If you’ve ordered a cake from one of The National Bakery’s locations (Brookfield, Greendale or West Allis) in the past year, there’s a pretty good chance that Julie Brooks had a hand in decorating it. Same goes for the whimsical cookies that you can order or buy directly out of the case.
Brooks’ creations at The National Bakery & Deli, 3200 S 16th St., include countless themed cakes (including one that looks like a cheeseburger, and another that features jungle animals playing near a waterfall) as well as the bakery’s sugar cookies, which are decorated in colorful, playful designs.
Brooks says she has designed cakes that depict just about everything.
"One time I did a cake that had little naked men all over it for a bachelorette party," she notes with a smirk. "And people have asked me for penis cakes."
But, she likes to focus on more whimsical concepts.
"Animals are really one of my favorite things to do," she admits. "I love doing cakes for kids’ birthdays. Just being able to see their faces when they love a cake, it makes you feel good."
And, close your ears parents. Brooks is not at all shy about using frosting. After all, buttercream forms the basis for all of her creations – including the adorable 3-D animals that grace the tops of their 2014 Wisconsin State Fair cookies.
"Everything is edible she says," as she puts the finishing touches on a jungle cake she’s been working on. "It’s a lot of buttercream."
When it comes to finding inspiration, Brooks says she looks to popular culture and pays attention to the things that are going on across the city.
"During the elections, we’ll do Democrat and Republican themed cookies," she says. "And sports are really big. If the Brewers are doing well, everything Brewers-related sells. Same with Packer Season."
Turns out that cookies which mix cute animals and sports are even bigger winners. Brooks says they’ve sold over 4000 of the Hank the Dog cookies she designed for the bakery earlier this year.
She notes that over the years, she’s seen countless trends come and go.
"There was a time when we did sooooo many Barbie cakes," she says. "First they were Barbie-themed. And then we started putting the doll in the cake. Right now Ninja Turtles are really popular. So are super heroes. And whenever there is a new movie out, we’ll do things with that theme. Frozen has been huge.
"And zombie cakes are really in right now. We use the strawberry glaze for the blood – and the more we use, the better."
You can tell from the look on her face as she talks about her craft that Brooks loves what she does. And, although she’s been working in bakeries for the last 20 years or more, her career didn’t begin in the culinary world.
Originally from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Brooks spend the first ten years of her career working in customer service for various airlines across the U.S. But, things began to change for her when she sought out part-time work at a bakery in Orlando, Fla.
"I’ve always been kind of crafty and artsy," Brooks explained. "And I’ve always loved to draw and paint. When we were kids and decorated cookies and things, I always loved it."
So, when a woman named Jennifer took Brooks under her wing and offered to teach her the trade, it struck a chord.
"We didn’t work with fondant, so she showed me things that I could make with buttercream," she recalls. "And that really fed my artistic side. But, I never thought it would ever become a full-time thing."
But, when Jennifer decided to leave the bakery, Brooks found herself alone in the cake decorating department. It was simultaneously exciting and horrifying.
"When Jennifer left, I was the only one," she says. "And I remember thinking, ‘I don’t know how to do this.’"
But, as often happens when necessity requires it, she latched onto the opportunity to really delve into her work. She took over all the cake decorating at the shop, including wedding cakes.
When she was laid off from Delta Airlines, she took another job with an airline based out of Syracuse, NY. But, again, she sought out work in a bakery.
"I worked at this sweet little bakery – Sweetheart Market, it was called – that’s no longer open," she says. "It was great. They were really open to letting me be creative – and that was the biggest thing for me. They’d let me try new things, and I got better and better."
So, when she made the decision to move to Wisconsin to be closer to her two sisters in 1990, Brooks decided to take her passion for decorating to the next level. She landed a job in the bakery at V. Richards market.
Over the next 18 years, Brooks honed her craft. And by the time John Nehring took over the business, she was head of the bakery department.
"I started up a lot of new cupcakes that they’re still doing today," she says. "And I started making these little egg shaped cakes that we decorated with faces or turned into animals, Santas or Leprechauns for holidays."
She introduced push-up cake pops, in endless flavors, as well as playing with various frostings for cupcakes. She worked with catering to accommodate regular parties – sometimes ten or more in a weekend – for kids, which offered her countless opportunities to develop whimsical, playful designs.
"I was doing a lot of freehand drawing," Brooks notes, "So, I really got a lot better at drawing. I went from copying things from pictures that people brought in, to actually creating new designs."
Ultimately, her talents led her to accept a position at The National Bakery, where she’s part of a team of three who handle all the cake and cookie decorating for all three bakery locations.
Her day to day includes decorating many of the bakery’s cakes – including some of the nearly 700 graduation cakes the bakery sells during the month of June. But, she’s also working on a number of other projects, including introducing updated designs for the bakery’s cake book and working up concepts for a brand new online cookie business – Melanie’s Cookies, an Oak Creek business that The National Bakery recently purchased.
"It will be thousands of cookies that are put in tins and can be ordered online," she says. "So, they’ve charged me to come up with a whole decorated cookie line that we can sell, with manageable designs and frosting that ships well."
"I always thought about owning my own bakery," she admits. "But I’m really really happy here. Working here for Brian and Jeff is really fantastic. I love what I do. And I love coming into work every day.
"I would be happy working here until I retire. And because they let me do more creative stuff, I don’t have as much of a desire to own a bakery of my own. Because I’m already doing it here."
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.