Choosing wedding suppliers never used to be difficult. You selected a venue, then went with their recommended list of suppliers, simply because of their proximity to the venue, or for other straightforward reasons.
The internet age made it possible for people to pursue their passions more easily, allowing new professionals to pop up across the entire wedding industry. While the industry is (thankfully) still far from saturation, you will usually find yourself choosing between a number of photographers, florists, stylists, and of course cake designers.
I can't help you select a photographer, but I sure can give you some unbiased, neutral guidance that will help you decide on a cake supplier!
First things first: what is your style?
Are you trendy? Modern? Do you love fashion and glamour?
Do you thrive on luxury and opulence?
Are you a down-to-earth country gal/guy?
Do you adore everything vintage or rustic?
I ask these questions because cake makers have different personalities that shine through their work. While the majority of cake professionals have the skill to create any style of cake, you will find comfort working with someone who is on your wavelength and understands your vision of your wedding.
Have a look at the supplier's website, and check out their portfolio. A variety of projects shows versatility and creativity. A gallery of mainly white or pale cakes indicates an artist with respect for tradition. If you are a little artistic yourself, you might fall in love with a supplier with very unusual or colorful designs. Or if you are a lady or gentleman with simple tastes, you'll probably be attracted to a more traditional cake maker.
Secondly, cake flavors!
Fruit cakes are fading (at last!), so us bakers are finally able to offer truly awesome cakes to our clients! Yet, every baker bakes differently.
Go to a couple of wedding fayres, and sample some cakes. Trust me, no two suppliers' cakes will taste the same. This is a good thing, because it helps you choose the cakes that taste best to you!
Also, look for texture. While the cake should taste fresh, it should also melt in your mouth. No one wants to chew cake. Save that for bread!
Finally, choose a cake that tantalizes your taste buds. If the flavor is labelled as "salted caramel", look for that taste in the sample. What's the point if you can't taste it? And if the buttercream filling leaves a greasy feel in your mouth, it was probably made with shortening (a type of vegetable fat), which is not very nice!
Sometimes, a cake supplier can be a great baker/pastry chef, but less so at decorating. Their portfolio or display cakes at the fayre should give that away. Although in all honesty, it is more likely that their decorating skills precede their baking knowledge.
This is not a must, but do ask how they finish their cakes. Fondant cakes can have buttercream or ganache (chocolate cream) underneath the fondant.
Ganache is firmer than buttercream, resists temperature fluctuations that could otherwise affect the cake, seals in moisture, and preserves the freshness of the cake. It's the choice for many modern cake decorators who live for super-satin finishes and clean, sharp edges. Ganached cakes will always cost more due to the price of high-quality chocolate. This is how I make my cakes, unless otherwise requested!
Buttercream is more pleasant to eat, traditional, and can be flavored any way you like. However, buttercream (even Italian or Swiss meringue types), consisting mainly of butter, softens in a warm room, which may affect the appearance of the cake by the end of the evening. It is, however, less labor-intensive than ganache and cheaper to make, so cakes covered in buttercream will be cheaper to purchase.
While we are on the topic of flavors, you might have heard that fondant has a bad reputation. It doesn't surprise me when a bride wants a buttercream cake because she doesn't like fondant. This is usually because many fondant brands taste really poor. But hold on! There are a few out there that taste so good, you'll want to pick the fondant off the cake and eat it! I use a brand called Swiss Carma, officially rated as the best in the world. It's not cheap, therefore not the choice of many professionals. But there are other brands that are very good, so don't be shy to ask for a sample!
Either way, don't let your attitude towards fondant get in the way because, ultimately, it doesn't matter. So little of it will end up with each portion (think 1" x 1" thin slice). I think the benefits of fondant far outweigh its reputation. It provides a flawless, smooth canvas for literally any creation a cake artist comes up with!
What about the price of the cake? Shouldn't that come into play?
I promised you unbiased advice, and in my professional experience, you get what you pay for in most cases. Generally speaking, it is unlikely you will find a three-tier cake for less than £350, and most will average £500-600 (double that for London). A higher price indicates high quality ingredients, and more hours spent working on the cake, which usually results in a high-end, beautiful, delicious cake.
If you feel you've been quoted too high a price, ask your cake supplier why they are charging more than others. Chances are you will get an honest, concise breakdown of the cost.
Also, that quote isn't final until you accept it. If your heart is set on a cake company, but the cake you want is priced too high, share your concern with them. They will reduce the price, usually by making adjustments to the design. We all want to sell cakes, after all!
Be aware of the legal stuff!
Professionals operate within the law, which means they are registered, food-hygiene rated, and fully insured. I strongly suggest you avoid anyone who is not ALL of the above!
And finally, BOOK EARLY!
Cakes take a lot of time to bake and prepare, and many of us small cake businesses can only take one or two bookings per weekend. If you're at a wedding show, and think you are happy with a cake designer, go for it! I hear the same wedding date from several couples at each wedding fayre, and once that date is booked, it's gone! If the booking terms are easy, such as a small fee secures your date, you are not risking much, but saving yourself the stress of searching for another company five weeks before the wedding, then "settling" for one because all the good ones are booked up! :)