red, and Blue Moon Orange are all cupcake flavors. She has even recently created apple and pumpkin cupcakes with caramel cream cheese frosting for the fall season. Cammarota likes to bake with seasonal ingredients that she finds at farmer’s markets and ethnic markets, baking by the motto that “fresh is best.”
“Once I have a good ground recipe, I can build upon it,” Cammarota said. “I have the tendency of just adding a random spice into a recipe I’ve been doing forever.” For instance, she recently played around with a sacher torte recipe. Sacher tortes are a traditional dessert in Vienna—a chocolate cake with apricot filling and a chocolate glaze. She decided to spice this classic up with ancho chili powder, a spicy pepper that complements the sweetness of the chocolate, and call it a Mexicanisher Sacher Torte.
She attributes her success and drive to Costello. Her drive now is to make him proud.
Cammarota and Costello met when they were 14 or 15 years old (“Neither of us could remember exactly when,” she said) and had been in and out of each other’s lives for years. At a rock concert hosted by grassroots production company Bronx Underground in early 2009, Cammarota brought double chocolate, vanilla-frosted cupcakes for the event staff to share and she brought one over to Costello.
“He had three by the end of the night and I left telling my friends, ‘I really like John’,” Cammarota said. “A few weeks later he asked me out and that was it.”
Costello often helped her set up at Bronx Underground shows. “He liked to make sure my product was well-represented,” Cammarota said.
Despite her love of baking, it took Cammarota until the spring of 2007 to enroll at the Institute for Culinary Education (ICE) in the Pastry and Baking Arts Program to really hone her baking skills. Cammarota calls herself a “perpetual student.” She already had a bachelor’s degree in German language and literature from Hunter College as well as a master’s degree in organizational leadership from Mercy College. She had held various jobs in the restaurant industry and was working as a college admissions counselor when she decided to focus on her baking.
“I realized I wasn’t as fulfilled with life as I should have been,” Cammarota said. She was “hooked” after making her first grooms cake in the summer of 2009. “I realized I had really found my passion,” she said.
She even uses her knowledge of the German language to make her baked goods different than anyone else’s. “ I translate recipes from German cookbooks and magazines,” Cammarota said. “It sets me apart from most other bakers.”
Word spread from person to person and friend to friend, particularly after she started selling cupcakes at Bronx Underground rock concerts last May. She had previously worked with the concert promoters.
“I made six dozen cupcakes and managed to sell all but three,” Cammarota said of the first Bronx Underground show. “A few weeks later was another show and I was asked if I could be there. A bit more sensible this time, I only made four dozen and sold out.”
She spent 15 hours making Bronx Underground’s “birthday cake” to celebrate the organization’s 10th anniversary. When she has really big orders, she takes up every inch of space in her small home kitchen. “Home kitchens aren’t made to make cakes big enough for 150 people,” she said. “But I make it work.” She’s thankful that her kitchen opens up into her dining area giving her more counter space for big orders and for flavor experimenting.
Cammarota said she hasn’t repeated a flavor at the shows yet and the concert-goers are more than happy to try them. “You don’t find a single one of these cupcakes wasted,” said James Beary, 24, a regular Bronx Underground attendee. “You never even find a single crumb on the ground. They’re that good.” Fans lined up for Cammarota’s cake at a recent Bronx Underground show, forgoing a spot in front of the stage for a place in the cupcake line.
From Bronx Underground’s exposure, her business took off (she has 704 fans on Facebook). “My orders come in waves,” Cammarota said. “I have some weeks where I’m literally working everyday and then I have other weeks when I have one. I like to bake everyday regardless of whether I have an order just to try out a new recipe. My friends and family both love and hate me for this.”
In addition to her cakes and cupcakes, Cammarota also makes breads and other pastries. She said she wanted to be a bread baker because “there’s something wonderful about kneading dough. I love making breads but people don’t typically ask for birthday breads.”
One day Cammarota hopes to open her own store. In the meantime, she still works full-time for a non-profit group as a research grant coordinator. To keep up with her current demand, she has recently enlisted the help of her best friend, Danielle Provino.
“She has helped on a few of the bigger orders,” Cammarota said. “She is typically right by my side selling cupcakes at Bronx Underground shows. She is also my soundboard for design ideas. We work well together.” The teenagers at the Bronx Underground shows often ask Cammarota if she needs an intern. “Not right now,” she said. “But maybe one day soon, I will.”
Though her business is growing and she’s doing it largely by herself, Costello is always on her mind and drives her to be her best. “I bake for me and I bake to make John proud,” she said.