The Cake Boss: Buddy Valastro on Experience Over Education and the Importance of Small Businesses in America

Buddy Valastro is better known as The Cake Boss, and his eponymous show on TLC -- Cake Boss -- has become one of the network's biggest hits. The show, which averaged 2.3 million viewers during its first season, follows Valastro and his family as they run Carlo's Bakery, the family business in Hoboken that's been baking cakes for more than 100 years.

The bakery has become as popular as the show itself, prompting the City of Hoboken to rename its intersection at Washington and Newark streets "Carlo's Bakery Way." But that's not all that's resulted from the show: Valastro has written two books -- Baking with the Cake Boss and Cake Boss: Stories and Recipes from Mia Famiglia -- starred in two spin-off series and is now embarking on his second tour, visiting more than 20 cities in the U.S. and Canada.

Valastro is swinging through Houston on November 11, when he'll tell stories from his family's bakery, demonstrate tips and techniques for cake decorating, answer questions from the audience, and even invite guests on stage to see who can frost the best cake in front of a crowd.

In advance of his appearance, the Houston Press interviewed Valastro by phone and was surprised to hear which subjects the New Jersey native is most passionate about.

Valastro had far more to discuss than just fondant and buttercream in our interview. This high school dropout has been managing a business for more than half his life, since his father died when Valastro was 17 and left Carlo's Bakery to his eldest son. And Valastro digs in deep when it comes to the political and economic factors in our country that are affecting small businesses and family businesses like his own.

Eating Our Words: Is this the first big national tour that you've done?

Buddy Valastro: No, this is my second. But this is the Southern loop. We did the Northern loop last time; this is the Southern loop.

EOW: Well, I gotta warn you... Jones Hall here in Houston is by far the biggest venue on your tour. It's enormous.

BV: Oh yeah? Aw, I can't wait to come down. Some of the guys here at the bakery are from Texas. Just to be able to come down and do a live show there is great.

EOW: Where in Texas are they from?

BV: Oh, from all over! Houston, Dallas, Corpus Christi, San Antonio, I mean everywhere. That was part of why I wanted to come down there. You want a laugh? I'm gonna tell you something; you won't believe it. I've never been to Texas in my life.

EOW: No way!

BV: I've never been. I was supposed to come to the Super Bowl last year, but my wife was about to give birth, and she was like: "If you go there, and I give birth...no way." So I was like, "All right, I'm missing it." And missing the Super Bowl! In Dallas! That was like a killer!

EOW: I gotta say, though, the Super Bowl is not worth missing the birth of your child. I agree with your wife.

BV: Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely. But you know what bothered me more? He was born two weeks later. I was like, "I coulda went! I coulda went!"

EOW: It's obvious that your family is incredibly important to you, on the show as well.

BV: Absolutely.

EOW: And a lot of times, you see many dysfunctional family-run businesses, especially in the food industry. How do you guys get along so well? What are your secrets for not killing each other?

BV: Well, I gotta be honest with you; we are a little dysfunctional in our own right, my family. But, in the end, this is your family. And you know what? I might say, "This is my crazy sister." But nobody else is allowed to. And that's how we roll. That's kinda how we live life. It's been pretty neat; it's been pretty good.

EOW: Let's say you had to choose between continuing to run Carlo's with an all new staff -- no family members -- or quitting to start an entirely new business with your family. Which would you choose?

BV: [laughs] That's a trick question! That's definitely a trick question. [laughs again] I would never leave Carlo's Bakery. You know? I would work out the difference somehow. But we'll move into new ventures, other ventures. We're gonna continue to not only do Carlo's Bakery but have other ventures as a family. I guess it's the family, if I had to choose.

EOW: Family above all.

BV: Look, I'm not gonna lie to you. There were aspects to my family they were doing years ago that they can't do now. My sister can't be the CFO of a multi-million dollar corporation, you know what I mean? Seven years ago? She could have run the place. Today? No. You go from having 50 employees to 150, what are you gonna do? Things change.

EOW: In that same vein, then, is it bizarre to you now that you're more well-known as a TV personality than as a cake guy?

BV: Well, I feel, you know, that my roots are still from New Jersey. I love the celebrity [aspect] -- people make me feel special, people make me feel like a celebrity, but at the end of the day, [New Jersey] is who I am. That's how I portray myself. That resonates on TV and that's why people know that I'm real.

EOW: I feel like you can see that on TV. You and your family and everyone on the show, you all come across as real people.

BV: Well, we are. I mean, I'm successful. And I'm basically living the American dream. But this journey started when I was 11 years old, and it's not like other people today -- like I became The Cake Boss and hit bottom -- you know. I've been working for many, many years. When I was 17, my dad passed away and I had to drop out of high school to go run this business. And I had to really step up and learn to do things like these crazy cakes. And these crazy cakes brought me magazines, and the magazines brought the TV, and TV brought me to Cake Boss. I've been my own publisher, my own manager, my own agent for so many years, I've always been pushing myself. You know how many bridal shows I went to to make myself known, to get exposure and things like that? It's been ongoing for years, you know. But it's the work ethic that drives it, that my parents instilled in me from the time I was 11 years old, that makes me successful today. Because I am a small business, and I'm what this country was built on. I'm what this country right now is missing. It's missing small businesses like myself that provide economic stimulus. The truth of the matter is that being the boss of Carlo's Bakery since I was 17, I sit with CEOs of companies, I sit with presidents of networks, and I can go toe-to-toe with any of them.

EOW: Sure, you've been doing this half your life!

BV: Exactly. There's a business method and education that they don't teach in school, that you learn from being on the job and dealing with things. I feel like you're either born with it or not. They ain't gonna teach you this. Even though I didn't graduate high school, I could educate educated people.

EOW: I feel like there is such a lack of emphasis on experience instead of education these days, you know what I mean?

BV: Absolutely. But it's the same thing in the cake world, you know? Wanna know why I'm good? Because I've made thousands and thousands and thousands of cakes. I didn't go to school to learn that. In school, you learn to make five cakes, so now you're a cake genius? Come to the bakery and do 1,000 fondant layers in a week, and after your fifth week you can do it blindfolded. You learn, you know?

EOW: Going back to what you said earlier about the economy, at least down here it's causing many restaurants to lay off their pastry chefs. Yet I still see these optimistic kids going through school and wanting to become pastry chefs themselves. What would you suggest to them? Maybe to become entrepreneurs like you?

BV: I mean, you can try to be an entrepreneur and do your thing. But before you do that and take the plunge, I would work at a bakery. Work in a restaurant. Say, "Look -- I'll work for free. Give me a little bit of experience." And if you earn your keep, maybe you can get a job. Work the hours for six months or seven months and you know what? You'll say, "Hey, this is great I love it. This is what I want to do." Or you might say, "Hey, this sucks."

EOW: And then you know that before you've gone through school.

BV: Yeah. And you spend a lot of money in school just to go out and get a job that doesn't pay much. But it's across the board -- it's not only pastry chefs. You know how many lawyers can't get jobs? But the bottom line is that it comes down to small businesses dying and not being able to survive. It's funny because we have all this stimulus, or all this whatever. Here I am, okay? I was going to take out a loan to make this 50,000-square-foot addition to the bakery and I have guaranteed income, I have television, I have an 800 credit score! I've had mortgages, investment properties, you name it... Let me tell you what a pain in the ass it was for me to get a loan. With a 100-year-old business! I put up my house and I put up this and that... Where's that money going? They say it's for small businesses, but if I had a hard time getting a loan, who the hell are they going to give a loan to?

EOW: I think the banks are just so gun-shy after everything that's happened, and they're just not releasing that money they've been given. And like you said, it's not reaching its intended targets.

BV: It's not. And then you've got huge companies that get the money and go under, and then you've got all those people on unemployment and all that tax money's gone.

EOW: How do you think it's possible that when people are looking at the big picture when it comes to economics, they forget about small businesses, which have always been a staple of our country?

BV: The thing is, how do you compete? It's a cultural problem. I see, first of all, how do you compete -- how do you pay your employees -- when you have to give health care to everyone? If you can't afford to do it, you can't afford to do it. Like with GM; they couldn't afford to pay these people. They couldn't afford to give them their benefits, keep up their pay, do this and do this. When you retire, you get your 401(k) and that's it. At some other companies -- especially in the government -- you gotta give them 70 percent of their salary, plus they gotta get benefits and this and that. Who pays for that? We're paying for it. You can't expect me as business owner to pay that. That's how people go out of business. That's why we have no manufacturing left in our country. How can you stay competitive with China?

Stay tuned tomorrow for part two of our interview with Buddy Valastro, and perhaps the answer to how American can stay competitive in the world economy.

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