Accidental dream: Would-be filmmaker turns to cakes

Less than a year a year ago, Amanda Smith didn't have business cards and wasn't even sure what direction she wanted to take her company. But who knows, maybe an unexpected dream fueled by a childhood passion is more important.

When she moved to Charlottesville five years ago, fresh out of college, the plan was to eventually move to New York City to break into the movie business. She had interned at the Weinstein Company during college, and couldn't wait to get back, so the stop in Charlottesville was supposed to be temporary.

Not knowing a soul and living in a remote country house, she began passing the time by doing something she loved as a kid: baking.

"I have always had a passion for baking," says Smith. "As a child, I was always in the kitchen helping my mom; or, bored on a summer afternoon, I'd whip up some of my Grandmother's oatmeal cookies."

Little did she know that taking a server job Blue Light Grill would be the start of a culinary adventure, but one day she brought in her cupcakes to show the chef.

"He approached me about being a pastry cook in the kitchen," says Smith. "For about a year I was a pastry chef by day, server by night. I also worked at a few bakeries where I gained a wealth of knowledge, but wasn't allowed total creative freedom. Panda Cakes was born."

Now she has eight weddings booked for fall and spring, and her intricately designed– often thematic– creations have already begun popping up at gatherings.

"I wish I could say that Panda Cakes was a lifelong dream, but that just isn't the case," says Smith. "They don't call Cville the velvet trap for nothing, do they?"

She also made the move from server to bartender at Blue Light.

"What I like most about both of my jobs– cakes and cocktails– is the creative freedom," she says. "With cakes, the flavor possibilities are endless, but the classics are still what most people crave. In addition to creating tasty cupcakes, I love design work. I am a big fan of theme parties, so I get pretty excited when customers ask for cupcakes to go along with their theme– even if I have never heard of it before."

For example, she offers a workshop/demo service for children's parties in which she provides supplies and they create something together.

"I am now fully aware of who Totoro is and that lemurs are the "it" animal for kids parties," she laughs. "I am also fully on the local bandwagon and try to use seasonal local ingredients when possible. Fall is quickly approaching, and I just love pumpkin, apple, and spice treats."

And the future?

"Now I am looking for an optimum storefront for Panda Cakes," says Smith. "I have big dreams for my business and am working really hard to make them a reality."

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