Piece of Cake
If you watch the Food Network, you’ve probably stumbled upon the show Vegas Cakes, filmed at Freed’s Bakery in Las Vegas. Now in its second season, each 30-minute episode features a team from the beloved bakery creating and delivering three extraordinary cakes for Southern Nevada clients.
What you may not know is that this longtime local staple wasn’t always known for its over-the-top cake creations.
“We were actually really famous for our bread,” remembers semi-retired owner Joni Fried (pronounced Freed). That includes their challah, which they bake fresh every first Friday.
“My kids, when they were young,” says Fried, “wouldn’t eat bread unless it was yellow.”
Now approaching a milestone 60 years in the Las Vegas valley, the business is run by a new generation of Frieds, including the ones you see on television: nephew Max Jacobson-Fried (owner and general manager) and daughter Sarah Fusco (operations manager). It has expanded, consolidated, moved, and “evolved and evolved and evolved” as the senior Fried puts it.
Freed’s Bakery dates back to the early days of Las Vegas. The Fried family moved here in 1953 by way of New Jersey, where mom and dad, Esther and Milton Fried, ran a snack bar on Route 9W, just across the George Washington Bridge.
Milton was a musician by trade and played at the then brand new Sahara Hotel and Casino (now SLS) with entertainment legends including Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Liza Minelli, Sammy Davis, and Buddy Hackett. He also played for Barbara Streisand, when she performed at the opening of the International Hotel (now the Westgate) in 1969.
“We had a booth in the corner at the Sahara, so family could go and watch,” recalls Fried, the youngest of five children. “Life was always fun. It was always very spontaneous.”
Along with his musical pursuits, Milton was also a strong business person, who knew good product and food.
“That’s how he and my mom—who was also a really good business person–decided to get into the bakery business,” explains Fried.
In 1959, the couple took over an existing snack bar, Panorama Market, which was one of only two or three markets in town at the time. From there they started selling donuts, then bakery goods.
“Within a few months, they were in the bakery business,” says Fried. Her earliest memories consist of sitting on the big table in the bakery and “just watching the bakers work around me.”
By the time Fried was 12 or 13, she was running the business when her parents went away for the weekend. Even as a tween, it was simply second nature.
“I grew up in it,” she says. “I didn’t really start baking until I was about 22, and I did it out of necessity, when people wouldn’t show up for work.”
Fried took over operations from her parents in 1979 (they officially retired in ‘86). She didn’t intend to stay in the bakery business, but ended up opening and running Freed’s former location on Tropicana Ave. for 35 years.
The bakery’s cake inventory expanded due to the city’s burgeoning wedding industry, as well as Fried’s early adoption of Internet marketing.
“Las Vegas was the ideal place to be in the wedding industry because it was very inexpensive to come here and get married,” says Fried, adding, “I advertised to out of state brides and within the first year, we went from three cake decorators to five…then seven.”
There wasn’t a huge demand for crazy cakes at the time. Still, the bakery’s team of talented decorators did have the chance to create some whoppers.
“We’ve always been capable,” notes Fusco, who grew up at Freed’s, much like her mom. “For us, we’re kind of cake blind. We don’t always realize how awesome the cakes we put out are…even the ones on a smaller level.”
In 1996, for instance, Freed’s made a 24-foot-by-12-foot replica of a car wash for the first anniversary of the Hard Rock Hotel. The cake consisted of 50 full sheets and fed 5,000 people.
“The limit for us has never been the talent, it’s generally the budget,” explains Jacobson-Fried. He grew up in Oregon, but helped out at Freed’s Bakery as far back as he can remember, and came aboard full-time in 2005. “We can do really incredible things, but at a certain point it requires three or four people working on one cake for three days. The cost gets out of control.”
Fast forward to 2006 and the Food Network hit, “Ace of Cakes.” Mix in the influence of social media sites, particularly Pinterest, and the market for creative cakes exploded.
“Cakes have gotten bigger and they’ve gotten crazier,” says Jacobson-Fried. “It’s a whole new world.”
Jacobson-Fried, who assumes the “villain” role on the bakery’s reality TV show, describes “Vegas Cakes” as a crash course in cake engineering, building, and design work.
“I can tell you how much weight we can put on a 48-inch pipe now,” he jokes, adding, “now a big cake doesn’t feel like a big cake.”
Until he gets a reminder, that is. In the 4th episode of Season 2 for instance, Freed’s makes a special Vegas Strong cake to honor first responders from the October 1 shooting. It wasn’t caught on camera, but the cake almost didn’t make it through the doorway.
“It was a double door with a pole in the center,” reveals Jacobson-Fried.
“It was terrifying,” adds Fusco. “Here we are tilting a cake at a 30 degree angle trying to get it through.”
While the show often features cakes made for high profile clients like Cirque du Soleil, Wayne Newton, and the Vegas Golden Knights, it also features clients, locations or events that will surprise viewers from elsewhere in the country.
“We’re not trying to do nightclubs and bachelorette parties,” he explains.” “We’re trying to show a side of Las Vegas that nobody really knows.”
As for those who already know Vegas well, Freed’s remains, at heart, a neighborhood bakery offering delicious baked goods to local clients. Many items, such as their cake slices and eclairs, have become tradition for customers’ families.
“We’ve done all kinds of cool new flavors,” says Jacobson-Fried. “It never sticks the way our classic items have.”
Another thing about Freed’s that will never change: It has always been, and will always be, a family business. Among the bakery’s 65 employees are several cousins, sisters, aunts and husbands (and not only the ones from the Fried family).
“There’s a lot of love and personal stuff that goes on. There’s a certain amount of flexibility and joy and kindness,” says the elder Fried. “You get a lot of TLC here you wouldn’t get anywhere else.”
Freed’s Bakery, located at 9815 S. Eastern Ave. in Las Vegas, is open Monday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Local delivery is available for a small fee.