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(Image: Tina Tiller)
(Image: Tina Tiller)

KaiApril 25, 2023

What we can learn from the not-so-sweet TikTok drama over a birthday cake

(Image: Tina Tiller)
(Image: Tina Tiller)

A dispute over a sprinkle-covered birthday cake has gone viral on social media, demonstrating the risks of running a business – and of being a tricky customer – in the digital age. But is US$75 too much to charge for a rainbow cake?

As far as foods go, few are as universally symbolic as cake. It was the Ancient Greeks who first marked birthdays with cake, but now their sweet presence is part of the celebratory ebbs and flows of everyday life. Birthdays, anniversaries, babies, weddings, farewells, breakups… and Fridays can all call for abundantly layered sponge rounds smeared with ganache or buttercream, brilliantly coloured whorls of icing and sugary piped borders. They might be topped with candles or a freckling of sprinkles and finished with bespoke messages. Cakes conjure celebration by bringing art and sweetness to our plates.

As we all know, a lot rests on cake, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that when they go wrong, things can turn sour quickly. Enter: #CakeGate.

So what is #CakeGate? 

Helpfully, TikTok has provided a new platform for workers to broadcast their experiences with rude customers and unreasonable clients. The many videos on the app from service industry workers detailing outrageous customer demands and abusive treatment reflect a reality that’s antithetical to the old adage that the customer is always right – rather that the customer is most often wrong. But one of these videos is going viral for the wrong reason.

It began earlier this month when US baker Kylie Allen, owner of Kylie Kakes in Princeton, West Virginia, posted a TikTok video captioned “This customer bashed me so hard” about a disagreement she had with a customer over a layered birthday cake. 

“Today I had one of the worst client experiences since opening the storefront,” she begins her narration in the video, before recounting the situation while making a similar cake. She explains that the customer ordered an eight-inch, six-layer rainbow cake with vanilla buttercream and the words, “Happy Birthday Trilby” written atop. The finished product, she says, retails for $75.99 (NZ$123.75).

Allen says that upon arrival, the customer became upset about the rainbow sprinkles on the cake as she assumed it wouldn’t have any. That’s when the situation turned sour. After explaining that the sprinkles were part of their in-house style, Allen says the customer became “super defensive and very rude about the price of the cake”. 

Rather than sympathy, which Allen might have been expecting from the video, many of the 6.9 million people who have now watched the video seemed to instead firmly agree with the customer: the cake in question was an overpriced mess. 

Screenshots from tiktok of the controversial cake. 'Happy birthday trilby' is written messily in black on top. The cake is scattered with hundreds and thousands and a messy smear of white icing.
The controversial cake in question. (Image: TikTok screenshot)

And that was the end of it, I presume?

Eventually, the cake maker turned off the comments, but that did little to stop a slew of reaction videos on TikTok. In fact, it might have just encouraged it.

Things only got worse from there. A few days later, the customer uploaded a series of TikToks telling her side of the story, including pictures of the actual cake. The first video was simple yet effective: a slideshow of pictures of the cake – featuring a decidedly sloppily written message, messily-applied sprinkles and a haphazard smear of white icing on top – with audio of an off-key recorder cover of ‘My Heart Will Go On’ by Celine Dion. 

The second video featured screenshots of their heated Facebook Messenger conversation. One of the messages from Allen reads “a disrespectful person is no good customer of mine”, to which the customer replies, “It’s not disrespectful to expect quality. It’s disrespectful to serve your reliable customers something like this.”

Sounds messy (like the cake)

As tends to happen online, the relatively mundane situation took on a life of its own. And from the drama emerged an endless tangle of TikTok recaps, explainers and commentaries under the #CakeGate hashtag. Plentiful videos and comments raised concerns about the cake maker’s lack of gloves while applying sprinkles. Many took issue with the haphazard appearance of her cakes for sale compared to their price tags. A few were suspicious that the baker had been using stock image pictures of cakes on her social media (Allen has refuted those claims). Some, pointing to what looks like Betty Crocker boxes in her videos, accused the baker of using boxed cake mix. 

Scores of TikTok cake makers demonstrated how they would create the same rainbow cake. Others were bothered by her defensive response to the customer complaint and decision to raise the issue on TikTok in the first place. Numerous marketing and PR experts even offered free video advice on how they would have handled the situation (hint: not at all how Allen handled it).

Images of other Kylie Kakes cakes. (Images: Facebook/TikTok)

Ha, typical Americans with their drama

We’re not immune to cake drama in Aotearoa either. In 2019, The Caker baker Jordan Rondel shared an image of a flower-garnished wedding cake she had made along with a screenshot of an email from the bride-to-be demanding a refund and describing it as the “ugliest cake” they’d ever seen. It sparked heated discussion, with some critical of Rondel’s decision to share the screenshot, but many more critical of the customer.

Last year, a mother, who was disappointed by her daughter’s 21st birthday cake, took the cake maker to the Disputes Tribunal. The mother told the tribunal, which eventually dismissed the case, that the cake lacked the marbled blue buttercream filling between the cake layers that she had expected.

But the #CakeGate controversy seems to have unfolded in such a heated way because of its uniquely online presence. And the reliance of small food makers on social media and online reviews often only fuels these kinds of controversies.

Like Kylie Kakes, Auckland-based cake makers Zi started their business online. “Our business was born from social media and is still primarily a social media-based business,” says co-owner Paloma Harada. “There have been a lot of positives associated with having an online business, such as being able to connect with our customers 24/7, sharing our processes, a look at the behind the scenes of running a business and a look into us and the brand, but these can sometimes overlap with the negative side of things,” she says. 

“There is constant pressure to be so connected and be so prominent in the digital world, where it’s almost a different realm of reality.”

A red and yellow vintage-style cake by Zi.
Zi’s traditional cake which costs NZ$115 for the six-inch size. (Image: Supplied)

But, she says, “if we were to be in the same situation I would never take it online and openly complain about the customer to the rest of the world. It leaves you in an open-ended argument with people from across the globe.”

Surely $123 is too much for a rainbow cake though, right?

Harada believes there are some customer misconceptions around the price of cakes, saying that while ingredients are often factored in by those wanting a cake, packaging, labour, electricity, skill of the cake maker, specialist equipment, rent of a commercially approved space and GST are often overlooked. Zi’s ornately decorated cakes start at around $65 and she says “it’s hard for a customer to factor in all the costs that are associated with making a cake. Typically the biggest cost is always the time it takes to make and decorate a cake and it’s something most people don’t even consider when they see the price.”

So is the customer at the centre of #CakeGate exemplifying this misconception? Harada doesn’t think so. For comparison, one of Zi’s meticulously iced six-inch cakes that serves 10-16 people costs NZ$115 – equating to $7 less than the controversial rainbow cake.

“For someone to not have the cake which they expected to have for such a special event and occasion, they are entitled to be upset about it,” Harada says. “[A cake is] often a focal point and to not be able to show off and share it with others will leave anyone rather disappointed, especially when there’s a price tag attached.”

Keep going!