Richland sisters find sweet success with Layered Cake

Richland sisters Elena Gavin and Concetta Gulluni admit they were never good friends as teenagers.

Being 3 ½ years apart in age, they had their own friends.

But now, as business partners in Layered Cake Artistry, 117 W. Kennewick Ave., Suite 110, in downtown Kennewick, Elena, 41, and Concetta, 38, have become the best of friends.

Well, for the most part. There was the Great Éclair Incident of 2019 that got Gavin banned from the kitchen for a while. But more on that later.

The two have found tremendous success, despite having to survive a pandemic which forced them to turn on a dime at times to survive.

And they’ve gotten noticed by customers as well as other organizations.

It has been an interesting four years since the business first started.

Their start

The sisters grew up in Vancouver, British Columbia, where their grandparents owned a popular Italian bakery, called Calabria Bakery.

Their own parents met there while working. Their uncles and aunts worked there, and then so did the grandkids.

The sisters would go on after high school to embark on different vocations — Elena worked in sociology and in hospitals; Concetta was a geologist and went to law school.

They went from Vancouver to Michigan to the Tri-Cities, acquiring husbands along the way, getting their American citizenship, and sponsoring their mother to come to live with them after their father died.

But it was Concetta who decided in 2017 that she wanted to go back to making pastries and cakes, and she tried to convince Elena to be her partner.

Elena originally was just going to do social media.

“But I saw how things went with her first Valentine’s Day pop-up,” Elena said. “She got zero sleep, and I saw how insane it was.”

That night, at their mother’s home for dinner, Elena found Concetta curled up on the floor in the living room, fast asleep.

At that moment, Elena decided to join her sister full time in the business.

“The thing with Concetta, I’m so proud of her. She can do anything she sets her mind to doing,” Elena said. “She was a geologist for one of the largest mining companies in the world. She went to law school. I saw the potential in my sister. So, I took over the business side of things.”

A pink and lavender cake by Layered Cake Artistry in Kennewick features vanilla cake, raspberry compote, raspberry Swiss meringue buttercream and white chocolate ganache. (Courtesy Layered Cake Artistry)

They began by using the Walter Clore Center in Prosser, but couldn’t store anything there. They would gather their ingredients and equipment into the van, drive from their south Richland homes, make their pastries and cakes, clean up, load the car and go home.

It made for long days.

When the Red Mountain Kitchen opened in 2019 in downtown Kennewick, the sisters moved their operations there, and were able to store their equipment where they leased kitchen space.

They worked out of there while eyeing an empty building just a block east on Kennewick Avenue. It took a year to renovate.

“The last thing this place was a pizza place,” Elena said. “It was empty for two years. There were holes in the roof. But we saw the potential.”

They stripped the floor down to the original concrete, found the original brick  walls and uncovered a skylight.

“We knew from pretty early on that if we opened a brick-and-mortar shop, it would be down here,” Elena said. “Downtown Kennewick has the charm of an old main street. We love the old historic buildings, the walkability and the community down here. The relationships, friendships and bonds between all the small business owners is really special. We’re all rooting each other on and are quick to lend a hand when needed. There is no place we’d rather be.”

The Historic Downtown Kennewick Partnership noticed what they did too and awarded them the Downtown Kennewick Revitalization of the Year award at its annual celebration on April 28.

The award recognizes the efforts of those who work strenuously and tirelessly at revitalizing properties and storefronts in the downtown Kennewick area.

“The renovations that (they) undertook were big and bold on design, while still maintaining a timeless elegance and cozy charm,” said Stephanie Button, executive director of the HDKP. “This project transformed not only the block it is located on but upped the stakes and standards for the rest of the downtown in the best way possible.”

They’ve been at their current location for a year and a half.

Things were looking great. They moved all their stuff from Red Mountain Kitchen to the new building on a rolling cart, had their soft opening in November 2019, and the grand opening in January 2020.

And then the pandemic hit.

The battle

 Concetta and Elena shut down in March 2020, pivoting their business to a delivery-only model.

“We felt bad for our employees,” Concetta said. “We were worried about paying our bills, and we had a lot of deposits to refund, especially for weddings. We ended up with money not coming in, and a lot of money going out.”

All private rentals of the facility either stopped or were canceled.

“The rules kept changing (during the pandemic),” Concetta said. “But we took time to develop our website and were doing online ordering. Weekly pickups got us through. Holidays got us through.”

And they’ve been on the rebound ever since. Lines out the door on Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day were noticeable.

There are six part-time employees in the business. One staffer helps Elena with customer service at the front of the house, another takes care of running the venue for events, and four others help Concetta in the kitchen.

The pair never intended their business to be a retail store. It was about taking phone orders and online orders for weddings and events.

But they’ve cut back on weddings, and they’ve added retail days on Friday and Saturday — the only days people can walk in off the street to purchase their products.

“We discovered we actually like retail,” Concetta said. “And we do fewer weddings. So, our original plan has flip-flopped.”

Saturdays are like community get-togethers at Layered Cake Artistry. The store is open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

But in an ode to their roots, when they were allowed to have pop-ups in someone else’s brick and mortar, they invite other businesses to hold their own pop-ups in their store — businesses that sell flowers, coffee, home goods, juice and plants.

It’s usually a steady flow of customers during those four hours.

The sisters expect business to keep growing.

They’re bringing back some of their classes — for cake baking, building and decorating.

“And we just decided to do private events again,” Elena said, “for Sundays, Mondays and after business hours.”

The facility can and has been used for Christmas parties, baby showers, bridal showers, business meetings, private dinners and other celebrations.

A partnership of success

 The key to their success, Concetta said, “is separation of duties.”

Courtesy Layered Cake Artistry

That was learned in the earlier mentioned Great Éclair Incident of 2019.

“Concetta is chill in the kitchen. It’s her happy place,” Elena said. “I, on the other hand, get anxious in there, and drive her up the wall.”

One day in the kitchen, Elena felt the color of the eclairs they were making were a little bit off shade.

Concetta said they were fine.

The differences in opinion turned into an argument.

And then, “We had a blowout incident,” Concetta said.

Things were thrown at each other, and Concetta banned Elena from the kitchen — although every once in a while she may still help out.

Concetta is the creative force in the kitchen. Elena makes sure the bills are paid and many of the details are taken care of.

“Elena doesn’t miss a lot of things,” Concetta said. “Every detail is right on, whether it’s every cake order is done correctly to when something needs to be delivered.”

In other words, they complement each other.

That’s a long ways for the two when they were teenagers, sisters but not friends.

Now, they’re doing something they both love and that has brought them closer.

They love greeting and talking with their customers on those Saturdays. It’s a sense of community.

“For me, it’s the ability to create something,” Concetta said. “The common answer for us both is we absolutely love food.”

“And,” added Elena, “food is love.”

Layered Cake Artistry: 117 W. Kennewick Ave., Suite 110; 509-579-0299; layeredcakeartistry.com

Customer service orders via phone or online can be made Tuesday through Saturday. Retail hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday  and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday.  

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