Carla Meyer

Beloved Sacramento bakery turns 30, looks back on ‘Ken doll cakes,’ traffic-jam treats

Take a look at how Freeport Bakery is celebrating 30 years in business

As the Sacramento staple, which drew ire last year over a controversial "Ken doll cake," rings in its thirtieth anniversary, owners Marlene and Walter Goetzeler talk about what makes Freeport Bakery special.
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As the Sacramento staple, which drew ire last year over a controversial "Ken doll cake," rings in its thirtieth anniversary, owners Marlene and Walter Goetzeler talk about what makes Freeport Bakery special.

A pink Freeport Bakery box can trigger the brain’s pleasure response even before you taste a baked good. One glimpse, and you are rethinking that diet, or that decision to skip the goodbye party for the co-worker you barely know.

“Fruit basket” and “lemon cooler” are shorthand for tasty, high-quality cake in Sacramento, and the bakery that produces them is a key reason – along with nearby Taylor’s Market and Marie’s Donuts – that people have flocked for decades to a small stretch of Freeport Boulevard where traffic can be wonky and parking scarce.

On Aug. 1, Freeport Bakery owners Marlene and Walter Goetzeler marked 30 years in business at 2966 Freeport Blvd. In 1987, the pair moved north from San Diego after buying the business and retaining the name given to it by its previous owners. Native Chicagoan Marlene, now 60, had managed a bookstore in San Diego. Walter, now 57, had been raised in his parents’ bakery in Germany before becoming a professional baker himself.

They began with a small staff and a Volkswagen van in which they transported wedding cakes. These days, the bakery operation employs 60 people and includes an “annex,” a few doors down from the main bakery, used for wedding-cake consultations and decorating.

Awareness of the bakery went viral last year after controversy erupted over a Freeport Bakery cake that outfitted a Ken doll in a tiara and a pink, butter-cream skirt. A customer had ordered the cake – a variation on the “Barbie cakes” the bakery had made for years – for a friend. Marlene Goetzeler liked how it turned out so much that she posted a photo on social media with the caption “Ken’s looking good.”

The bakery’s Facebook page subsequently lost a lot of likes and drew some hateful comments. Goetzeler re-posted the photo on social media, explaining the situation and encouraging the bakery’s fans to share it. News outlets including The Washington Post and London’s Guardian picked up the story, with Walter Goetzeler’s sister even hearing about it on TV at her local pub in Germany.

Support poured in from several countries, and the Sacramento neighborhood bakery known for its wedding, graduation and bar mitzvah cakes briefly became a touchstone in the transgender-rights movement. The bakery began selling Ken Cake-themed T-shirts reading “More Cake, Less Hate” online, pledging a portion of sales to a Sacramento nonprofit that works to place LGBT youths in supportive adoptive homes. Freeport now sells about eight to 10 Ken cakes per weekend, with decorators changing up Ken’s look to suit the season or special occasion.

In honor of Freeport Bakery turning 30, we quizzed the Goetzelers and two other key players – head decorator Carol Clevenger and Marlene Goetzeler’s assistant, Mary Whisten – about its history and philosophy.

Q: First off, the most important question: Marie’s Donuts, friend or foe?

A: Walter Goetzeler: Friend. Because when people come in and say, “I want some doughnuts,” and we say, “We don’t don’t make doughnuts,” and they say, “What kind of bakery are you?” we can say, “Marie’s is over there.”

I am glad (Marie’s is nearby), because we don’t have to deal with a deep fryer and all that. For 30 years, we have been neighbors, and we always have gotten along well.

Clevenger: And they’re the best doughnuts in town.

Q: Where do you draw the line, in terms of the messages and designs you will put on a cake?

A: W.G.: We are a family bakery, so anything that your 10-year-old or 5-year-old shouldn’t see is not going to go out.

Whisten: We will refer people to (bakeries) who do more “naughty” cakes.

Q: What about in terms of how elaborate a cake can be? What is the limit there?

A: W.G.: When their bank account gives out. (Laughs)

Clevenger: We have to draw a line where there is only so much that can be transported safely.

W.G.: Or – that you can eat it. You can make things that look like what you see in magazines, but if you eat it, it will kill you – the Styrofoam, plastic, plaster, whatever. We try to (dissuade) people from certain things where disappointment is assured.

Q: What is the most elaborate cake anyone has ordered?

A: W.G.: The heaviest cake we made was in the first year, for 1,500 people. … That thing weighed about 800 pounds.

Clevenger: We had to decorate it (on site). Twenty-one layers of cake, all different kinds.

W.G.: The table started bowing. … On the way out (of the bakery), I had grabbed a piece of 2 by 4 and put it in the van. And then, when I was (on site), I used a serrated knife to saw it, to be able to get it under the table to support it.

Q: What would you do differently today? Would you make multiple cakes?

A: Clevenger: We wouldn’t take that order now.

W.G.: It just depends. The risk of something going wrong gets exponentially bigger, and if something goes wrong, you are losing money, losing reputation, losing sleep and getting gray hair (points to his head).

Q: How did you get the word out about the bakery when it first started?

A: Whisten: My favorite story is about how, when the train guard would come down (in front of the tracks near the bakery), and there was a long wait for a freight train, Marlene would go out with samples and serve them to people in the cars.

Marlene Goetzeler: I walked up and down the street, and pointed to the bakery, and offered free samples. Some people thought it was really odd, but most enjoyed the treats.

Q: Why did you decide to embrace and really run with the “Ken-doll cake” after the controversy?

A: M.G.: Well, at first I was a little scared of the negative responses, but then I thought the negative things people are saying were mean and at times nasty. It was/is a cake, after all.

Then after literally thousands of people responded from all over the world thanking me for taking a stand, and telling me their stories, it was pretty moving.

People started asking how they could get a cake delivered, to support us. That’s when I thought of the T-shirt (people out of town could buy), and how we could donate at the same time.

Q: What is the most valuable lesson you have learned in your 30 years of doing business?

A: M.G.: I don’t know if it’s the most valuable, but these are important: Don’t make policies because of one person, be it customer or staff. And customer complaints/comments/feedback are the most beneficial learning tools – and they are free.