Leia Perez began her career crunching numbers as an accountant, but earlier this year she decided to explore the sweeter side of life.
“I fell into accounting, but I’m naturally a creative person,” said Perez, 35. “Art is in my bones.”
Perez is the founder of Candyland Designs Co., a bakery and custom cake shop on Broadway in downtown Kissimmee. Her creations range from elegant and traditional wedding pieces to a commemorative 22-tier, 4-foot-tall commemorative cake for the city of Kissimmee’s 135th birthday.
She works with her husband, Jonathon - a retired U.S. Army veteran - to create about seven custom orders a week along with other pastries like cheesecake and macaroons to entice visitors behind the shop’s display case.
Perez grew up cooking and baking alongside her grandmother, a long-time caterer. Perez became known for her unique, edible designs as an accountant at a therapy clinic where she crafted birthday and retirement cakes for her co-workers.
“It went from me making one cake for someone to making them for everyone all the time,” she said. “After a while, I realized I had something here.”
When the therapy clinic closed at the end of 2016, Perez decided to pursue cake making full time. She went with the name Candyland Designs, a nod to her favorite childhood board game and reference to an early sprinkle-encrusted candy cake created for a co-worker.
It wasn’t long before business started booming and she found herself stocking three freezers in her Kissimmee home with custom orders. She was going to need more space to take her once casual hobby to the next level.
“My husband and daughter kept asking if they could eat this cake or these cupcakes in the freezer,” Perez said, laughing. “I ran out of room at my home and realized I needed another location.”
The pastry chef made the move earlier this year with the help of her family and other downtown Kissimmee merchants. Candyland Designs opened its Broadway doors at the start of 2018 and remains s family affair. Jonathon works part-time to bake the cakes that Perez designs and decorates, while their 11-year-old daughter, Melina, pitches in by creating fondant, an edible icing used to sculpt cakes and pastries.
Perez said she’s had her share of interesting requests and experiences over the years. She’s designed rainbow confetti wedding cakes for gay couples along with unique creations molded to resemble DJ turntables, makeup palettes and race cars.
She’s also made some off-color custom orders for bachelor and bachelorette parties displayed on her website’s gallery under the “Naughty Cakes” category.
“Other bakers may be offended by those kinds of requests,” Perez said. “I think it’s hilarious. I always tell people to call me if they think another baker won’t do a job.”
The Cleveland-native used her skills in business and marketing to promote the new venture and grew her reputation at events like Chef’s Night in Orlando.
Perez became known for her smooth, blemish-free icing and her ability to work together with clients to make their vision a reality.
“For me, understanding this is something really special to a customer and they just want things to be perfect is the key to making people happy and making them smile,” she said.
Perez demonstrated her versatility in March when she won first place for Best Cupcake in the Orlando regional Best Baker’s Competition. She now has a spot waiting for her at the national championship in Las Vegas next year – not bad for her first time ever competing in a baking challenge.
Still, Perez remains humble about her journey. She’s sharing her tricks of the trade each Sunday during a special after-hours BYOB (bring your own booze) cake making class, with a G-rated version offered to kids during the summer. She’s hired an intern to help with orders, but said she doesn’t want to expand any more anytime soon.
The baker admits running Candyland Designs can be stressful. Creating artwork from simple concepts is challenging and dealing with clients can be trying. But Perez admits her job is pretty sweet.
“At the end of the day, it’s mine and I’m doing what I like to do,” she said. “So even if no one else walks through the door for the rest of the week, I still would do all of this all over again.”