Born and raised in Lake Wales, Rachel Cullen has had a sweet tooth for as long as she can remember. She loved baking so much that whenever her mom would get a babysitter for her and instruct her not to do any baking while she was gone, the little baking rebel would pull out her ABC Cookbook and do it anyway.
In high school, recurring visits from Johnson & Wales University representatives gave Cullen the itch to attend their school, which she eventually did.
Her foray into the culinary realm was during an internship at a Lakeland bakery two days a week where she’d help make cakes, pies, cheesecakes, and other goodies. From there, she moved on to a Lake Wales café, saying, “I liked the industry, but I definitely wanted to specify in baking.”
A NOT SO HALF-BAKED IDEA
Her bakery has been in the planning for over two years now. Meanwhile, Cullen and her husband welcome a son into the world who is also almost two.
After working in the corporate world for over 15 years, Rachel remembers coming to her husband one day to ask how he felt about selling their house, moving back to Lake Wales, and starting her dream bakery. He agreed, and Lake Wales has gotten a little sweeter because of it.
Cullen said, “There was never a question once I decided that this is what I wanted to do there was no going back.”
FRIENDS, FAMILY, AND FROSTING
The family set to work renovating their Stuart Ave. locale from a what was formerly a retail monogram shop into a functioning kitchen and darling bakery.
When it came time to name the bakery, many of her friends and family wanted her to incorporate her own name, but Cullen liked ‘Cocoa.’ She smiled, “I’m a true chocoholic, so it fit.”
From start to finish, Cullen said, “It was a family project to get here.” Her husband did much of the renovation work, her sister helped decorate, her parents babysat her little one, and her best friend helped fold boxes on opening day.
The family operation doesn’t end at Cocoa Cake Studio. Rachel’s father has owned Mayer Jewelers on the same street for over four decades. Rachel’s sister also plans to open her own space on Stuart Street where she will be doing lash extensions, massage, facials, and waxing.
When you walk into Cocoa Cake Studio, you’re stepping into the exact vision Rachel Cullen had for her bake shop. Everything from the “dainty pink walls” (it took several shades of pink to find the perfect one) to the rolling pin door handle, fits into her entrepreneurial dream. “I probably couldn’t have envisioned it any better,” she said. “It’s very dainty but clean, a little old stuff, a little new stuff.”
The bakery had a soft opening in October of last year, followed by their grand opening in January. Cullen and family felt the full force of community support at the grand opening with hungry patrons standing wall to wall. Even with a selection of free food for people to try, they instead opted to get in line to buy goods.
Opening the door of the cake studio, the sugary fragrance of frosting and various other treats was intoxicating. Known for her beautiful cakes, Cullen also offers single slices of their best-selling double chocolate cake and gluten-free chocolate truffle cake. Cupcakes, brownies, peanut butter bars, pie slices, tarts and pies, cream puffs, cookies, muffins, scones, coffee cakes, and bundt cakes sit invitingly in her display cases.
“I listen to what people are asking for and then if I can I try to accommodate that. I want to make what I know people want,” said the baker. If something isn’t selling, she’ll play around with the flavor or eighty-six it from the menu completely because customer happiness is paramount to Cullen.
Without divulging too much top-secret information, I asked Rachel what makes a really good cake. Her answer – quality butter, and more importantly, quality vanilla. Vanilla is such a dyer ingredient that she makes her own by soaking vanilla beans in vodka for a couple of weeks. “That way I know it’s good and I know what’s in it,” she said.
Though her business is in its infancy, Cullen has big plans for the bakery. She discussed extending her hours in the near future, the possibility of offering hot breakfast sandwiches, the idea of a monthly tea, and her first cupcake decorating class on January 26th. She’d like to eventually branch out into different versions of the class for kids and adults. You can sign up for her classes through the Cocoa Cake Studio Facebook page or by calling the shop.
Cullen loves being part of the downtown business community full of neat little shops and boutiques. “It’s just kind of fun to help revitalize downtown Lake Wales,” she said.
“I think that this first year is going to be the hardest just learning the ins and outs, but it’s also so exciting,” Cullen said. “This has been a dream.”
The icing on top of this sweet saga is that you too can have a taste of the Cocoa Cake Studio dream by stopping in the bakery for a tasty pick-me-up.
Cocoa Cake Studio
224 E. Stuart Ave., Lake Wales