Cool parents in Singapore: HoneyKids interviews Joann Finlayson from Jo Takes the Cake

Jo Takes the Cake
We've been ordering our little (and big) slices of heaven from Jo Takes the Cake for years, so we thought it was about time we got to know a bit more about the woman behind the baker's apron...

Unless you’ve been hiding under a three-tiered cake sponge rock, chances are if you have kids you’ll know about one of the best birthday cake bakers in Singapore: Jo from Jo Takes the Cake! We’ve long heralded her fabulous fondants, her fluffy fillings and cracking cake-art, so we’ve persuaded her to take a break from the cake and give us the inside intel on what it’s like to juggle a successful (and delicious) business with three kids. Jo: over to you!

Tell us a little (or a lot) about yourself…

I was born and grew up in Trinidad & Tobago, an island in the Caribbean. At 24, I moved to the British Virgin Islands, another beautiful island in the Caribbean which, I think, can claim the most gorgeous beaches in the world. I met my English husband there when we both worked in the Offshore Finance industry. After 10 happy years there, we decided to move to the North East of England when I was pregnant with #3, mainly for the kids’ education. Our time in England was quite short as after just six months I quickly realised this Caribbean girl could not survive the cold British climes! We started to look for opportunities on warmer shores and put Singapore on our radar. Fast forward eight years and I am incredibly proud to call Singapore home.

We know you’re a mum to three kids: tell us about them

I have two boys, 12 and 10 years, plus a girl, age eight years. They attend local school with the eldest already in Sec 1. They all have different personalities. Dominic the eldest is somewhat shy but quietly determined. The middle one, Dylan, is the comedian in the family and has lots of funny quirks that keep us laughing. And Danii, the baby princess: well she gets away with murder!

Your kids go to local school: how hard was it for you to get them their places, and how are they finding the local system?

When we first moved to Singapore, the boys attended an international school. After two years we decided that Singapore was our home and we applied for PR. Once the application was approved, we moved the kids to local school so it wasn’t really an issue obtaining spots for them. Dominic started at P3 and Dylan started at P1. They really surprised us and coped quite well with the switch. Dominic completed P6 last year and was voted All-Rounder of the Year by his teachers and is now studying at Raffles Institution (although secondary school is a whole other story and such a huge step up from primary school!).

Dylan is currently in P5 and does Mandarin as his Mother Tongue, and despite fighting it, he really does try very hard and we are hugely proud of his results. We are lucky that their primary school is a quiet neighbourhood school so they have a short walk to get there and it has a lovely community feel. The teachers are caring and I feel that my kids really do get a very well-rounded education.

Tell us a funny / cute story about your kids.

This is probably hard to believe, but I never made my own kids any fancy birthday cakes when they were younger. It has always been a quick naked cake with fruits, or a sprinkles cake or ice cream cake! But for my daughter’s sixth birthday she sketched out a two tier fondant cake with three figurines on it, and then put it on my desk and said that it was her order! I couldn’t refuse, so I did make it for her and actually it urned out to be an amazing cake. Since then, the other two kids (AND my husband) have been placing their own ‘orders’ for their birthdays.

We’ve been ordering your cakes for years! How did Jo Takes the Cake come to be, and have you always baked cakes?

Jo Takes the Cake

Jo’s cakes are almost too pretty to eat! Photography: Jo Takes the Cake

I have always loved baking and trying out new recipes since I was about 10 years old! Of course there were many failures which my family would help me eat. When I started working I would bake to de-stress and sometimes for friends. After we moved to England, while I was pregnant with baby #3, I thought that would be great time in my life to quit the finance industry and be a SAHM while I pursued my dream of setting up a baking related online business in England. I developed a range of American style muffins with a Caribbean twist and posted them out via Royal Mail. While doing this I also got requests for decorated cakes and cupcakes. I won’t lie, I struggled with the decorating side of things as I had zero experience at that point, but after many trial and errors (and plenty of sleepless nights), I eventually got the hang of things!

You’ve made a lot of cakes: do you have stand-out faves?

I have to say that even though my core business is kids celebration cakes, my passion is feminine floral cakes.

Jo Takes the Cake

This SG50 masterpiece in cake won Jo a trip to New York! Photography: Jo Takes the Cake

Number one and my standout creation has to be my SG50 cake! I entered this one in a competition judged by American cake artist Buddy Valastro (Cake Boss) and I won a trip to his bakery in New Jersey!

But other than that, all my cakes have been memorable. Each comes with its own story, so I wouldn’t want to rank them. I remember every cake and client I have worked with for the past eight years!

Talk us through the labour of love involved in getting a cake from idea stage to creation…

My cakes take A LOT of time. I don’t accept many orders per week as balancing three kids and their crazy schedules plus a husband that travels and works too much is a struggle in itself. My ethos is quality over quantity. I like to really plan ahead so I dislike taking on last minute orders.

Usually I get booked up months in advance, so that works well for me in terms of keeping a schedule. Most of my clients are repeats or referrals, so I am lucky that they already trust my work and tend to leave the design process to me. I try to also stick to the style of designs that I am most comfortable with, so if it’s a last minute, gravity defying, busy cake, I will not accept the order.

Once the date is booked, and the clients lets me know a them, I will then start planning out the design. As I don’t like repeating designs or copying another artist’s design, I always try to make each and every one of my cakes unique.  

For the smallest, simplest single tier cake, each step still takes 2-3 hours, and I spend, on average, at least 15 hours per cake. With the market being heavily saturated, and clients not willing to give up a kidney for a cake, being competitive is my greatest obstacle. But I am lucky in that I think I have developed my own style over the years so I have become well known on the cake circuit, and of course I have my long-standing, amazing repeat clients.

What are the most requested themes for cakes?

Jo Takes the Cake

Bunting cakes, superhero cakes and unicorn cakes are always in high demand. Photography: Jo Takes the Cake

For first birthday celebration cakes, my balloon, bunting, confetti (BBC) is requested the most. It can done in any colour, is unisex and is the perfect happy celebration design when a client has no specific theme in mind.

For girls it would be unicorn, mermaid, Frozen or any Disney princess! And for boys it’s generally superhero, vehicles or dinosaur cakes.

Do any of your kids have a flair for baking? And do you think any of them will follow you into the profession?

Ah no! Maybe because I am a helicopter mum in the kitchen and I often take control when they attempt to do something. They do like the thought of baking and making things together, but it tends to go wrong just by having all three in the kitchen at once. My eldest is quite keen though, and he has that eye for detail that I do so he loves to measure ingredients and prep things when we do desserts for the family.

Tell us five things about you that we probably don’t know

  1. I have two tattoos. One I got when I was 21 purely to rebel. The second one I got when I turned 40 and is a Chinese dragon with three cherry blossoms to represent my zodiac and my three kids.
  2. I can’t freehand draw to save my life. On my cakes, I always use templates to guide me.
  3. Beef rendang is my favorite meal, I can literally eat it every single day. I know where I can find the best ones in every corner of Singapore.
  4. I went back out to a desk job for one year while in Singapore, but soon realised I much preferred working for myself and being creative.
  5. I’m an ACCA qualified accountant but struggle to do my own accounting records!

Thanks for talking to us, Jo!

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