When Justin Ellen received a “random” direct message on Instagram asking him if he would like to be part of a Netflix show called “Is It Cake?” – he thought it was “very sketchy”.
It wasn’t until they said there was an interview that he realized, “OK, it’s legit,” said the popular baking show’s youngest contestant.
After a Zoom interview and a month of waiting, Ellen – who was 18 at the time – was chosen to participate.
It was very overwhelming, he admitted.
“Because I was super young…and I realized I had to fly and stay alone in a hotel. Filming took an entire month. I’ve never been away from my family for so long,” he told CNBC Make It.
Ellen even had to skip her high school diploma to tap the show.
“Is this cake?” is a baking competition, where baking artists create edible replicas of everyday items, such as sneakers and handbags.
At first glance, the 19-year-old didn’t seem to have as much experience as the other competitors. The young baker only started creating hyper-realistic cakes two years ago. One of her opponents started cooking before Ellen was even born.
Yet before appearing on Netflix, he was already running his own successful cake business, Everything Just Baked.
“Last year we did $100,000 in revenue,” said Ellen, a New Jersey native.
“With [the] netflix [show] going out, I got a lot more inquiries…my calendar is flooded. I’m super grateful.”
Hard work and failure
Ellen learned to cook with her mother and grandmother when he was just 7 years old. They used to cook together on holidays like Thanksgiving.
From breads to pies and cookies, they baked everything – but strangely, “never any cakes”.
But he soon grew beyond the assistant stage, and at the age of 14 he descended down the rabbit hole of cake tutorial videos on YouTube and was inspired to launch his own creations.
“I just watched videos of other people doing it, YouTube is a good thing. You really have to practice and take the time to learn,” he told CNBC Make It.
“I’ve failed many times…I’ll think it’s such an easy cake and then it’ll all go wrong.”
Still, Ellen was undeterred. He was in high school when he started to dabble in baking, which was “really difficult” because he didn’t have much free time. He remembers taking part in a baking competition and going to school at 5 a.m. to practice.
“I was super busy. [But] if you’re really determined, you’ll find the time,” Ellen said.
Know its value
Knowing his worth was the biggest challenge Ellen faced as a young entrepreneur – he priced his cakes like he was shopping with his own wallet.
“At the time, I didn’t realize how valuable my art was. I asked my mom and my mom is like me, she’s not expensive. Like, ‘I’m not going to have a $100 cake.” But today people easily pay for that.”
When he started, he sold a six-inch cake for $60, but now it’s “easily $150 for the same size.”
From January this year, he started earning up to $12,000 a month after racing his full-time business.
“I realized that people were buying designer handbags for thousands of dollars. You need to make your customers understand the value of your brand and what you’re offering them, because the cake tastes good and [I] use high quality ingredients.”
Even though the prices of his cakes have more than doubled over the years, that hasn’t stopped him from building a “very profitable business”.
“Art is super valuable and people are going to pay for it. Honestly, my price goes up a little every day…depending on my mood,” he said.
What if a customer asks why their cakes cost so much? “I’ll just be honest and say, every day I’m improving in my skill set, so the price has got to go up. You’re paying for someone’s expertise…it took me 5 years to learn how to do this. “
No stopping now
Dreaming big certainly paid off for Ellen. What he had imagined for himself has come true: he now sells cake mixes and baking tools online. From time to time he holds courses for budding bakers too.
Ellen added that he takes around 6 orders a week and they are “bigger orders now”. On a typical day, he would get up at 8 a.m. and work on his orders alone in the kitchen of his home.
“Honestly, most of my clients don’t choose hyper-realistic cakes, they’re wedding cakes instead.”
His parents are now “definitely convinced” that he made the right decision to pursue a career in baking. In fact, Ellen, who started out as a kitchen assistant, is now the boss.
“My mother works for me now,” he said happily. “She helps me a lot with the backend stuff…like deliveries.”
Even if he marvels at what he has been able to accomplish at only 19 years old, the young entrepreneur has not finished dreaming.
“Non-stop thinking about my business and new ways to elevate it. I want to have a walk-in studio…but my end goal is to be like Wilton, the cake decorating business.”
Based in Illinois, Wilton produces a wide range of bakeware, decorations, baking tools and ingredients popular among bakers.
“My goal is to be like this… [Everything Just Baked] belongs to a minority, to black people and I think we need to be represented because there are no big minority brands in the baking community.”