Business

After a century, Tacoma-based Lucks Food Decorating Co. has become a respected, international brand

The icing on the cake is the icing on the cake for a century-old Tacoma company relatively unknown in its own hometown.

Born as a commercial distributor of cigars in the first decade of the last century, the family-owned Lucks Company went on to sell ingredients as well as manufacture and sell ovens, roasters, doughnut fryers and other equipment.

But it was the roses that made a difference.

Located on the northern edge of the Nalley Valley, Lucks Food Decorating Co. enters the Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County 2014 Major Employers List with 101 employees.

A handful of those employees make those roses – icing roses, big and small, all by hand. The company did try to automate the process. There are machines that can make roses for cakes. But the machine roses just didn’t work.

“They just didn’t look right,” said Dan Elliott, senior vice president of operations, during a recent tour.

They didn’t look right, so they just didn’t fit into the mission, vision and legacy at Lucks.

PRODUCTS

The millions of roses produced each year constitute 18 percent of sales at Lucks, said company President Rick Ellison. And those roses come in the in-house colors of many rainbows.

Also, with equipment recently installed, Lucks “has become the leading producer of food colors,” Ellison said.

Before, he said, “manufacturers didn’t know trends, fashions, how the products were used. We talk to the market every day.”

Primary colors, check. Pretty much any color you can imagine? Check. Gold shimmer color for use with an airbrush, check.

With the new equipment – with the ability to fill, cap and seal dozens bottles of food coloring per minute – Ellison expects to be able to serve 100 percent of his core market with the opportunity to grow four-fold.

The company sells products both under its own name and under the name of private customers, whether cake-business celebrities or large retail chains.

Along with roses and colorings, the company at a sister plant in Fife produces a line of “Edible Image Designs” that range from a variety of Disney characters, to the seals of the U.S. armed forces, to SpongeBob, Winnie the Pooh and far beyond.

Then come the “Print on Demand” cakes, the ones where the decoration begins with a digital picture that can be transferred into an edible design that can be applied to a cake.

That’s about 25 percent of the business.

Then come the “Dec-Ons,” little molded hard-sugar doo-dads: bees, hearts, flags, praying hands, six-shooters, cowboy hats, mustaches and so on, and on, and on.

There’s a story there.

INNOVATION

A decade ago you could have said that Lucks was fat and sassy, successful and well pleased with itself.

“We were getting happy and secure about how we did things,” Ellison said. “We thought nobody can do as good as us.”

Then a customer inquired about designing a set of those sugar doo-dads. Lucks had the capability to go from design to mold to prototype to production in six to eight weeks.

The customer said he could get the product done in China in two weeks.

Ellison said, “We needed to go from six to eight weeks to a week. We had to change the way we did prototypes.”

Today, the process takes a day.

“We want to keep jobs here,” Ellison said. “We do not want to give a customer a reason to go offshore.”

To that end, the company employs two food scientists and three engineers. It has learned to recognize trends and new markets.

Around 2006, Ellison contacted to Foster School of Business at the University of Washington in Seattle. He arranged for a group of second-year MBA students to study the industry and offer recommendations.

“They said Australia was the No. 1 opportunity, China was No. 2 and the E.U. No. 3,” he said.

So it should not come as a surprise to note that “Cake Boss” Buddy Valastro will appear this October at the Cake, Bake & Sweets Show in Melbourne.

Julisa Serrano, Lucks inside sales supervisor, said Australia is currently a “hot spot” for cake decorating, followed by South Africa, New Zealand and, yes, the Forbidden Kingdom.

“The trend in China is U.S.-made,” said Ellison. “They know the quality is that much higher.”

Heather Sisson, director of sales and marketing, said she spends part of her workday studying trends and fashion, collecting data. She’s working on 2015 and 2016, she said.

CAKES

What’s the most popular “cake occasion” in the U.S?

Take a guess.

No, not birthdays. Try again. No, not weddings. One more chance. Not Christmas, Easter or Mother’s Day.

It’s graduations: kindergarten, middle school, high school, college. By far.

But cakes still grace birthdays, weddings, Halloween, baby showers and all the rest.

“That’s the beauty of our business,” Ellison said. “We’re all about celebration. When you run a company that’s all about celebration, how can you not have fun? It’s the employees that make this a fun place to work.”

Fun, quietly.

Carl Lucks, a fourth-generation member of the founding family and now CFO at the company, explains that Lucks Food Decorating does not seek publicity, but rather has tried to earn its reputation.

“We try to be the best kept secret in town,” he said. “The Lucks family has always been private. I want people to know our products. I don’t care if they know about the company.”

“We want to be well known in the industry,” said Ellison. “You’re not going to see any flashiness. We have a reputation where it matters.”

He explained the company ethos: “If you’re not trying and failing, you’re not learning and growing.”

One way or another, it’s a piece of cake.

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