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Bloomington-Normal cake maker Maria Alvarez is adding new layers

Maria Alvarez in her shop
Maria Alvarez owns Maria's Cakes and two other affiliated businesses, Cookies by Design and Events by Design.

Every special occasion is, by definition, special. But for Maria Alvarez, quinceañeras are different.

Alvarez never got one of her own. She moved to Bloomington-Normal at age 14, hopeful she’d get to return home to Mexico the next year for her quinceañera – a birthday party for a 15-year-old marking a girl’s passage from childhood to adulthood. But she never did.

A few decades later, Alvarez is now one of Bloomington-Normal’s most successful professional cake makers. She became popular, in part, by making delicious cakes for Bloomington-Normal’s many Hispanic families for quinceañeras.

 Maria Alvarez selfie
Maria Alvarez moved to the U.S. from Mexico at age 14. She's been in Bloomington-Normal ever since.

“When I do something like that, I go all the way,” Alvarez said. “I do it as if it were my own.”

After running Maria’s Cake business for about seven years, Alvarez is now adding new layers. She recently took over a Cookies by Design business and launched her own events business, meaning she’s running three affiliated businesses with six employees out of a storefront at 1520 E. College Ave., Normal.

“Right now, I basically live here. I’m here all the time. I’m here after-hours trying to work,” Alvarez said.

Alvarez is no stranger to hustle. She started working at age 8 to help her very poor family, including five siblings. She worked for a woman who made cakes, spying on her to begin learning the craft.

After moving to the U.S., Alvarez would get asked by family and friends to make them cakes.

“As soon as I make one, more and more and more people were asking me. It came to the point where I was too popular. I needed to get a location and put everything together,” she said.

How to make a big cake

It takes about three days to make a cake for a big event, like a quinceañera, Alvarez said. Her cakes are 7 to 8 inches tall – and that stacks up if she does, say, a five-layer cake that needs to be transported in pieces. She once had to use a ladder to put one together.

Alvarez likes the challenge of designing and making a cake if a customer comes in with more than a dozen photos as inspiration. What’s more common, she said, is for a customer to tell Alvarez they like her work and trust her to come up with something on her own.

But that’s more pressure.

“I like that, but it’s like oh my God – I have to do it better, because it’s not going to be like a picture they give to me. I have to put more into it. It’s good and bad,” Alvarez said.

The most expensive cake she’s made cost $3,000. Wedding cakes start at $350. With that price you’re getting a lifetime of cake-making expertise. So if you’ve watched a lot of reality TV cooking shows where fondant icing – like a stiff clay – is prominently featured, Alvarez can tell you why she can make a cake without fondant that’s just as cute but cheaper and tastier. She can do a traditional buttercream cake or something more exotic, like a strawberry cake with fresh fruit inside.

“I think that’s what makes me different than everybody else,” Alvarez said.

Alvarez is an artist, and her latest business ventures give her the chance to control more of the canvas. She recently launched Events by Design and took over Cookies by Design in October, meaning she can now offer event packages that include themed decorations, a cake, a sweets table with things like cake pops, rice krispies and macaroons – the works.

She’ll even cut the cake for you.

“It’s not very easy to cut those kinds of cakes,” she said.

Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.