Michael Touchet vividly remembers the excitement building in the days before he opened one of the few independently operated bakeries in Columbia.
He had chosen the location in the Atholton Shopping Center for its reasonable rent and for the expansive window at the front of the shop.
"The way I could tell a lot of people were checking us out?" Touchet said. "When the sun sets, I could see forehead grease prints all over the [window] glass."
The co-owner of Touche Touchet Bakery and Pastry Shoppe (his partner is Terry Keyfauver) said the business has a lot to celebrate as he works through a busy season between Thanksgiving and the winter holidays.
After all, one of his cake decorators keeps winning national awards for her work. And while other local businesses have clamped down during the recent recession, he has added employees since he opened in December 2006, never making good on his threats to potentially cut hours because of the economic downturn.
"We had a couple of downturns where we were freaking out, but this last summer was the best yet," he said. "I told the employees we would be cutting hours. They said, 'You lie.' "
Cupcakes and pastries apparently are recession-proof.
Touchet moved to Maryland (these days, he lives in Jessup) from the New Orleans area to attend L'Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, where he trained to be a baker. Before moving here, he managed Red Fish Grill Restaurant on Bourbon Street.
After his training in Gaithersburg, he opened up the bakery in Columbia, and over the years he has watched it grow.
"We're not an itty-bitty bakery anymore," he said. "It used to be that if you called in the morning with an order, we'd have it done in the afternoon. That's history. Now we need a week's notice."
The bakery has nine employees, most of them part-time, Touchet said.
And another stroke of good luck? The woman who responded years ago to a sign Touchet taped to his window seeking a cake decorator – well, she has since been recognized as one of the most talented in her craft in the nation.
Rita Llanso, who Touchet hired shortly after the bakery opened, recently won the cake decorating grand prize in the 2010 Pillsbury Bakers Plus Creative Decorating Competition held in Las Vegas.
Llanso said the work to enter the contest, which brought in one decorator from each of the 12 regions of the country, was intense.
"I was hoping to win," she said. "You never can tell what the judges will think. You are setting yourself up for a fall if you think you are going to win this."
She did win, though.
Overall, she's taken home $10,000 this year in prize money from various cake decorating competitions, she said.
Llanso, a former biological illustrator, taught herself how to decorate cakes and make a living at it after her profession was taken over by computers, she said.
She is a meticulous artist, her colleagues say, and she'll spend anywhere between three and 12 hours per day on a wedding cake and between 24 and 36 hours over several days on a sculpted cake.
The fuel for her creativity?
"I rock out to hard rock in the back and sing at the top of my lungs," she says.
As word spreads locally of her talent locally, the requests for themed cakes have come rolling into the bakery. She's made a Day of the Dead wedding cake with dancing skeletons, and recently she created a pirate-themed wedding cake for a couple who lives on Pirate Lane in Laurel.
"Many times we've almost killed her – working 14 and 15 hour days, and she's a perfectionist," Touchet said. "If it doesn't look right, it's not going out. "
Inside the Bakery: A guide to some of its best offerings
Best cookie: The Midnight Fantasy Cookie. Every October, the bakery holds a "Cookiepalooza" where customers vote on their favorite of four new cookies. The event this year sold 976 cookies at the discounted price of $1 (usually cookies are $1.50). The fantasy cookie won 36 percent of the vote.
Most popular cupcake: The red velvet cupcake. "Most red velvet cakes have an acid, like vinegar, in it," Touchet said. "We just put red food coloring in there and make our own cream cheese filling. It makes a big difference in the flavor."
For the foodies: Try the upside down cupcake. The chocolate cupcake is filled with icing and glazed with ganache.
For more information: (410) 997-9338 (or 410-99-SWEET), or http://touchetouchetbakery.com/