First Liberty’s editorial team recently spoke at length with our client Melissa Klein, a cake artist who was forced to shut down her dream bakery, Sweet Cakes by Melissa, after being penalized $135,000 for politely declining to convey a message that was contrary to her faith.
In this exclusive, insider-only feature, Melissa shares the story of how she began creating custom cakes, how her craft led her to become an award-winning artist and what it was like to lose the family business she’d worked so hard to build.
Q: Tell us about your journey to becoming a cake artist. Was this something that you always wanted to do?
I’ve always had this very vivid and creative side, and I was constantly looking for ways to express myself. Since I was very young, I remember being in love with art and finding ways to communicate my ideas. Actually, when I was in school, my teachers would catch me doing sketches on my notebooks – and it got me into trouble a few times. But in all honesty, artistic expression is just a part of who I am. You could say that it’s in my DNA!
That’s why it was a natural fit for me when I began to design custom cakes. Whether it was for couples and their weddings, or for birthdays and other special occasions, creating cakes was a way for me to live out my faith while also putting forward my artistic abilities.
Q: Can you tell us about the very first cake you created?
Yes, I actually designed my very first cake for one of my sons’ first birthday. That was about 12 years ago. I made him a two-tier cake, and at the top I used cookies to recreate a city and even made a train to make it seem as real as possible! Being my very first cake, it took me 3 or even 4 days to put it together – but it was one of the most special pieces I’ve been able to create.
Q: What made you start designing custom cakes, and why did you choose to create them for weddings?
Looking back to when I was a little girl, I remember being captivated by the idea of being a bride. Back then – and of course now – I feel a deep connection to weddings, largely because of my faith. But really, I just absolutely love weddings! They stir something inside of me.
And to this day I can tell you about my first wedding clients. I actually got to design cakes for two weddings at the very start! I was so nervous about it at the time. I thought about the special meaning of a wedding and I wanted to make sure that each bride would have exactly what she wanted for that once-in-a-lifetime moment.
To me, it was so gratifying to know that I was going to contribute to the most important day in their lives, while at the same time doing the thing I loved most – and that was creating art as a way of expressing my faith.
Q: Can you tell us more about your artistic process to create that “perfect” cake?
I would make sure that I set aside plenty of time with each bride or each couple. I genuinely wanted to know more about them and what they had in mind for their big day. Sometimes, I would spend about 2 or more hours talking with a single couple, and I made sure I would give them enough options to taste, sometimes as many as 14 different varieties.
Once I had a grasp of what the couple wanted, everything else just clicked for me – I felt a spark of passion and just started pouring myself into the work. I would sometimes take a step back when I finished and just stared at the cakes, thinking to myself that it’d been God who’d directed my hands.
Q: When did you realize that you wanted to devote yourself to the craft of custom cake art?
Over time, I saw God giving me one confirmation after another that I was gifted to do this. About six months after making my first two wedding cakes, I had about 12 more booked for a single summer! And it was all because people were referring me and giving others great recommendations. Word about my custom cakes spread really fast.
I also noticed that my creativity kept growing and growing. It got to the point where there were cakes all around the house and we had multiple fridges in the garage just to store everything. It was all a bit crazy – but it was a time that was filled with pure joy and excitement, and I realized that God had handed me a gift to be a creative professional.
Q: When did you decide to formally open Sweet Cakes by Melissa?
I was creating so many cakes at one time that my husband, Aaron, and I thought that we had to take a step of faith, so we started looking for a business space. And it was God who orchestrated everything in that process. We found a great location and put in an offer – and again, I put it all in God’s hands. Soon enough – to my surprise – the offer worked out and it was yet another confirmation that God was working and leading me to open this shop.
We put in some work in the beginning to renovate the space, and the kids were a big part of that, which made me realize that this was really a family business. They helped us paint and move things in to get the shop ready – and we opened our doors in 2007.
Q: Tell us about your opening day. How did it feel to open up your own business?
It was a dream come true. It’s sometimes hard to find the words to describe it – but I was simply taken back by the fact that God was giving me an opportunity to make a living doing what I loved most. Above all, I remember that the night before we opened I had our pastor come by the shop, and we prayed together as a family because we wanted to honor God with our business and the work we did.
Q: Your custom cakes were featured in several wedding magazines, correct? Can you tell us more about that?
I don’t want it to seem like I’m bragging about it, but yes, Sweet Cakes was voted among the best wedding cake designers in The Knot Magazine. And there were a few other magazines where my cakes were featured and who asked me to create sample cakes for them. Of course, all the glory goes to God. We put up one of the award plaques in the shop, and looking at it brought a great sense of reward to be recognized for our hard work.
Q: What did Sweet Cakes mean to you, your husband Aaron and your five children?
For us, Sweet Cakes was like a second home – but especially so for the kids. After school they would come to the shop, do their homework and also play there. It was a place where we all spent a large part of our time, so Aaron and I made sure that it was furnished and taken care of so that the kids would feel like it was another place they could call home.
Even now, the kids and I sometimes talk about the times we spent together as a family in the shop. We look back at the memories we made there and they all tell me how much they miss it.
Q: Being a family business, did you hope to someday leave it as a legacy for your children?
Yes, of course. From the very beginning Sweet Cakes was all about family – and my dream was to teach and involve the kids so they could someday run the shop. Being an artist, I had a vision of how it could all look at some point down the road. I pictured our girls helping me design, decorate and craft the cakes, while Aaron and the boys would take care of handling and delivering the cakes to the venues and weddings. I had a desire that in the future we would hand down the business to our children.
Q: Can you describe what it felt like to have to shut down Sweet Cakes?
Having to shut down the shop was devastating. Closing our business took a toll not just on me, but on all of us as a family. For so many years we’d worked so hard to build something of our own, and then to watch it disappear in such a short time crushed me. For me, I felt like I’d lost a part of myself when I had to close down the shop. The craft that I was most passionate about – what I loved doing – was gone. It was very painful to have this ripped away from me.
Q: Have you designed any other cakes since you closed?
Yes, I have created a few of them from home, but mainly for family celebrations, birthdays and those types of occasions. I had a few people reach out to me after I’d closed Sweet Cakes who wanted to show support for what we were going through – and they asked me to make cakes for them. But it just wasn’t the same after the closing.
But in spite of all that, the spark and passion for creating is still there – it’s always going to be there. Most recently, I designed a cake for one of my son’s 16th birthday – and while working on it I remembered just how much joy, excitement, and devotion I poured into each and every cake that I crafted.
Q: Like you, there are many people who’ve also lost everything just for living out their faith. What would you say to encourage them?
Honestly, I would tell them to trust God through it all. I know how hard it is to see everything you’ve built disappear – and to feel like it’s being taken away from you. And it hurts even more when you’re singled out and mistreated because you chose to live out your faith. I understand that. But in that process, I would encourage people to keep trusting in God.
Q: Looking back on everything you and your family have been through, would you open Sweet Cakes again?
Yes, I would. But before taking that step, I would make sure God is calling me to make that decision. This has been one of the most difficult things we’ve had to go through – but I’ve thought a lot about it and have asked myself if I would do it all over again. And yes, I would. Standing firm by my beliefs is that important to me. And I want to live out my faith in all areas of my life – including the work I do and the art I create.