NASHVILLE, TN (WSMV) – Leland Riggan smiles as she describes her favorite part of her workday. After nearly 50 years of decorating cakes, the moment is not based in the creation of a sweet treat.
“Hearing people’s ‘Cake Stories’ as I call them, that’s the best part,” said Riggan. “People will say ‘oh you did my wedding cake, you did my mother’s 80th birthday cake, you did this child’s christening or baptism cake and now it’s their 15th birthday;’ I love hearing those stories!”
Riggan has spent nearly five decades in a business celebrating milestones with great cake. Her creations have become the centerpiece for celebrations for thousands of Nashville families.
“It’s how you treat people – and then give them some butter and sugar and that helps,” said Riggan.
Her reputation as providing cakes to Nashville’s stars began in 1996 when she was hired to make the wedding cake for Wynonna Judd and Arch Kelley lll. She also provided the cake for Vince Gill and Amy Grant at their wedding in the year 2000.
“We’ve done their childrens’ [cakes] and we’ve done their [wedding] cake – Amy and Vince,” said Riggan.
Riggan’s work was featured in People Magazine’s May 18th issue showing the wedding of Amy Grant’s daughter, Millie Chapman, who inspired the hit song ‘Baby Baby.’
Earning a spot on Riggan’s cake calendar quickly became the most sought after for Nashville brides as she continues to cap her Saturday wedding cake production to six cakes.
“We just can’t deliver any more than that,” said Riggan. “But when you add in [wedding] cakes on Friday and Sunday, we average nine wedding cakes a weekend.”
The number seems small compared to Riggan’s weekly production, which she says averages 110 non-wedding cakes a week. The production has been that high since the year 2000, when Riggan moved from a large kitchen in the basement of her home to a commercial space at the corner of Hillwood Boulevard and Charlotte Pike.
Riggan fills a refrigerated case at the entrance of her store with the two cakes that made her famous: Caramel Cake, which is a sour cream pound cake topped with gobs of freshly made caramel topping, and her Hallelujah! Cake, made with her flour-less chocolate truffle cake and sour cream pound cake, covered in more homemade caramel.
“We sell out of those cakes in the case almost every day,” said Riggan.
Riggan began making her famous Caramel Cake in the early 1990’s, based on one of her mother’s recipes.
“Caramel itself is really tricky,” said Riggan. “When we first started doing caramel, I bet I threw out every third batch.”
Her caramel stands out because of the process she uses to make it.
“We make it the old fashioned way – we don’t start with brown sugar, we brown the sugar,” said Riggan.
Riggan began baking after years of watching her mother in the kitchen.
“My mom was a fantabulous cook and baker and I used to just watch her,” said Riggan. “You grow up and you eat dessert somewhere and you think ‘Golly, this doesn’t taste like mom’s.’
"You have to do decorated cakes"
Riggan did not start as a successful baker, but rather she was nudged into it by her grandmother in 1970. After Riggan’s late-husband Steve left the Navy, the couple, along with their young daughter, moved back to Nashville.
At the time, Riggan’s next door neighbor was a caterer who asked her to bake rolls for luncheons. Riggan obliged, admitting she loves making yeast breads.
“My grandmother intervened and said ‘Leland, if you ever want to be in business you have to do decorated cake,’” recalls Riggan.
By the end of 1970, Riggan received her first order for a decorated cake. The order came from a dear friend who wanted a cake in the likeness of Raggedy Ann. By 1980, Riggan was making 15 cakes a week, all through word of mouth.
“My husband was a really good artist and we did a lot of children’s cakes,” recalls Riggan. “He would pipe intricate designs on these [cakes] because he could draw anything. I had to figure out what he didn’t do – so, I started making flowers!”
By the 1990’s, Riggan’s orders increased to a number their home kitchen could no longer handle and Steve built a commercial kitchen in the basement. Each of their five children worked for the business in different capacities including as delivery drivers and bakers.
To this day, two of her children – sons Kelly and Paul – work in the business as a baker and business manager, respectively. Dessert Designs employs nine people.
The Dessert Designs kitchen is always abuzz with activity, especially during the holidays. Riggan says they sold 400 cakes during the Thanksgiving holiday. The shops’ Christmas output is expected to be even higher.
When Riggan was asked how many cakes she has made over her 49 years in business, she said it was certainly in the thousands. News4 helped Riggan break the numbers down by her conservative weekly estimates through the decades and found it was likely more than 150,000 cakes.
When she started baking in 1970, the orders were slow to come in. We conservatively estimate her production to be around 2,000 cakes for her first decade in business.
By the year 1980, Riggan recalls consistently baking 15 cakes a week, which continued until the year 2000 when she moved into a commercial space in west Nashville. The estimate based on those numbers totals 15,600 cakes made during the 20-year period. The total is likely much higher as Riggan required the size and scale of a commercial kitchen in her basement in the 1990’s to help with her increased production.
Moving to her west Nashville shop in Spring 2000 allowed for Dessert Designs to cater to drop-in shoppers in need of a quick fix, not a special-order cake. Since that time, Riggan said their non-wedding related cake production has averaged 110 cakes a week, which adds up to 108,680 during that 19-year period.
When combined with her production prior to 2000, her current weekly wedding cake production and her elevated holiday cake sales from Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas, Riggan has likely made more than 154,000 cakes during her 49 years in business.
The woman who graduated with a degree from Vanderbilt to teach French and Spanish earned her chops with a mixer, an oven and a steady hand.
“I feel blessed and lucky,” said Riggan.