New London — Hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, Charlene Lindquist announced last week she is retiring and selling her longtime New London cake business, The Cake Lady.
«It’s been a journey of learning and sharing, and I’ve totally, totally loved everything that I’ve done, and people know it,» she told The Day.
Lindquist announced her retirement and sale of the business in a Facebook post on Friday. Dozens of people replied expressing sadness but congratulating her on her retirement, commenting on their particular love of her pistachio cake, and recalling cakes she made for weddings, birthdays, baby showers, graduations and more.
Lindquist doesn’t have a buyer yet but wants to see The Cake Lady legacy continue. She has «always felt as though there’s something worth saving here,» citing unique offerings such as hummingbird cake, banana cake and cannoli cake — and her signature buttercream recipe.
«All it takes, really, is just one person that wants to learn what I know, and I would totally be up for mentoring and teaching the recipes and the tricks,» Lindquist said. She added, «Anybody can learn it. It’s really a matter of that passion and the guts it takes to run a business.»
With plans to close the retail storefront at the end of the year, she sees the future of The Cake Lady as people ordering cakes or cupcakes over the phone and picking them up by appointment. Her goal is to find somebody to come in and take over by April, when she’s eligible for Social Security.
Longtime cake decorator Suzy Boada, whom Lindquist called «the most talented cake decorator I’ve ever met,» will be there through the transition.
Lindquist, 62, said it had been her dream to have a cake business since she was a teenager. She got her start at as a cake decorator at Village Bake House in Niantic, and then learned about the baking process.
In 2001, once her two kids were grown up, she started her business. She put a commercial kitchen in her home, but since she lived in a residential neighborhood, everything had to be delivered. She turned her station wagon into a «cake vehicle,» with air conditioners and ductwork funneled to the back of the station wagon to keep it around 60 degrees.
«That lasted about two years, and then I needed to not deliver anymore, because it was a lot of work,» she said with a laugh.
Lindquist got a storefront on Williams Street across from Mr. G’s Restaurant, and when the restaurant starting selling her cakes, she became better known locally. Having grown to the point where she needed employees, Lindquist moved to her current spot in the New London Shopping Center in 2007.
Since the rent was so high, she initially shared the space with The Soup Lady, Cheryl Laffey. But by the time Laffey left, The Cake Lady had grown to the point where Lindquist could afford rent on her own.
Most of her business comes from weddings, and she said you «never know what’s going to come down the pipe when you’re a custom cake shop.»
She created one anniversary cake that was five tiers high with pillars between each, and with the cake plus the surface on which it was placed, she eventually couldn’t reach the top.
«I had to stand on a ladder, and I had somebody holding onto my shirt to make sure I didn’t fall forward, because of the reach I had to do, to get the bride and groom on top,» Lindquist said.
Then there was the biggest sheet cake she ever made: five full sheet cakes put together on a piece of plywood, for a Halloween block party. She measured her station wagon to make sure it would fit.
But she forgot to measure the doorframes, and she ended up in the precarious position of tilting the cake at about a 30-degree angle to get it through the door.
Lindquist has her own stories, but she also wants her customers to come in before she retires to share their stories and pictures. She has pictures of cakes but not of customers, and she wants to create a photo album of customers.
She made cakes for children who have now grown up, and she’s made their wedding cakes, and now she’s making their children’s cakes.
Wedding cakes «are pretty much all over the place,» Lindquist said, but she’s seen kids’ cakes change with the trends over the years — from Dora the Explorer and Spiderman in the early 2000s, to Frozen, to Minecraft and unicorns today. Mickey and Minnie Mouse have stood the test of time.
It wasn’t until after «Cupcake Wars» started airing on the Food Network in 2009 that cupcakes became a trend. She went from making about three dozen cupcakes a week to more than 500.
Lindquist said the height of her business was from about 2013 to 2019, when she had «like six employees cranking out cakes like you wouldn’t believe.» She opened up another store in Niantic but shut it down after about five years, as it was a lot of work.
«I really, honestly, believe that if COVID-19 hadn’t happened, we would’ve still just been zooming along,» Lindquist said. And if not for COVID-19, she said she would’ve waited another two years, when her lease is up, to retire.
She struggled to find employees this past summer but was managing, and then when October hit, it was like «somebody flipped a switch. It just sank like a rock.» She doesn’t know the cause at this particular time.
Lindquist has also found that with events canceled, many more people are ordering cakes and not picking them up.
And, of course, she’s lost out on many wedding sales this year. In recent years, spring and summer sales provided Lindquist a nest egg to get through the winter, but she’s now back to operating week-to-week or month-to-month.
«It doesn’t mean it won’t be there again; it just means that this particular season, this winter, is going to be really tough,» Lindquist said. But she believes that come summer, people will be «wanting to celebrate like there’s no tomorrow.»