Living the sweet life
Say it with Sugar owners dish on love, life, work
By Sonia Duggan
Monica and Treg Whitaker’s love and respect for each other is even sweeter than the frosting they make or the cakes they bake.
Their marriage of 17 years is truly a partnership. Not only are they raising a daughter together, but they work together and, on most days, ride to work together to their cake shop, Say it with Sugar Cake Shop, in downtown Wylie.
In the last decade, their cake shop has earned a reputation for quality work not only in Wylie, but in the DFW metroplex as well.
The journey to this point hasn’t exactly been a piece of cake. Monica and Treg have put in long hours and lots of hard work – sprinkled with compromises and sacrifices – to reach where they are today.
Learning from scratch
Monica earned her decorating and cake making skills the old-fashioned way, on the job and by working hard in Dallas and Arkansas long before Say it with Sugar. She says cake making and decorating school wasn’t even on her radar after graduating high school in Bentonville, Ark.
“I tried college for a bit after graduating high school but the stresses of working every day and not having a day off finally got to me, so I quit,” she said. “I didn’t even know what I wanted to be.”
Fortunately, Monica’s job at Harp’s Deli post high school turned out to be life-changing when the resident cake decorator became pregnant and needed an apprentice who could fill in.
“She started teaching me how to do it (decorating) so I could take her spot,” she said.
That on-the-job training jump-started Monica’s cake decorating career. When her mom relocated to Dallas with Kraft Foods, Monica followed a few times over the course of the next few years working at Spirited Cakes, Calendar Bakery and Busy Bees Bakery, before moving back to Arkansas.
In 1997, 20-year-old Monica got a job at the well-known Fayetteville cake shop called Rick’s Bakery and continued to hone her decorating skills.
One year later, Monica and Treg’s path crossed for the first time.
Treg was not any ordinary teenager. He was one of four boys raised by a single mother in Wyoming. His early run-ins with the law prompted his uncle, a builder from Oklahoma, to rescue the then 16-year-old and his older brother from going in to the juvenile justice system any further.
“My uncle convinced the judge to let me move to Oklahoma,” he said. “It really saved me. It was pretty cool.”
The boys started working with their uncle who taught them how to frame houses.
“My uncle was a great carpenter and he taught me how to do everything,” Treg said. “We built million-dollar homes – even a house for the owners of Kansas City Royals.”
Within a year, Treg moved just a few miles away to Arkansas, rented his own house and started his own framing business at 17.
“It was really hard trying to get guys to listen to me, but I knew what I was doing,” he said.
After moving out on his own, Treg’s mother and younger brothers moved from Wyoming to live with him. His maturity and caring demeanor led Monica to believe he was much older than he was.
Not long after they met, he turned out to be a knight in a tool belt when he rescued Monica from her abusive boyfriend, also his employee, when he went to jail. Treg collected all of Monica’s stuff and moved her into his house
“I had been trying to leave my ex-boyfriend for a long time, but he wouldn’t let me,” she said.
As for Treg and Monica it wasn’t exactly love at first sight, but it didn’t take long for them to connect.
Their careers continued; Monica worked at Rick’s Bakery and Treg built homes until he hit a rocky spot in the industry.
“I was having a hard time making money,” Treg said. “Her boss at the bakery was moving his business to another building in the same strip mall so I went to work for him. Then, after that Rick needed work on his house, so I built an addition and did a few more projects.”
When the remodeling gig ended, Rick was short-handed at the bakery and needed someone to bake pastries. Treg told him, “If you’ll pay me what you were paying me to build, I can go do that for you.”
Treg said Rick taught him how to bake everything: pastries, strudels, Danishes, turnovers and cakes.
“I helped bake for a long time there then I started icing cakes,” he said. “We had a competition to see who could ice cakes the best and I was the best cake icer.”
Treg was eventually recruited to train six non-English-speaking women how to ice cakes.
“We got through it and I trained them how to ice cakes really well,” he said.
Wedding bells and crumbled cake
Monica says Treg is the romantic one but their wedding tells a different story.
She didn’t want to live with him forever. She wanted a commitment, but marriage wasn’t something he really wanted to do.
“I had never lived with anyone other than my grandparents that had ever had a relationship,” he said. “I guess it never really meant that much.”
“So, my boss Sharon, Rick’s wife, started getting in cahoots with me to get Treg to marry me,” Monica said.
Soon, a marriage plan was cooked up in Rick’s bakery that was a win-win for all parties involved.
Monica had planned a week off to spend at her mom’s time share in Tyler.
Sharon helped convince Treg they should marry so they could take the planned vacation week as their honeymoon.
The plan worked. The couple married under the arch in front of the bathrooms at the bakery Feb. 15, 2003, the day after the busiest bakery day of the year. Monica said she shuns attention so they both agreed to a short and sweet ceremony that cost them only $20. She didn’t wear a wedding dress, he didn’t wear a tux, and they didn’t even take a picture.
“We had the cheesecake that we broke that day at work as our wedding cake – they put fruit all over it,” Treg said.
A week after they got married, a Mr. Tux representative came to Rick’s Bakery to shoot an ad using several of the male employees, including Treg, as models. Treg negotiated a deal in exchange for payment asking if they had a dress Monica could wear so they could get some mock wedding photos, and they did.
Two years later their daughter Sienna came along while the couple was still working at Rick’s Bakery. To avoid daycare, they adjusted their work schedules to accommodate caring for Sienna. Monica worked from 2 a.m. – 7 a.m., then Treg would go to work.
Rick’s Bakery business continued to grow and they needed Monica to do more cake decorating. As her hours went up, Treg’s dipped, causing his boss to cut his full-time benefits so he quit. Soon Monica’s work schedule grew to 6 days per week, so she quit too.
“I had to put Sienna in daycare, and I was already giving up a lot of time with my daughter,” she said.
Monica’s decision to quit Rick’s Bakery after 10 years was a smart decision for her career. She went to work for Shelby Lynn’s Cake Shoppe in Springdale, Ark.
“Not even, like, two weeks after I got hired on there, she (Shelby) was called to go to Food Network again,” Monica said. “That was her second time going there. That was perfect timing for me.”
The cake making duo went to competition three times together and won two golds and one silver. Both times Shelby and Monica won gold they split the $10,000 prize.
“The silver one we competed against Bronwen Weber of Frosted Art Bakery in Dallas,” Monica said. “She’s been on Food Network multiple times.”
Tiers and tears
Winning the competition was great for Monica, but the couple struggled to make a living for their small family.
Out of necessity Treg was framing houses again but was making much less than when he was younger due to the influx of day laborers.
Melanie’s challenges were different. The final straw came when she got the flu but bakery management insisted she come in sick at night to decorate a massive 8-tier cake.
“I would go in the middle of the night to decorate a $2,000 -$3,000 cake and only make $30,” Monica said.
A conversation with her sister, Melanie Borges, who lived near Wylie, convinced Monica she could have her cake and eat it too with a bit of planning.
Armed with her Food Network winnings as a cushion, the sisters baked up a plan and a partnership to open a bakery.
During the 2009 Thanksgiving holiday, the Whitakers visited Melanie and drove around Collin County looking for a place that needed a bakery. She discovered downtown Wylie and the future storefront at 106 N. Ballard Ave.
“I fell in love with the arches,” says Monica.
While Monica and Treg were in Arkansas preparing to move, Melanie, a computer engineer for Borden, bought all the needed bakery equipment at auctions. Then on Christmas Day 2009, they moved in with Melanie and her family.
The couple devised the initial bakery menu based on their years of experience making various types of cakes and confections.
“We knew the good stuff that was easy to make,” Treg said. “Donuts are a beating to make and don’t bring in enough money to cover expenses.”
It took almost six weeks for the crew to get the building and equipment ready for business.
Say it with Sugar opened February 9, 2010, bringing a sweet spot to the middle of downtown Wylie.
Initially, the family lived in the back of the building in living quarters that Treg built, but that did not last long at all.
“It was really depressing because it felt like we never left,” he said. “Our daughter had no yard to play in.”
In the beginning the partnership between the sisters was not smooth, says Treg, but they eventually worked it out. Melanie maintained her fulltime job and helped out when she could but the bakery business and customer service were not her forte.
“She’s the banker and brains of the family,” Monica said.
The Whitakers lived off the Food Network winnings as long as they could but soon they were down to their last $20, prompting Treg to look for construction work to help make ends meet.
“I went to several job sites looking to help frame houses but couldn’t get hired because I didn’t speak Spanish,” he said.
Treg finally bumped into a remodeler who gave him a chance, making it possible for them to pay bills until the business got traction.
Thankfully, the bakery took off immediately and Say it with Sugar began to build its reputation for quality work.
Weddings, birthdays, baby showers, engagements, graduations, divorce – and just about anything other type of celebration you can think of – they’ve probably baked a cake for it at one point or another. Monica said her favorite cake to make is wedding cake, but the bulk of their business is birthday cakes.
Some of their creations are sure to rival Food Network’s Cake Boss in its design. Treg’s ability to build almost anything – plus bake and ice cakes – combined with Monica’s decorating and baking talent, has made them the creative duo they are today.
Cost isn’t an issue for every customer. Treg said they have one client who spends $3,000 -$5,000 every year on a birthday cake for his young daughter. For that customer, he said he has built trees out of copper, built a cake with a swing and so much more.
“If I didn’t come from a construction trade it would be really hard to do it,” he said.
Running a business day in and day out as a married couple, and with employees watching, hasn’t always been all sunshine and sprinkles.
According to the couple there have been many challenges – the biggest one they say was, and is, the power struggle.
“We get through it,” he said. “I think most of it is me just shutting my mouth and doing it the way she wants to do it. I’ve learned to pick my battles.”
Treg and Monica carpool to work almost every day, stopping at Cooper Junior High to drop Sienna at school, before arriving at the shop about 8 a.m. They are open Tuesday through Saturday.
On days off, the couple enjoy spending time together and as a family. Treg loves fishing, 4-wheeling, hunting, shooting guns and doing metal work for a guy who builds mobile command centers for the government.
Monica often works from home doing paperwork or she’ll accompany Treg on his outings.
Mondays are often date days, or if they are really busy, they go to work.
One thing is for sure, Monica is averse to baking at home.
“Sienna knows if she wants to bake something at home, she has to do it herself,” she said.
Because they take cake orders a year in advance, planning time off is a challenge. Treg and Monica learned from working at previous bakeries to close the week of Christmas and the Fourth of July.
“I only have those two weeks I can plan every year,” says Treg.
In a business dedicated to celebrating everyone else’s special occasion, Treg and Monica say celebrating their February 15 wedding anniversary is not a priority.
“We are usually smoked after Valentine’s Day, so we don’t do anything on our anniversary,” Treg said. “We don’t even buy presents for each other.”
Last year, Monica bought out Melanie’s share of the partnership but is quick to say “I could have never done it without her.”
They have no regrets about their decision to move to Wylie to follow their dreams and hopefully, on February. 9, Treg and Monica Whitaker will take a moment to raise their favorite cupcakes for a toast – Salted Pecan for her and Snickers for him – to celebrate 10 years of making baked delicacies and custom cakes alongside each other.
“There’s nothing better than coming to work with the one person that you love the most,” says Treg. “We have every day to look forward to. The coolest part is thinking about that.”