Cake lovers in Champaign-Urbana know The Cake Artist’s Studio and its tasty sweets. Ashlee Roderick Freeburg is The Cake Artist, and she’s been making cakes for more than 20 years in the same Champaign studio. Freeburg has baked wedding cakes, birthday cakes (including mine), lamb cakes, cake pops, cookies, cupcakes, seasonal treats, and pies. She’s won medals in national cake competitions, too. Though she doesn’t want to stop baking, she’s going to have to.
After December 23rd, there won’t be any more cake by The Cake Artist coming out of the Bloomington Road bakery. What happened? Why the sudden closure? I sat down in The Cake Artist’s Studio with The Cake Artist weeks before the bakery’s permanent closure. Next to her impressive, beautifully decorated cakes, Freeburg talked about how she started baking, what the Champaign Studio means to her, and what’s next for her — and her cakes.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Smile Politely: Ashlee, you’re The Cake Artist.
Ashlee Roderick Freeburg: I am The Cake Artist, and that’s all I ever wanted to be: an artist. I started out really small, as a child, making crafts with pieces of fabric and rocks, my little clothespin dolls and little things. I loved it. My mom and dad were really good about just letting me make things, and they sent me to a Saturday morning art class at the University of Illinois. I just loved to do things with my hands. From pottery to printmaking, I wanted to be an artist, and I got accepted into a couple programs. Then Mom and Dad were like, “Now really, what are you going to do with an art degree?” And of course, I told them I was going to paint, going to sculpt. They thought that was great, but they wanted me to have some other sort of side gig.
This was in 1988-89. We were just getting The Food Network, and I saw how creative you could be with food. I decided that is what I want to do, so I became a pastry chef, inspired by The Food Network. I decided that I would go to school to learn how to make things to put art on.
SP: And how was pastry school?
Freeburg: It was challenging. I went to The Culinary Institute of America, and that’s like the holy grail of culinary schools in New York for the associates program, which was their longest program at that time. I hated math, but I love baking math; I see the reason for it, and it makes sense.
SP: Bet you can transform tablespoons to cups off the top of your head?
Freeburg: 16 tablespoons in a cup.
SP: Oh, wow, you do know baking math.
Freeburg: I know the math.
SP: Were you ever tempted to stay in New York?
Freeburg: I moved, like, 14 times in four years before moving back to Champaign. First, I ended up in Massachusetts in the Berkshire Mountains at a country house hotel. We had 18 rooms, and it was very exclusive. Five stars, my chef was nominated for a James Beard Award. So we were that kind of hotel. We would have celebrities stay. John Williams would come and stay all summer. He would bring his grand piano with him. Steven Spielberg, you know. Billy Joel came to dinner.
SP: And you were making the desserts?
Freeburg: Making the desserts. Somewhere in all my things, I still have their dessert tickets.
SP: So what brought you back to Champaign?
Freeburg: I’m from Champaign. Grew up on the golf course on Old Church Road — it was just Church then. But I actually came home to buy Sweet Indulgence.
SP: Did you end up buying it?
Freeburg: No, it just didn’t work out. Before culinary school, I worked at Sweet Indulgence. You needed to have six months of real world work experience as part of your application for culinary school. So when I was a senior in high school, I worked for the original owner Debbie. I worked, and so I knew what a bakery was like. That’s why they want you to work before going to school, so you don’t have any grand illusions about what it’s really going to be like. Standing up all day and picking up heavy things — and it’s hot; you burn yourself. It’s not like TV. Yeah, some parts are, but not all of it.
SP: Can you talk about the opening of The Cake Artist’s Studio?
Freeburg: I knew I came home to have a bakery, whether it was that one or something else, but that’s when this was born.
SP: In this same location?
Freeburg: Yes, we built the building. We’ve owned this property for 50 years. As far as I knew if you were a Roderick, this is where you came to work, at this building. Chemical Maintenance, Inc. next door was where my grandpa and grandma and my dad and my uncle were.
We looked all over town to find a spot for my bakery back in 1999, but we just didn’t find the right place. And Grandpa said, “Well, we have this land. Why don’t we just add on to the side of the building?” We cut down the cherry tree that was here and built a bakery. We laid the floor, painted, and we put up the walls in the kitchen. I mean, we did the whole thing. One winter, I was in Florida in a multimillion dollar kitchen with no windows, and the one thing I knew I wanted in my bakery was windows in the kitchen, so this has windows. I can see out over the sink, and I can see out through the front.
SP: When did you build this bakery?
Freeburg: In 2000, and we opened in February of 2001.
SP: How do you decide the menu?
Freeburg: I try to make what people want. Something I learned when I came back to Champaign is that the East Coast flavors don’t necessarily translate to Midwest tastes. At the beginning, people weren’t necessarily up for passion fruit, but with The Food Network and all the other things that have come along, I think people’s tastes have grown much more adventurous. And it’s allowed me to do some different things.
SP: Do you have a favorite cake flavor?
Freeburg: Our signature cake is the brown sugar oatmeal with brown sugar coconut frosting. I’ll always like that one. I grew up with Mom making that one, and we’ve traced it back in the family to the 1850s.
SP: Something unique you make are lamb cakes. Can you talk about them?
Freeburg: The lamb cakes are something I brought back to town. My grandpa — the grandpa who built the building — used to get them for us in Danville or Georgetown. I think there was a monastery over there, and they would make the lambs at Easter. And being a salesman, he would be over there and pick up one, so we always had a lamb cake at Easter. I knew everybody else needed lamb cakes, too. So that’s one thing I’ve tried to keep, and then I turn them into reindeer at Christmas. We just put evergreen antlers in and a cherry for a nose. There’s this family, and growing up, the son had a lamb cake every year. Then he got engaged and married, and they were expecting a baby, and they got a lamb cake to break the news to the family.
It’s nice just being a part of all these big special days, especially with wedding cakes.
SP: Do you deliver the cakes? Are you able to see it at these venues?
Freeburg: Yeah, I’d say I deliver 90% of the cakes. A cake needs to be cold when it leaves. I’ve learned to deal with these Illinois roads.
One thing I’ve always said is: Don’t let the cake know you’re scared. Because it can feel it. Same if you take everything to repair it, you won’t need it. But if you forget it, you’ll need it.
SP: What’s a cake baking tip you can share?
Freeburg: Don’t try to do a cake all in one day, okay? It takes several days. Bake your cake one day, fill it with the filling the next. Let it sit overnight, and then the next day, finish it. So it’s not all squidgy and moving around.
SP: I have to ask: there’s a rumor that you might be closing. I’m curious what you want to say about that.
Freeburg: Okay, well, as I said, we owned the property for 50 years. My dad and uncle had sold their business several years ago, but they were still renting our building. But they decided to move on, and we decided it was just time to sell the property. And being connected to the other building, I’m part of that property. So in June, Cardinal Pool and Patio bought the property and started the transition into their space, which was great. And we were hoping to be great neighbors.
Freeburg: And tenants, yes, we had no idea that anything was going to be different. I knew we would get a new lease. Our current lease with the family ran through the end of December, and they were honoring it.
In September, we got a letter with a new proposed lease, and it was five times our current rate. Admittedly, we had a sweet deal with family, but there’s no way we could come up with five times our current rate. So I sent back a letter proposing an idea that I thought might be a starting place for negotiations. I thought we would go back and forth a couple of times and settle on something that would work for both of us. Instead, I got a letter stating that they were retracting their previous offer, and no longer offering us a new lease.
We’re still in shock, still have our moments of crying. I’m just trying to figure out what’s next because I guess there is no negotiation.
SP: Wow, that’s soon.
Freeburg: We didn’t get our formal notice of that until November 10th. Basically seven weeks. We’ll be open until Christmas — until December 23rd for our Christmas pick-ups. It’s just very stressful, all in between Christmas and New Year’s. We have a walk-in cooler to take down and remove. Everything goes with us.
SP: How are you feeling?
Freeburg: Of course panicking, trying to figure out where we’re going to go. People have been very sweet about trying to give us ideas, and I’ve called people I know and have been asking customers, saying, “Hey, I need a building. Do you have one?” People have been good about talking with me about things, but we decided while we’re so panicked that we shouldn’t make any major decisions.
As much as we want to know what’s going to happen — and people want to know what’s going to happen, we’ve decided just to not make any major decisions until we’re out [of The Studio]. We need a little bit of time to actually gather all the ideas and logically think things through. It’s a lot, and of course it takes money to move. We have set up a GoFundMe, and people have been very sweet giving donations. That’s going towards helping us get all of our stuff out.
SP: Where will you put your cakes?
Freeburg: I’m gonna get boxes. I think they’re going to go in my mom’s living room because they can’t go in storage. They’re my friends.
SP: So there is going to be a period of intentional break it sounds like, but that’s not the end, right?
Freeburg: I set a deadline for myself of the end of March. To know, to be somewhere knowing what we’re going to do. I want to be realistic, and I won’t know in three weeks. I know from originally building our bakery that it can take two to three months to build out a kitchen. All this is coming with me; I do own all my equipment, so I could go into a blank space and build it out. But that costs money as well.
SP: But you’re still making cakes until December 23rd?
Freeburg: Yes, people can put in Christmas orders. Pick-up will be December 20th through December 23rd, and preorders will end before that on Saturday, December 16th. We’ll stay open later until 6 p.m. on the last day of pickups, December 23rd; it’s a Saturday.
We want to make it the best Christmas ever.
SP: That’s people’s last chance, as we know it here, to have The Cake Artist’s Studio treats. When you’re back, will you still go by The Cake Artist?
Freeburg: Yes. I’m not letting my name go. I’m Champaign’s original cake artist. After this break, I hope to be back. I just don’t know where or in what form. People should follow [our] social media for updates.
Call 217-403-0900 to place a holiday order from The Cake Artist’s Studio. Holiday specials include a variety of cake, yule logs, reindeer cakes, cookies, Christmas cake pops, chocolate pie, fruitcake bars, red velvet wreaths with white chocolate ganache, and more. See all the details for the last time to order from The Cake Artist’s Studio on Bloomington Road here.
The Cake Artist’s Studio
1100 W Bloomington Rd
W-F 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Sa 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.