Whenever Charm City Cakes gets name-checked, founder and master baker Duff Goldman might be the first person that comes to mind. But Duff doesn't live here anymore: He moved to Los Angeles two years ago to start Charm City Cakes West. His 2011 departure coincided with the conclusion of the 10th and final season of Ace of Cakes, the Food Network reality-television show that documented life with the Remington bakery's scruffy but utterly original team of cake wranglers.
Duff's expansive personality and visionary baking antics dominated the episodes, but regular viewers came to appreciate the calm, grounding influence of bakery manager-and inadvertent co-star-Mary Alice Yeskey. As Yeskey tells it, the Ace of Cakes producers at first intended an Odd Couple-esque pairing of dynamic Duff with deadpan cake decorator Geof Manthorne.
"They were so opposite, which was the shtick," Yeskey says. "But when filming started, the production crew quickly realized that Duff will just start talking nonstop and suddenly you've gone from cakes to tauntauns and Star Wars. And Geof will come out with these amazingly hilarious things, but mainly he is not the most talkative guy. So I ended up on the show kind of by mistake once the producers realized they needed one person in the middle of all the chaos who could explain things. To actually tell the story-like who is this cake for and what is the event and when does it need to be delivered."
Yeskey, eventual accidental TV star, grew up in Gaithersburg. (Random Mary Alice factoid: her brother Neil is lead singer of the band Clutch.) She met Duff Goldman in 1994, during the very first week of her freshman year at UMBC, when she dropped her mother's pearl necklace down her dorm room sink's drain. "Duff was working as the dorm maintenance guy to get discounted tuition, and he showed up to dismantle the pipe and rescue my mom's necklace, which she didn't even know I'd taken," she says. "I referred to him as my hero for a long time." The two formed a close friendship, which endured even as Duff went off to culinary school and stints at restaurants all over the country while Yeskey stayed close to Baltimore, working a series of marketing and communications jobs for local nonprofit organizations. Goldman eventually made his way back to Baltimore to launch Charm City Cakes in 2002 and, five years later, hired Yeskey to help manage the enterprise.
"It was still this scrappy little start-up, but already things were gaining momentum-the week I started was the week a couple of television guys came to film 'the sizzle roll,' the sample footage used to sell a series-which, by the way, was originally called Fuck You, Let's Bake," Yeskey says. "I was like, 'No way is this really going to happen. Who wants to watch a show about cake decorating?'"
Ace of Cakes was a surprise hit for the Food Network and brought relative fame, or at least notoriety, to the Baltimore bakery and its crew. "I'd be out somewhere-not only in Baltimore- and suddenly someone would be pointing at me and yelling, 'Hey, cake girl!'" Yeskey recalls. It also brought a weirdly specific wave of tourism to the city: Fans of the show began showing up at the bakery, looking for a real-life connection with the crew. "We had to get locks for the doors and a security system," says Yeskey, whose job duties expanded to include fan management. "We couldn't handle all these people just showing up; we aren't a retail shop. And we had to wade through thousands of phone calls and emails to get to the actual clients. For a while, every time the show aired, our email server would crash. It was kind of crazy. But I had only worked here for a short time before the show started filming, and it ran for five years. So the crazy was the normal."
"By the time we got to season 10, things weren't getting bad, but everyone was like, 'This show is still good and funny, let's walk away instead of jumping the shark,'" she continues. "So Duff leaving to open the California shop ended up being a logical endpoint for the show."
Ace of Cakes finished its run in early 2011 and Goldman departed for the West Coast. (He remains thoroughly engaged with the Baltimore bakery and returns regularly for working visits.) A month later, Yeskey herself took maternity leave, and a new bakery manager was hired to take her place. Her son, Spencer, is now 2 and she is back at Charm City Cakes as director of sales and marketing, busily overhauling the bakery's image. "Thanks to the show, everyone knew Duff and that he can make robot cakes that spit fire. But they don't realize he also makes beautiful, elegant cakes," she says. "We also had to battle misconceptions about how expensive we are and how booked out we are, and even that we'd closed down the Baltimore location entirely. Even if you're on TV, you have to nurture your marketing, and we needed to evolve our image."
To that end, the bakery's interior has been redesigned with softer colors and upgraded fixtures. (Yeskey's signature flame-red roller-derby girl hairdo has been replaced by a more mom-friendly cut in her natural brunette shade. The tats, nose ring and hipster specs, however, remain.) Last year the shop came up with the idea of producing an annual summer collection of artistic wedding cakes. It was a success-"People said, 'Wow, I knew you did crazy, but you also do really pretty!'"-and the staff is working on a new collection for 2013. Photographs of flowers, architectural details, and even the bow on the back of a dress are pushpinned to large communal corkboards to help inspire new designs; nearby tables are loaded with exquisite sample cakes.
"My job right now is polishing us up a little bit, but we are still that same crew of people," Yeskey says, looking around at the room and her busy co-workers with obvious pride and affection. "When you come in, you might see this more professional-looking space, but you'll also hear Black Flag on the radio. We are who we are."