Artist and Sweet Fix Bakery owner Amanda Robinson perches cross-legged on the counter of her West 10th Street shop under dozens of filled apothecary jars and starts talking. Loves, likes, dislikes, non-stop ideas, past successes and disappointments, and future aspirations bubble out in an almost stream-of-consciousness narrative.
During a brief lull, I ask her if there is anything she does not do well.
“I won’t wire a house,” she admits after a pause. “I’d kill myself.”
What Robinson does best, however, is create art. And while she is proficient with traditional oil paints, brushes, and canvas, she also utilizes flour, milk, vanilla, eggs, and Italian buttercream to create astonishingly detailed specialty cakes comparable – and even superior to – those seen on television baking shows.
A Richmond native and a 2004 graduate of the Savannah School of Art and Design, Robinson thought upon graduation she would move west and live a quiet hippie life doing art therapy for children. But her family and the oldest fire station in Virginia beckoned her back.
“I was very ambitious, still am,” she says of her decision. “After graduating, I came to Gallery5, which at the time was a fire and police museum, Steamer Company no. 5, run by a nonprofit under my dad. In the 1970s, my dad saved the building from demolition. The city wanted to rip it down or turn it into condos. I lived there, and we worked with the prison work release program to renovate and overhaul to save the building and the non-profit.”
Robinson had a deep connection to the building – her great-grandfather and grandfather were fire chiefs there, and many uncles were firemen.
Robinson recalls that year she reached out to RVA Magazine creative director Parker Galore on MySpace just as they were about to release their first issue. “He was going to do a story about the gallery, then we decided to join forces and do their first issue at our grand opening the same night,” she recalls. “Then, for the first few years, many events were often in conjunction with the magazine.”
- Scott Elmquist
The call of creativity
Within a few years, the gallery’s focus transitioned from party house shows to more socially conscious exhibitions.
“We got a lot of flak from people who were involved,” Robinson laughs. “People were like, ‘ugh, you Debbie Downers, why does everything have to be political?’ But I thought, if anyone has a voice to say something, it’s going to be us.”
After the birth of her first child, Robinson says all the years of spreadsheets, emails, fundraising, and especially exhibiting other artists work made her miss creating her own. So in 2009, she began funneling her creativity into creating cakes on the side from her home.
“At Gallery5 I found myself behind a computer screen all the time,” she recalls. “I was writing up contracts and not doing the fun stuff. So I decided to leave to be my own artist.”
With demand for her specialty cakes growing, Robinson chose in September 2015 to bake full-time and opened her bakery in a converted carriage house in Manchester. There she could combine her artistic visions with her business and extraordinary culinary skills in a style she calls “European meets Southern.” Although, she admits that she now spends as much time behind a laptop screen as she did at the gallery – the consequence of running a company.
- Courtesy of the artist
Sweet Fix’s culinary creations – hand-designed and baked from scratch with local and organic ingredients in constant consultation with the client – can be whimsical, majestic, and even magical. In one creation, a silver horse made of lemon cake with lemon elderflower Italian buttercream bursts from the third tier in a curving vertical oceanic splash of glass-like spun sugar.
Other presentations are almost Warhol-like in their banal, everyday objectiveness. For example, Robinson and her staff have diligently duplicated in cake: a container of Old Bay seasoning, a 40-oz Miller High Life in a brown bag, a stack of comic books, and even a TV dinner. “I learn about the client’s style and vision through in-person and phone meetings,” she explains. “I learn their event style, then direct them through various directions to bring that idea to life.”
- Courtesy of the artist
Every event is different, she says. “Sometimes I have to talk them down from really out there ideas,” she adds, noting that one client brought over 50 images to incorporate into a wedding cake. “I talked them into using two or three because the cake must have a theme and a focal point, or it won’t look good. I have to consider composition, color, and design. It cannot just be everything; it would be a chaotic mess.”
Sweet Fix also devotes many hours to the development and creation of all visual elements of their unique dessert tables, including pedestals, menu cards, favors, backdrops, even floral arrangements, among others.
After weeks of preparation and creation, she has no qualms watching her painstakingly detailed wedding, birthday, and special event creations sliced into and devoured.
“I love the medium,” she says of creating art through cake. “I love making cakes because it is in a frame of an art form. You make it, and it gets consumed. It’s not like a piece of art sitting around, and you say, ‘Oh, I really don’t want to look at it anymore. I could’ve done this differently, etc.’ It’s eaten, you got a picture of it, and that’s done. And it’s the best feeling to have an art form that exists that way.”
She also stresses that the cake has to look great and taste equally impressive. One recent wedding creation featured a sculpted, airbrushed dragon seated atop two startlingly realistic books, “Battletech,” by William Keith Jr. and “Earth Abides” by George R. Stewart.
- Courtesy of the artist
“Those were the two books that meant the most to the groom,” Robinson explains after talking the clients down from 40 books to just two. “I needed to make it look like they had been through the wringer. The cover is an edible wafer paper, and I had to go back and paint aging elements on it.”
“Earth Abides” is a dark chocolate cake with orange Grand Marnier Italian buttercream. “Battletech” is vanilla bean cake with Oreo cookie Italian buttercream. The dragon is Red Velvet cake with vanilla Italian buttercream.
During the pandemic, when business slowed to a crawl, Robinson subtly converted her bakery from a “French patisserie-cum-1950s-sweet-shop” theme into more of an apothecary to reflect both the dark times of quarantine and her new interests in herbalism. “I always wanted to better understand nature and the plants,” she explains of the thematic transformation. “I went to school during the pandemic while running the space for herbalist studies. The aesthetic of Sweet Fix used to be more geared toward what I thought people wanted to see, and I stopped worrying about that and made it what I wanted it to be. So now it’s an apothecary, and you see a little bit of my dark side intertwined into the space.”
In keeping with that darker side, Robinson and Sweet Fix also featured [are featuring] their Nightmare before Krampus holiday pop-up at the bakery on Dec. 2 and 3. They also sponsored [will sponsor] the RVA Krampusnacht 10th Anniversary Kickoff on Dec. 2 at Gallery5.
While it seems obvious that Robinson and Sweet Fix could appear on national baking shows and most likely win (she gets an email invitation almost weekly), she refuses to do so because she considers many of those shows dishonest. “I have been on some shows, including Foodtastic and Baking Blizzard. But many of those other shows, I consider them cheating by sometimes using inedible items as dowels, Styrofoam, and metal frames, then putting edible items on top.” Every single thing in her cake is edible, she says.
Shows also require about a month of preparation, meaning the bakery would have to shut down while she and maybe two of her employees waited for 30 days or more in a California hotel waiting to be called, if at all. “They don’t give a confirmation until the last minute,” she explains. “Most of the bakers you see participating in those shows do it full time. They quit their baking jobs to just do competition.”
Meanwhile, leaving the competitions behind, Robinson and her staff keep creating unique edible artworks, winning accolades from national media, and hosting first Friday pop-ups on that quiet Manchester block.
Sweet Fix is open by appointment only. Anyone interested in consulting on an event should fill out the online inquiry form at https://www.sweetfixrva.com.